Simple construction in the Southern tradition

by Carlyle Lynch

This simple desk was about all there was to some of the early post offices in rural settlements of 19th-century Virginia. Local woodworkers built die desks with a wide variety of native hard and soft woods, and the design often reflected their whimsey. The maker of the piece shown here is unknown, but the desk was almost certainly made in Grottoes, Va., or in a nearby village in the Shenandoah Valley.

Not fancy but well made, this walnut desk can afford a few-subtle refinements without losing its character. For instance, its Spartan array of pigeonholes and shelves could be made symmetrical. Additional pigeonholes, proportioned and arranged differently, might enhance the idea of the post-office look. The simple, thin flat door panels might alternatively be replaced by raised panels, as suggested by the cross section in detail 4 of the drawing on the facing page. For historical purposes, I've drawn and measured the desk as it is, leaving to conjecture only hidden construction. Occasionally I'll depart from some visible detail, but I'll own up to it in the text. You are not so bound: Use the plan

In the mid-19th centnry, desks like the one shown here were sufficient to serve the postal needs of a small Southern rural community. Few letters were written in those days, perhaps because postal rates were comparable to those of today.

only as a guide or as a spur to your imagination.

The desk consists of two pieces: The dovetailed cabinet simply sits on the table, which has a leg-and-apron frame. The aprons are mortised and tenoned to turned legs. Molding nailed to die tabletop butts against the front and sides of the cabinet to hold the cabinet in position. The simple molding design helps unify the cabinet and table sections, and although most easily shaped with a router, I prefer the more subtle appearance created by hand-shaping.

Building the table and legs-Construction is straightforward. Begin by turning a set of legs for the frame. The leg design is quite simple and reflects the taste of the craftsman. The outside corners of the front legs are shown rounded, but it was not uncommon for them to be left square. The legs were, of course, turned individually; one leg was turned by eye, then it was used as a model to scale and mark out the cove-and-bead locations for the other legs. Making duplicates this way led to small differences from leg to leg, which lent an appealing sort of charm to die piece.

Tile table-frame joiner)' is next. The top rail on the original is 7h in. thick; the drawer rail is ,3/u> in. thick. Since boards were planed by hand in those days, the difference is probably due more to convenience than design. The human eye can easily pick up that V16 in. difference however, and you may find die variation more pleasing than not. The front rails are flush with the legs, but the back and side aprons are set in 3/k. in. This seemed a little too much, so I've changed it to '/« in.; you may want to make it even less. I've used '/Win.-thick tenons, and they can be as long as 1 V> in., which is allowed for in the materials list. Lay out and cut the mortises and tenons. Cutting them with traditional hand tools is not difficult, and the satisfaction gained is worth the effort.

There are two options for attaching the tabletop to its frame. Detail I on the facing page shows pocket holes bored for screws in the side and back aprons—the first option. The top drawer rail is also bored for pocket holes, but be careful to angle the holes enough so a screwdriver will clear the lower rail when you attach the tabletop to the frame. Detail 3 shows the second option, which requires cutting short grooves in the aprons to accommodate button clamps fashioned from pieces of scrapwood. Both methods were used in furniture of the period, but I prefer to use button clamps; the clamps hold the tabletop snugly to its frame but allow the top to move freely as it expands and contracts.

Assemble and dry-clamp the frame to check for fit and squareness. Make any adjustments, then glue it up. If you have a limited number of clamps, you can peg the tenons, as the original maker did. to hold pieces together until the glue dries. After the joints have dried, glue and nail the drawer guides and runners to the side aprons.

The drawer is made traditionally using hand-cut, half-blind

Photo Roy liarl>

58 The Best of Fine Woodworking

From Fine Woodworking magazine (November 1988) 73:72-74

Nail Drawer Guides

dovetails at the front and through dovetails at the back. The bottom is 7/i6-in.-thick pine, with three edges beveled to fit a 'A-in. slot cut in the front and sides of the drawer. The bottom is held in place by square nails driven into its rear edge up into the back of the drawer. Because nails tend to work loose over time, you may want to substitute screws. The 27/»-in. depth of the drawer seems a little shallow to be practical; to increase it a bit, use thinner pine or 'A-in. plywood for the bottom, increase the number of dovetails and make them smaller to allow the drawer bottom to sit lower.

The walnut drawer knobs were turned on the lathe. As with the legs, their design seems to have been a matter of the turner's taste. They were probably spindle-turned, cut off and finished by hand. It's easier, after turning the tenon, to use a spigot or three-jaw chuck to hold the tenon end while turning the knob. Cut kerfs across the grain of the tenoned ends. Then, when you install the knobs, position the kerfs vertically and drive small wedges (dipped in glue) into them to hold the knobs tight. The holes for the knobs can be filed slightly elliptical (along the grain direction) from the inside, forming a taper, which will increase the effectiveness of the wedge.

Adjust the drawer to slide smoothly in the frame, set it aside and make the frame top. Unless you are extremely fortunate to have a single piece of walnut wide enough, you'll have to glue up two or more pieces to meet the 22'/2-in. width. Two strips of pine screwed to the underside of the top through slotted holes will serve as drawer kickers. Once you fit the top to the frame, you'll be ready to start working on the cabinet.

