Interlocking slats form an allwood tambour

by Kenneth Baumert

I can recall my first encounter with a roll-top desk. My parents and I were visiting my uncle's home and were impressed with all the compartments and little drawers in his desk. Many years have passed since that visit, and 1 now realize that the greatest asset of a roll-top desk is not all the storage areas provided by the drawers and pigeon holes, but the tambour curtain that can be drawn over the working area to transform a cluttered utility desk into an elegant piece of furniture.

Before building my roll-top desk, 1 did a little research to determine what would be a typical design. The roots of the roll-top stretch back more than two centuries to the "bureau à cylindre" or cylinder desk, which was built in France in the 1700s. The curved solid cover, called a cylinder fall, "disappeared" as it was rotated into a large housing chamber within the desk. Another French cousin of the roll-top was the "secrétaire à abattant," which had a hinged, solid wood cover. This desk contained the small drawers and pigeon holes now found in the roll-top. Finally, a third relative of the roll-top, the tambour desk, came into prominence in En gland and America during the Hepplewhite and Sheraton periods of the late 1700s. It featured horizontal tambour doors that generally did not cover the writing surface. It wasn't until 1850 that Abner Cutler, owner of the Cutler Desk Co. in Buffalo, N.Y., combined elements from these desks and patented a desk with all the features we associate with roll-tops today: A curving tambour curtain that pulls down from above to completely enclose the pigeon holes and writing surface.

Although there have been many variations on the basic roll-top desk through the years, the most common method for constructing the tambour has always been to glue the slats to a canvas backing. This somewhat awkward process requires a special clamping board large enough to hold all the slats tightly together while the cloth backing is glued onto them. I used this method on my first roll-top, simply butting the slats together edge to edge. This may work on smaller tambours, but on my 4-ft.-wide roll-top, the slats at the convex part of the S-curve gradually separated from each other. Even though 1 could solve this problem by alternately rab

Fig. 1 : Roll-top desk Side elevation

Roll-top frame side panel

Add 3/e in. to length of frame members for each tenon where necessary.

Front elevation

Desktop, 1x36x53'/2

Top board, 3/4x15x53'/2

Fig. 1 : Roll-top desk Side elevation

Add 3/e in. to length of frame members for each tenon where necessary.

Front elevation

Desktop, 1x36x53'/2

Top board, 3/4x15x53'/2

Roll-top frame side panel

Old Desk Front Elevation

Pull board

Drawer fronts,

3/4x51/4xl2'/2

Both bottom drawers are deep file drawers with false double-drawer fronts.

52 The Best of Fine Woodworking

From Fine Woodworking magazine (December 1989) 79:48-53

Add % in. to height and width of raised panels to allow for insertion into frame members.

Drawer case side panel

Pull board

Drawer fronts,

3/4x51/4xl2'/2

Both bottom drawers are deep file drawers with false double-drawer fronts.

52 The Best of Fine Woodworking

From Fine Woodworking magazine (December 1989) 79:48-53

beting the edges of the slats like shiplap boards, so they would overlap and strengthen the cloth-back curtain, I wanted to eliminate the cloth backing completely. So, I sat down at the drawing board and designed an interlocking joint for the edges of the slats—kind of an elongated ball-and-socket joint—that holds the slats together without any backing at all. The mating parts of this joint are cut with a dado blade and standard router and shaper cutters. The interlocking tambour design, along with a mechanism for locking the six lower-case drawers by closing the tambour, help make this roll-top both a challenging project and a unique piece of furniture worthy of its long heritage.

Understanding the basic construction—The desktop in the photo at right is 36 in. deep and 53 Vi in. wide. The desk requires approximately 170 bd. ft. of hardwood lumber and about 25 bd. ft. of a secondary wood, such ;is poplar or pine, for drawer sides and slides. Drawer bottoms require two sheets of '/»-in. plywood or the equivalent amount of solid wcxxl. I use 7* stock for the writing surface so I can end up with a 1-in.-thick top after straightening and planing it. All the other pans are milled to their appropriate thickness from % stock. The top board, drawer fronts, tambour stock and frame members of the frames and panels all are % in. thick after milling. The raised panels and drawer sides are Vz in. thick and the pigeon holes are made from both '/2-in.- and '/-¡-in.-thick stock.

One of the challenges presented by a complex piece of furniture like this is that it must be designed to be easily disassembled into its component parts for transport. Figure 2 on the following page shows how the parts go together. The two identical frame-and-panel drawer cases are glued up as individual units and form the foundation of the desk. Next, I attach the roll-top frame to the desktop with screws running from the underside of the top through elongated holes to allow the wide, solid top to expand or contract. Then. I attach the desktop and roll-top assembly to the drawer cases with figure 8-shape desktop fasteners, available from The Woodworkers' Store. 21801 Industrial Blvd., Rogers, Minn. 55374-951-t. and various other mail-order companies. The circular shape of the figure 8s lets them rotate slightly to allow expansion and contraction, making them ideal for attaching solid tops. Four

Rear elevation

Roll-top frame back panel

31/2

91/2

3V1 3V2

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Responses

  • mary
    What is the rolltop desk cover called?
    8 years ago
  • Sara
    How do you fasten tambours together on a roll top desk?
    8 years ago
  • lea
    How to build pigeon holes with drawers?
    8 years ago
  • auli
    Why did the compartment drawers on a roll top desk not have a back?
    8 years ago
  • dieter
    What is a roll top cylinder desk?
    7 years ago
  • kaden
    When did furniture companies quit using wood slats for drawer bottoms?
    5 years ago
  • Martin
    How to make interlocking woodslats?
    5 years ago
  • MIMOSA
    What are tambours pigeon holes and?
    5 months ago
  • orlando clayhanger
    How to make tambour slats?
    18 days ago

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