Curly Maple Desk
Shop made veneer panels guarantees perfect grain match.
By Bruce Kieffer
I’ve built a lot of desks over the years, but this one is may favorite. The uncomplicated design really helps the book-matched curly-maple panels stand out.
All the panels were veneered in my shop except the top, which was custom ordered. Compared to store bought plywood, veneering can be time consuming and expensive but the results make it well worth the effort. Veneering allows me to choose the best materials and create the exact look I’m after.
The large top would have been a challenge to veneer so I had it custom made (see “Sources” below). The top is quartersawn maple veneer because my client did not want figured wood on the top. I ordered the top unsanded. That left the veneer as thick as possible and reduced the chance of cutting through when sanding the walnut edging flush.
I tweaked the desk design so it could be used as a computer desk as well. For example, the pencil drawers are at the top of the drawer stacks, not in the kneehole. This frees up space for a keyboard tray if desired. Also, the second drawer in the stack is sized specifically for CD’s. All you need to do for a fullfledged computer desk is add a few wire grommets in the top.
The large drawer at the bottom is designed for hanging files. I make my file hanging tracks from lengths of aluminum angle. They look good, function well and don’t cost a lot. All the drawer boxes are dovetailed solid birch. The drawer slides are side mounted full extension with 1-in. of over-travel.
The cutting list gives finished dimensions. Many of the parts need to be oversized to allow for trimming after assembly, so plan accordingly.
Some of the maple edgings are attached to their cores prior to veneering, and some after. The edging on the top of the drawer case panels (D, E and N) and all of the drawer face edgings (L, M, P, Q and R) are under the veneer. The drawer case front and rear edgings (F & EE) are attached after the cores are veneered.
When you assemble the drawer faces you’ll notice they are a bit oversize. This is intentional. I prefer to fine-tune the fit of the drawer faces after the cases are assembled. I use my edge sander to do the trimming but a well-tuned hand plane works well, too.
The veneers on each drawer stack are made from one long bookmatched sheet. This makes the grain continuous from top to bottom. The good news is it makes the desk look great. The bad news is if you goof one component you’ll need to remake all four. But fear not, follow the step-by-step technique and you’ll be fine.
If you’ve never veneered before, it helps to think of veneer as super thin boards. Unlike a thick board, the grain pattern barely changes from one slice to the next. That’s why veneer is catalogued and sold in the sequence it came off the log. Lay down consecutive veneers side-by-side and flip over ever other one to create a bookmatched pattern. Each strip is the mirror image of the one next to it. It follows that a bookmatched panel always consists of an even number of veneers.
I use the caul and crossbeam method to press the veneer to the MDF cores. Cauls are scrap 3/4” thick MDF or particleboard used to evenly spread clamp pressure. Crossbeams are roughly 2 x 4 sized boards with a curve on one edge. The crossbeams apply sufficient pressure in the middle first to push the glue to the outside edges of the core. This is critical. Trapping excess glue in the center of a panel means doing it all over. To determine the correct radius of the crossbeam curve, start with the center of one edge 1/2-in. taller than the ends. Test the radius by clamping two crossbeams together curve to curve. You should be able to clamp the two boards tight. If you can’t, reduce the curve.
I like to use Titebond’s Extend wood glue for veneering. I thin it about 5% with water to make it flow out better. Plastic resin glues or slow setting veneer glues are good alternatives but a little trickier to work with.
It’s essential to build balanced panels when veneering. In other words, when you veneer one side of a core, you need to veneer the other side as well. If you don’t, you’re sure to get a warped panel. It’s also important to apply both veneers at the same time. You can use a less expensive veneer on the backside of a panel where it doesn’t show.
Make the veneered panels
1. Cut the MDF cores (A-C and G-K) and edging strips (DE and L-R).
2. Glue edging to the top of the case sides and case backs. Trim the ends and sand flush.
3. Glue the edging on the drawer faces and case fronts. Glue the drawer face edging on the bottom first, then the sides and finally the tops. That way end grain is minimized. Sand flush.
4. Cut the lengths and widths of the veneer pieces (S through AA) for the cores (Photo 1). Make them a bit oversize to allow for trimming and joining. You want your glued together sheets to end up about 1” wider and 1” longer than their cores.
5. Layout the veneer strips in a bookmatched pattern.
6. The veneers are joined into sheets by edge gluing them together, much like you would regular lumber. First, joint the edges of the veneers on the jointer (Photo 2). An alternate method involves clamping the veneer to a straight edge board and using a router with a flush trim bit.
7. Lay the veneer pieces face down, pull the bookmatched edges together, and temporarily join them with masking tape (Photo 3).