Constructing the cabinet-The cabinet consists of walnut sides fastened to a walnut-edged pine bottom and a '/¿-in. pine subtop. The top piece is %-in.-thick walnut, which overhangs the front and sides and is attached by screws running up through the subtop. Attaching the sides to the subtop, then screwing on the top, avoids the more complicated joinery that would be necessary, because of the overhang, to join the sides directly to the top. The subtop also simplifies cutting the dadoes for the partitions. Since the subtop isn't visible when the doors are closed, there's no need to stop the dadoes.

The subtop and bottom can be rabbeted to the sides and held with glue and nails; I prefer the look of half-blind dovetails. Both methods are authentic. Before assembling the parts, cut shallow dadoes in the sides, subtop and bottom to hold shelves and partitions. Traditionally, these were cut through and so are visible from the front except at the bottom, where a 23/»-in.-wide plain strip of walnut is edge-glued to the pine bottom after cutting the dadoes. This strip projects % in. beyond the front of the doors and is long enough to be flush widi die sides. On the original piece, the pine bottom is % in. thinner than the walnut strip, creating an unnecessary dust catcher, so I made them the same thickness. Also before assembling, rabbet the back inside edges of the sides to accept '/«-in. tongue-and-groove or ship-lap slats, which form the back of the cabinet. The subtop and bottom don't need to be rabbeted, because they are cut narrower than the sides and allow the back to butt against their full thickness. The inside partitions and shelves are a mixture of pine and poplar, fashioned from whichever was conveniently available. The arrangement of the nooks, wood variety and subtle dimensional differences between the vertical partitions and shelves works to avoid a monotonous look.

The design of the doors is quite simple: They're made using unadorned rails and stiles with thin flat panels. Brass butt hinges are gained into the door stiles and sides at the positions shown. The butting stiles of the doors are rabbeted so the right door overlaps the left when closed. A wardrobe lock holds the right door to the left where a simple metal catch engages a keeper on the cabinet bottom. A nice alternative to the metal catch and keeper is a neatly designed turn button of walnut, as shown in detail 5 on the previous page. Neither the drawer nor the doors use escutcheons for the keyholes, but brass-thread escutcheons would be appropriate for use with the wood drawer knobs.

The desk is most appropriately finished by applying a traditional, hand-rubbed oil. □

Carlyle Lynch is a designer, cabinetmaker and retired teacher. He lives in Broadway. Va. More of his drawings are available from Garrett Wade. Lee Valley Tools Ltd.. and Woodcraft Supply. Other articles by Lynch are on pp. 34-36, 40-43, and 77-79.

BILL OF MATERIALS

Amt. Description Wood Dimensions

Base:

4

Legs

walnut

l%x 1% x 2H'A

2

Side aprons

walnut

%x 5'/2X 20'/2, 18-in. s/s

1

Back apron

pine

% x 5Vi x 31 Vi, 29Vi in. s/s

1

Top rail

walnut

Vax IV. x 31, 29Vi in. d/d

1

Drawer rail

walnut

"Ai x 1% x 32, 29'A in. s/s

1

Top, round front corners

walnut

% x 22'A x 34 Va

1

Drawer front

walnut

% x 3% x 297/i6

2

Drawer sides

pine

Vk, x VA x 19

1

Drawer back

pine

V» x 2V» x 297/i6

1

Drawer bottom

pine

7/i6X 18V» x 28' Vî6

2

Knobs, turn

to pattern

walnut

1 Vi x l'A x 2'A

2

Drawer guides

pine

% x 2 x 18

2

Drawer runners

pine

% x ' Vi6 x 18%

2

Drawer kickers

pine

7/»x 1 x 18

1

Top molding, miter ends

walnut

% x % x 32'/2

1

Top molding, makes two.

miter one end

walnut

y» x % x 23

Cabinet

2

Sides

walnut

% x 9 V» x 20%

1

Top

walnut

%x 10% x 32

1

Inside or subtop

pine

•A x 8'/2 x 30Vi, 29'A in. d/d

1

Bottom front strip

walnut

% x 2V» x 30%, 29'A in. d/d

1

Bottom

pine-

% x 7% x 3OV2, 29'A in. d/d

1

Back.

tongue-groove or ship-lap

pine

V« x 30'A x 20%

6

Shelves, Vs-in.

gain into sides and partitions

pine

V» x 8'/2 x 11%

2

Center partitions

walnut

VsxSVix 19%

1

Shelf

pine

Vs x 8I/2 x 5V»

6

Partitions

pine

V16 x 8'/2 x 4%

2

Bottom partitions

pine

Vl6 X 8'/2 x 5'/s

4

Door stiles

walnut

7/sx 1%x 19%

4

Door rails

walnut

%x l'/sx 13%, 12'A in. s/s

2

Door panels, fill edges before installing

walnut

Vu x 12% x 1 7'/k

Hardware: 2 pairs brass bull hinges. 1'/» in. pin by I'A in.: 1 drawer lock with barrel key. m/i6 selvage to key pin: 1 wardrobe lock with barrel key: 1 door catch lor left door or wood button.

s/s = shoulder to shoulder d/d = dovetail to dovetail

Hardware: 2 pairs brass bull hinges. 1'/» in. pin by I'A in.: 1 drawer lock with barrel key. m/i6 selvage to key pin: 1 wardrobe lock with barrel key: 1 door catch lor left door or wood button.

s/s = shoulder to shoulder d/d = dovetail to dovetail

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