Portable Writing Desk

Mark each of the pieces as either inside or outside, as well as the ends that will need rabbet cuts, to avoid making mistakes once you're at the machine.

Mark each of the pieces as either inside or outside, as well as the ends that will need rabbet cuts, to avoid making mistakes once you're at the machine.

The portable writing desk was an integral part of 18th and 19th century life, when writing was the only form of long-distance communication. As people spread across the globe in the 19th century, correspondence by mail became much more popular, and so did the writing desk.

The portable desks needed to be sturdy and lightweight, hold stationery and writing utensils, and have a place for people to write easily. The desk seen here will do all of the above, plus hold paper clips, rubber bands and more in the simple side drawer.

While you might not abandon your laptop computer for this more traditional item, it is an excellent place to write holiday cards, thank-you notes and personal correspondence. Though we all like the immediacy of e-mail, a hand-written letter always is a welcome surprise.

Rabbets are the Key

Cut rabbets in multiple=

Cut rabbets in multiple passes on the saw. The first pass, with the piece pushed against the fence, defines the shoulder of the rabbet. The second pass, with the piece moved away from the fence, clears the rest of the waste. A combination blade will leave ridges in the rabbet; a few more passes over the blade will remove those.Construction of this project is simple, but the joints are still sturdy. All the pieces are made from 3/8"-thick cherry, and the primary joinery is an interlocking 3/16" x 3/16" rabbet joint that can be cut on all the pieces at one time with a standard table saw blade. A band saw (or jigsaw) handles most of the project's angles, and a hand plane finishes things up. This is a good first project for the novice woodworker, or a pleasant weekend project for the accomplished craftsman. From Thick to ThinIf you own a band saw, the material for this project can be gleaned from a fairly small amount of wood. About 8 to 10 board feet will do. A nice piece of 6/4 (1-1/2"-thick in the rough) cherry can be resawn easily to yield the necessary 3/8" thickness and ensure a nice bookmatched lid. "Resawing" is taking a thicker piece of wood and splitting it to make two thinner pieces. The band saw is the machine of choice for this process. "Bookmatching" is when a resawn piece of wood is spread open like a book, exposing the two nearly matching inner surfaces. Choose your wood carefully, looking for consistent color throughout the piece. Cherry can have sappy areas that are lighter in color. After carefully laying out the angle locations on both sides, use the band saw and cut about 1/16"-wide of the line to allow for accurate trimming.

When you get the wood to your shop, flatten one face and square one edge on your jointer to give you a flat, square surface to run along your band saw’s fence during resawing. You may want to cut the lumber to shorter lengths (a few inches longer than necessary for each piece) to make flattening easier.

It’s likely that your rough lumber will allow you more than 3/8″ thickness after resawing. Half-inch stock or more is preferable because no matter how careful you are, cutting a perfect 3/8″-thick piece of wood is unlikely.

There’s one other thing to be aware of with thin wood. After resawing, you should allow the pieces to sit for a day or so to acclimate to the humidity levels in your shop before planing them to finished thickness. There’s a chance the thinner boards will cup or twist, and you should let that happen before you run them down to 3/8″ thick on the planer.

To clean up the band saw cuts and ensure they're identical, clamp the two sides together and use a bench plane to clean them up simultaneously.

To clean up the band saw cuts and ensure they're identical, clamp the two sides together and use a bench plane to clean them up simultaneously.

Once the wood is planed to the proper thickness, join the edges and glue up the panels for the bottom and the lid. Your bottom piece may require three pieces, so match the grain for the least visible joint. All the other pieces shouldn’t require glue-up.

While the glue is drying, cut the two sides, front, back and drawer sides to size. Don’t worry about the angled cuts on the sides at this point; we’ll get to that later.

Decide which faces are the most attractive on all the parts mentioned above and mark the opposite faces as the inside. All but one of the ends of these parts (the right end of the back piece) will get rabbet cuts, so mark them to avoid confusion. The center partition also will receive rabbets on both ends, so make the appropriate marks on that piece.

Simple Rabbets

With the front piece clamped between the sides (without glue) transfer the angle from the side to the front piece. Do the same on both ends, then use a straightedge or rule to connect the lines on the front and back. This defines the waste that needs to be removed. A block plane makes quick work of this angle.

With the front piece clamped between the sides (without glue) transfer the angle from the side to the front piece. Do the same on both ends, then use a straightedge or rule to connect the lines on the front and back. This defines the waste that needs to be removed. A block plane makes quick work of this angle. Next, head to your table saw with your marked pieces. All the rabbets for this project are the same size, 3/16" x 3/16". You can use a router table to make these, or it's a fairly simple task on your table saw. I used a standard combination blade to make them. This works fine, but the angled teeth of the blade can leave a ridged surface on the rabbet cheek, causing a poor fit. But that's a pretty easy problem to avoid. First set the blade height for 3/16", measuring to the point of one of the angled teeth, not one of the flat teeth. You want to measure to the maximum depth of the cut. Then set the rip fence 3/16" from the left edge of the blade. It will likely take two passes to cut the entire 3/16" rabbet. Guide a test piece through the blade using your miter gauge. Make sure it's set up at an exact 90° angle to the blade. Push the piece snug against the rip fence (inside face down on the saw table) and make your first cut. Before you bring the miter gauge back, slide the piece to the left and out of the way of the blade. Bring the miter gauge back and then push the piece to the right, toward the fence, stopping with the piece slightly away from the fence and make another pass. This should remove the rest of the waste material from the rabbet, as seen in the two photos below. After a dry run, you're ready to add glue. Secure the front and divider between the sides, then glue the back to the left side

If you look at the rabbet now, you’ll see the ridges I mentioned. You could take a shoulder plane and smooth that surface, but it’s just as easy to make a couple more passes over the blade, varying the location to nibble away the ridges.

Once you have it the way you like it, you can cut the rabbets on the marked ends of the desk pieces and the four drawer parts.

Before you change the saw’s settings, there is one more cut to make. On the inside surface of the left side, you need to make a dado to fit the 3/16″-thick tongue on the center partition. Carefully mark the location of the dado using the right side piece and the illustrations. Then use the miter gauge and cut between your marks.

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