Prototyping a Limbert Desk
Many years ago, I found a great little Limbert desk while researching Arts and Crafts furniture. I admired its lines and economy, and filed it in my ‘to build some-day’ folder. When my youngest daughter went back to school and my wife picked up some freelance writing jobs, we needed a desk to support her new endeavor. We live in a smallish two-flat in Chicago, and this desk with a door that conceals its contents inside seems like it would be perfect.
I knew I needed to make a quick, inexpensive prototype to help me understand the joinery, as well as the use and function of this piece. There are a number of great resources for building classic Arts and Crafts furniture, including a whole book on Limbert pieces, but all I could find for this desk was a listing from an antique auction from 2005. The only information included were the external dimensions, so I was forced to use some old school geometry to ascertain approximate dimensions, and I made assumptions about details based on measured drawings available for other pieces.
While there are exceptions, Limbert chose pretty conventional units like full inches, and quarters or halves of inches, so I didn’t feel compelled to resolve the design to the nearest .001 inch. After laying tracing paper over a printout of one of the rare images available online, I found the vanishing point and drew my perspective lines. Lastly, after determining the scale, I translated it to a Rhino drawing and cut the sides of the desk on my CNC.
I cleaned up the cuts on the router table and quickly assembled the desk with clamps. A prototype is best executed in an inexpensive material like MDF or pine so changes in the form or scale are not informed or inhibited by losing an expensive material.
I learned immediately that the desk was quite small. I built it as close to the original dimensions as I could, 10” deep x 22” wide x 51” tall, and in fact some people asked if it was ¾ scale! Prototyping helped me work through a number of unknowns. First, I had to figure out the hinge mounting for the folding door, which becomes the worktop for the desk when folded down. I also used painters tape to explore different curves on the bottom of the door. Lastly, I learned why the original design had a locking mechanism on the door; it falls open unless it is held upright! I also used painters tape to secure the door.
Next, I opened the door to explore function. I was dismayed to find that a 13” Macbook Pro wouldn’t even fit inside behind the folding door. That’s a problem that will have to be rectified. I’ll also need to cut a hole for a power cord.
When I moved the laptop to the working surface, I realized that this was also a tight fit. I’ll need to scale up the desk to accommodate our tech needs without interrupting Limbert’s elegant design. A metal support may also be needed to manage the weight of the laptop.
In working out the hinge mechanism, I researched other Arts and Crafts ‘fall front’ designs to see how they accomplished this tilting. I found two separate solutions. A brass or wooden pin could be driven through the sides of the cabinet into the door at the exact location so it pivots under the shelf and is held in place. I elected to go with the other solution: under-mount hinges. I like the reliability of metal hinges, and couldn’t detect a brass pin in my original photos, but I did discover that the hinges were hidden and therefore a bit difficult to mount. I also learned that I would have to countersink the hinges for a cleaner finished look.
I cannot emphasize enough how valuable it is to make a fast prototype before moving on to a final piece of furniture. I learned in full scale that this desk is really quite elegant, and with some minor adjustments to scale, it will be perfect. In doing so, I was able to test my joinery, and affirmed that dados are both historically accurate and work well. I also was able to make mistakes on the cheap MDF as opposed to the quartersawn white oak. Check out this classic gaffe above. When pattern routing my MDF, the bearing slipped into the dado and I cut a chunk out of the MDF.
I still have some questions to resolve, but I can work on those in a different capacity. I still haven’t decided what material I should use for the back. Limbert might have used solid wood, but I may choose ¼” plywood. I also need to source a handle that has a locking mechanism, and lastly decide on a finish. While the original had a beautiful garnet shellac color, I may go for a more contemporary stain in black or dark brown.