8. Flip the joined sheets over and apply gummed veneer tape on the face side the joint (Photo 4).
9. Lay a piece of 3/4-in. MDF over the sheet so it dries flat.
10. Lay the sheet with the veneer tape down on a worktable. Remove the blue masking tape.
11. Open the joints to apply glue (Photo 5). Lay the sheet flat again to close the joints and place sticks aside the joints to hold them down as the glue dries. When the glue is partially cured, use a paint scraper and gently remove any excess glue. Set the sticks on top again and let the glue completely cure.
12. Gather everything you need to glue the veneer sheets to their cores: Crossbeams, cauls, newspaper or craft paper, veneer sheets, core, lots of clamps and glue.
13. Use a narrow paint roller to apply a moderate coat of glue to one side of the core (Photo 6). Don’t over do it. You should be able to see through the glue to the core. You can gauge how much glue is enough when the clamps are set. If a little glue oozes out at the edges, you hit the mark. Gobs of glue means you need to cut back a bit. No squeeze out and you’re in danger of starving the joint. Do not apply glue to the veneer.
14. Lay the veneer sheet on the glue veneer tape side up. You'll scrape and sand the veneer tape off later.
15. Flip the panel over and veneer the other side. Cover the veneers with paper and place the panel between the cauls. Add the crossbeams and clamps (Photo 7).
16. When you start clamping, you put crossbeams on top and bottom in the center first and clamp their ends. Add the other crossbeams to the right and left of center, and then clamp around the outside edge. This will push any excess glue out from the center to the edges.
17. Let the glue dry 24 hours before removing the clamps.
18. Flush trim the overhanging veneer edges (Photo 8). Scrap off any dried glue on the edges and flush trim again.
19. Attach the front edging strips (F) to the fronts of the veneered case sides.
20. The procedure for gluing the drawer face and case front veneer sheets to their cores is a bit different. I find it’s best to glue all three drawer faces (G,H,J) and the case front (K) at once on a single veneer sheet. Lay 3/8-in. x 3/8-in. x 16-in. spacer sticks between the faces to hold them parallel with each other. Make sure the center joint on the sheets is aligned with the center of each drawer face. That keeps the drawer knob holes centered on the joint.
21. Pull the spacer sticks out immediately after clamping. When the glue has dried overnight, draw lines across the center of each gap in the drawer stack and separate on the band saw.
Assemble the drawer cases
22. Cut the case tops and bottoms (BB and CC), and the edgings (DD, F, EE). Cut the rear corners (EE) equal to the thickness of veneered case sides and backs. Glue the edgings to the case parts.
23. Layout and cut the biscuit grooves and screw holes in the drawer case components as shown in Fig. A. The screw holes used to attach the front support (JJ) are set down 1-1/8- in. to keep them clear of the case tops.
24. Assemble the case sides, case tops, and case bottoms. Glue the assembled case fronts to the case tops. Then, attach the case backs. Glue the rear corners to the back.
Make the bases
25. Cut the base parts (FF and GG) to match the assembled cases.
26. Drill counterbore and clearance holes for the T-nuts that hold the adjustable feet. Then, assemble the bases with glue.
27. Cut the modesty panel base (HH) the same thickness as the modesty panel.
28. Rout 1/8-in. x 1/8-in. reveals (rabbets) on the tops of the bases and the top of the modesty panel base, both front and back.
Assemble the desk
29. Cut the supports for the desk front and modesty panel (JJ and KK). Cut biscuit slots in the modesty panel. Glue the support and base to the modesty panel.
30. Screw the bases to the drawer cases.
31. Dry clamp the front support and modesty panel between the drawer cases. Make sure everything is aligned and drill 7/32-in. diameter pilot holes for the confirmat screws.
32. Rout the 1/8-in. x 1/8-in. reveals around the top (Photo 9). There is no top reveal on the modesty panel, and none on the top of the desk cases inside the knee opening. With the fence we used, you won’t be able to rout the top reveals on the top of the case sides in front of the modesty panel until the desk is disassembled. For now, mark the end point of those reveals.
Make the top
33. Measure the width and length of the assembled desk. Adjust the dimensions of the top components (LL, MM and NN) so the top fits the desk. Assemble the top (Photo 10).
34. Screw the top in place and check the fit. Then, disassemble the desk and complete the top reveals on the sides.
Make and mount the drawers
35. Cut the drawer parts (PP through YY). Note the dimensions given are for a jig that cuts 5/16-in. deep sockets for dovetails spaced 7/8-in. apart. Adjust the dimensions for your jig. I leave the drawer bottoms 1-in. wide for now.
36. Rout the drawer dovetails and cut the drawer bottom grooves in the drawer box fronts and sides.
37. Drill the 3/4-in. dia.. x 1/8-in. deep counterbore holes and the 5/16-in. dia.. through holes in the drawer box fronts for the screws that attach the drawer faces. These holes have a little play so the drawer faces can be adjusted a bit.
