Like a lot of Americans, I’ve recently been stricken with Lewis & Clark fever. I devoured the book “Undaunted Courage,” watched the PBS special and am now wondering if my wife will let me hike the Lolo Trail. As you probably learned in history class, the primary record of Lewis and Clark’s amazing trek to the mouth of the Columbia River is Meriwether Lewis’ journal, which was a meticulous account of the flora and fauna they encountered on their trip.
How, I wondered, did explorers write their journals while blazing through the West? I haven’t been able to find the answer to that question, but this desk is an educated guess. Traveling writing desks were common among British and American military officers of the day. They wrote their orders and journals on their portable desks, and when it was time to move the ranks, the desk was packed up and moved with the men.
This desk is an adaptation of a British military officer’s desk from the early 19th century. And while you might not be writing orders to your left flank on this desk, it is quite handy for keeping up with all your correspondence. Personal or monarch-sized stationery stores in the area below the top; and pens, paper clips and envelopes fit nicely in the bottom section. Best of all, this project requires very little material. I made this one out of a 5′-long board of figured cherry. The originals were commonly built using mahogany.
Building the Box • The writing desk is essentially a box that has been cut on a diagonal line so that when it opens up, it forms a slanted writing surface. Now, a lot of box makers prefer gluing up a box and then cutting the thing apart on the table saw to separate the lid from the base. That won’t work here. Because the cut is on the diagonal, you either have to build the two parts separately (as I did) or glue up the box and cut the two pieces apart on a band saw that has a generous resawing capacity.
The box itself is simple. The four sides are mitered and then glued together using biscuit joints and polyurethane glue. The top and bottom are merely raised panels captured in a groove in the sides.
Begin by cutting your pieces to the sizes shown in the Schedule of Materials. Next cut the miters on the ends of the four pieces as shown in the photo. Now, cut the 3/8″-deep x 1/4″-wide groove along the top and bottom edges of all four sides with a dado stack in your table saw. The groove should begin 5/16″ from each edge. This will recess your 1/2″-thick panels 1/16″ in from the edges and will keep the panels from rubbing against table tops.
Now cut the panels to finished size and raise them using either a table saw or router in a router table. You want the edges to finish out at about 3/16″ thick.
Cutting the Angles • The trick to cutting the two short sides at an angle is to make sure that the cut begins in the dead center of the back of the board. That’s because you want your desk to lay flat when you open it. Set your table saw’s tapering jig to 9 degrees and try your setup with some scrap first. When satisfied, cut the short sides.
Now set your table saw’s blade to 9 degrees and rip the long sides. This will allow the long sides to mate with the angled short sides. You absolutely must test your setup with scrap pieces before you make these cuts.
Biscuits All Around • Except for two of the corners, a #10 biscuit will fit on all of the miters. I used a mini-biscuit cutter for the two narrow sides. You could use dowels instead. Cut all the slots for the biscuits, then dry-assemble the two boxes. When satisfied with the fit, sand everything, especially the two panels and the parts that face inside the box. I started with 120 grit sandpaper and finished with 220.
Here are some tips for gluing up the top and bottom: First, polyurethane glue is an excellent choice for this short-grain joint. Just make sure you dip each biscuit in water before putting it in its slot and be sure to add a little water to each joint to speed up the curing. Polyurethane glue has a long open time, so you have plenty of time to get your clamps just right. When all of your miters are tight, measure each box corner to corner to make sure everything is square. Allow the glue to cure overnight.
Now glue some pieces of smooth leather or felt to the two interior panels. Yellow glue works fine. I attached the leather using the same method many woodworkers use to glue up veneer, sandwiching the leather between two panels. Attach small piano hinges to one of the long edges of each panel and attach them to the inside of the box. Add small stops inside the box to support each panel. I cut a 7/8″ hole in each panel so I can easily open the two compartments in the box. To hold the panels in place when you close the box, I highly recommend buying a couple adjustable ball catches (available in most woodworking catalogs for about $2.50 each). Really, though, you also could use almost any other cabinet catch.
Now it’s time to join the two boxes using quadrant hinges. Most quadrant hinges have a metal bar that runs between the two leaves to prevent people from opening a box’s lid too far. Remove or cut these small bars off; you want your hinges to open all the way. Now attach the chest straps to the outside corners of the box so that when you attach your hinges you’ve taken into account the space the straps will add. Trust me, it’s important. Mortise the quadrant hinges into the top and bottom. Close the box and sand your joints flush.
Shape and then glue the envelope divider and paper clip divider in place in the shallow side. Mortise a chest lock into the top and bottom. Remove all the hardware and begin finishing. I used a water-based aniline dye (J.E. Moser’s Light Sheraton Mahogany, available from Woodworker’s Supply, 800-645-9292, #W1330) and followed that with two coats of clear finish. Then I wiped on a thin coat of warm brown glaze to remove some of the orange color of the red finish. Finally, I added another two coats of clear finish, sanding between coats. This finish, which takes a little patience, gives the cherry a warmth that is worth more than the extra effort.
Now I just have to talk my wife into letting me hike the Lolo Trail. I could bring the desk along and write to her about my journey, my bug bites, my aching feet — all from the same remote and lonely campsites used by Lewis & Clark. Or maybe I’ll just stick to trailblazing my back yard. PW
Christopher Schwarz is a senior editor for Popular Woodworking.