38. Drill the knob holes in the drawer faces. Drill a 3/4-in. dia.. hole in the letter and pencil drawer fronts for accessing the knob screw.
39. Assemble the drawers (Photo 11). Use the drawer bottom to square the drawer. When the glue dries, remove the drawer bottom and trim to final width.
40. Bevel the bottom edges of the file drawer faces 10 degrees (Fig A. Det. 2, below).
41. Final fit the drawer faces (Photo 12).
42. Mount the drawer slides to the drawers and cases (Photo 13).
43. Align and clamp the drawer face in position. Then, slide the drawer out and screw on the drawer face (Photo 14). Not having the drawer bottom in place is a real benefit here.
44. Disassemble everything and finish sand. Be careful sanding the veneer. It’s very thin and easy to sand through.
45. Apply your favorite finish. I had my desk professionally finished with sprayed on catalyzed varnish. A brush-on polyurethane is also good choice.
46. Slide the drawer bottoms in place and staple or screw them to the drawer backs.
47. Fabricate and attach the file supports (ZZ) from aluminum angle. Use #0000 steel wool to clean up the aluminum.
48. Hammer the T-nuts into the bases and insert the levelers, and then reassemble everything.
Fig. A: Exploded View
Click any image to view a larger version.
1. Cut the veneers to length and width using a veneer saw and a straight edge guide. You can stack several pieces of veneer together and cut them all at once.
2. Joint the veneer’s edges just like you would a board. Clamp a shop-made auxiliary fence to the jointer to support the veneer. Set the fence so the veneer is well supported but slides through easily.
3. Apply painter’s masking tape to the back of the book-matched veneer strips to create a wider sheet. Make sure the pieces are tight and flat at the joint.
4. Flip the sheet over and apply veneer tape over the joints on the face side. Veneer tape is water activated. Dip precut lengths of tape into a bucket of warm water. Apply the tape, then dab off the excess water with a paper towel.
5. Flip the sheet over again and remove the blue tape. Apply glue to the joints. Using a small tip on the glue bottle makes this task easier. Lay the sheet flat until the glue dries.
6. Apply slow-set wood glue to the panel core with a paint roller. I thin the glue about 5% with water to make it flow easier. Add a bit more glue around the edges to make sure they are well secured.
7. Cauls and crossbeams on top and bottom distribute the clamping pressure evenly across the veneer panel. Make sure you have enough clamps on hand before you start.
8. Remove the overhanging veneer edges with a laminate trimmer and a flush trim bit. Back cut the corners to avoid tear out.
9. Rout the 1/8” x 1/8” reveal around the top outside edges of the assembled desk, but not the modesty panel. There’s no reveal inside the kneehole. The small reveal creates a shadow line that visually separates the desk components.
10. Glue the walnut edging to the top panel. The edging is mitered so it’s best to apply one piece at a time and fine-tune the fit as you go. Make sure the edging stays perfectly flush with the top.
11. Glue and clamp the drawers together. Notched clamp blocks push the side dovetails into the dovetail sockets. The drawer bottom is temporarily slid in place to square up the drawer.
12. Trim and fit the drawer faces in the drawer case openings. Use 1/16-in. spacers to set the gap. Temporary supports hold the drawer fronts in position.
13. Use spacers to position the drawer slides in the cabinets. An 18-5/8-in. spacer sets the pencil drawer slides, a 12-1/8” for the letter drawer slides, and a 6-3/4” one for the file drawer slides.
14. Screw the drawer faces to the drawers. Do the file and pencil drawers first, then remove the file drawer and do the letter drawer. Use your 1/16” spacers again to align the drawer faces.
Note: Product availability and prices are subject to change.
Berkshire Veneer Co., Inc., berkshireveneer.com, 877-836-3379, Curly Maple Veneer. Ask for a herringbone match.
Saunders Wood Specialties, Inc., saunderswood.com, 715-762-3916, Desk Top Panel – Unsanded Quartered Maple Veneer on MDF.
Woodworker's Hardware, wwhardware.com, 800-383-0130, Full Extension Drawer Slides With 1" Overtravel, #KV8405 B22 EB; Nylon Base Levelers, #HB33 232; Teenuts, SCT1420.
Rockler, rockler.com, 800-279-4441, Bronze Cylinder Head Confimat Screws, #30601; Titebond Extend Wood Glue, 38449; Veneer Saw, #43901; Three Holed Gummed Veneer Tape, #49858.
Mockett, mockett. com, 800-523-1269, Satin Nickel Button Pulls, #DP112A.
Local Hardware Store, Aluminum "L".
This story originally appeared in American Woodworker January 2008, issue #133.