Thomas Jefferson Lap Desk

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Project by Lenny posted 07-06-2018 02:14 PM 4443 views 8 times favorited 22 comments Add to Favorites Watch

This is a replica of Thomas Jefferson’s lap desk. It is an item of his own design and it is believed that he drafted the Declaration of Independence on it. The story goes: in 1776, Jefferson, a member of the Continental Congress, was frequently traveling between his home in Virginia to Philadelphia for meetings. He wished to make better use of his time and so, designed this desk to use for reading and/or writing during his trips. He passed along to Benjamin Randolph#, a Philadelphia cabinetmaker, his plans for the desk and Randolph built it. Jefferson went on to use the desk for 50 years. In 1825 he gifted it to his granddaughter’s husband Joseph Coolidge. In 1880 the Coolidge family gave the desk to the federal government and today it sits in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
The desk measures out at 14-3/8” by 9” with a drawer opening of 1-3/4” tall. There are two panels hinged to the top of the desk which, depending on orientation, may be used to read or write. If reading, there is a panel support that flips down to hold the book at one of several angles. If writing, a fabric, baize, is exposed to facilitate the writing. The tiny drawer holds a small inkwell, quills and a supply of paper all contained safely via a lock.
While I am proud of the finished product, I have to say I did not enjoy this build. In short, I think the pitfalls and issues experienced by my friend and woodworking buddy Paul, who built one (or two, or three) before me, negatively impacted my perspective as I began the project. I did not find the build to be nearly as difficult as I anticipated. That said, an area of challenge was doing my first hand cut dovetails. Leave it to me to make my first attempt on full blind dovetails! No one knows for sure but it is believed that the sides and back of the carcass on the original were joined via full blind dovetails. But for the pictures I will provide, one would never know for sure if I did make them. The full blind as well as the half blind and through dovetails found on the drawer came out okay. I feel they got better as I did more of them. Let’s say that sawdust and glue filler is very forgiving! This was a tedious project with lots of small and thin stock. In fact, the thickest piece on the desk is the drawer front, one half inch! The carcass is 3/8”, as are the two panels. The drawer sides are 3/16”, drawer back 3/8” and the partitions, drawer bottom and support stand are a mere 1/8” thick. The original desk is made almost entirely from mahogany. A thin banding of satinwood surrounds the drawer and there is an inlay of satinwood at the back that mimics the banding on the drawer. The original also had an upside down teardrop shaped escutcheon around the keyhole made of satinwood. My desk is made from genuine mahogany and satinwood. Satinwood is not easily found and it is very expensive. After extensive searching and even a purchase of yellowheart sold to me as satinwood, I found two sources that sell it. Rare Woods USA in Mexico, Maine sells East Indian (aka Ceylon) satinwood and Exotic Lumber, Inc. in Frederick, Maryland had West Indian (Jamaican) satinwood. Hardware for the desk is also hard to come by. There are six small hinges, a draw pull with escutcheons, a lockset and two keys. Londonderry Brasses was selling a kit of all the hardware and 1/3 yard of baize. Londonderry was purchased by Horton Brasses who might still make the kit available. It costs roughly $200 for the kit!
Build instructions, including detailed drawings, can be found in the October 2000 issue of Fine Woodworking (FW) magazine. Lon Schleining was the author of the article in FW. I strayed from his version of the desk which involved panels made from plywood with attached veneer. Schleining makes “plans” of the build available for purchase. While the “plans” are helpful, they are basically drawings of the various desk parts that are not to scale. A cut list would also have been helpful.
Relative to the FW article, Schleining made a key error. He instructs that you mill a 1/8-inch-wide rabbet at the top and bottom of the carcass sides. In fact, and his drawings bear this out, the rabbet should be ¼ inch wide. I also chose a finish different from Schleining. I applied two coats of Sealcoat shellac (thinned to a one pound cut) to seal the wood, sanding with 320 in between coats and then applied three coats of Waterlox satin finish again, sanding in between coats. Lastly, I applied a thin coat of Howard’s Feed N Wax using #0000 steel wool as the applicator.
Despite several attempts, I was unable to find an inkwell that will fit in the shallow drawer. I tried a local glass blower but he said a square inkwell requires a mold and he does not have one (I suppose making one would be quite costly.). I have contacted a glass company that agreed to make six pieces of glass (seamed edges, i.e., not sharp) to my dimensions with the top piece getting a 3/8” hole drilled in the center. I will use glass adhesive to glue it together. This will fit in the drawer space and will at least resemble the original.

#See my blog (link below) for an explanation of the builder’s name.

If you read this much, thank you for your patience. Two days ago, on the fourth of July, I posted a blog on my build of this desk. If you can believe it, I had even more to say! The blog can be found “here”:

-- On the eighth day God was back in His woodworking shop! Lenny, East Providence, RI

22 comments so far

View Lenny's profile (online now)


1721 posts in 4775 days

#1 posted 07-06-2018 02:17 PM

Some additional photos:

-- On the eighth day God was back in His woodworking shop! Lenny, East Providence, RI

View GerardoArg1's profile


1016 posts in 3242 days

#2 posted 07-06-2018 02:33 PM

Beatiful job!. Congratulation. A fine art really

-- Disfruta tu trabajo (enjoy your work) (Bandera, Argentina)

View HokieKen's profile


19422 posts in 2387 days

#3 posted 07-06-2018 02:35 PM

Outstanding work Lenny. I enjoyed your blog on the desk and the finished piece is gorgeous!

-- I collect hobbies. There is no sense in limiting yourself (Don W) - - - - - - - - Kenny in SW VA

View BurlyBob's profile


9346 posts in 3514 days

#4 posted 07-06-2018 02:45 PM

That’s a really fantastic looking reproduction. Those hidden dovetails with that miter edge must have been a real challenge.

View Joe's profile


581 posts in 2335 days

#5 posted 07-06-2018 03:05 PM

What a great job of building the Jefferson portable writing desk. Your comments regarding the desk were very interesting and informative. Over all a beautiful job, I especially liked the dovetails and inlays. Your pictures were very helpful and added considerately to understanding how you built the desk. You should be very proud, so skillfully done. Thanks for taking your time to explain and show your inspiring project.

-- CurleyJoe, "You only learn from your mistakes"

View EarlS's profile


4762 posts in 3596 days

#6 posted 07-06-2018 03:06 PM

Wow – great looking lap desk. You nailed it!!

-- Earl "I'm a pessamist - generally that increases the chance that things will turn out better than expected"

View Lenny's profile (online now)


1721 posts in 4775 days

#7 posted 07-06-2018 03:08 PM

Thank you for the kind comments gentlemen. I appreciate them. Joe, I am glad you appreciate the explanation.

-- On the eighth day God was back in His woodworking shop! Lenny, East Providence, RI

View helluvawreck's profile


32122 posts in 4115 days

#8 posted 07-06-2018 03:50 PM

This is a wonderful lap desk reproduction and beautifully done.

-- helluvawreck aka Charles,

View Woodenwizard's profile


1369 posts in 4291 days

#9 posted 07-06-2018 06:05 PM

Lenny, I always enjoy your explanations of your builds almost as much as I enjoy seeing the finished project. You not only are a great craftsman but also a great story teller. The attention to detail was great and you have created a piece that will be cherished for many generations. Thanks for sharing.

-- John, Colorado's (Wooden Wizard)

View Oldtool's profile


3326 posts in 3439 days

#10 posted 07-06-2018 06:13 PM

Super great work on this Lenny, it is a beautiful copy of the original, well made and displaying fine craftsmanship. The stringing is done well, looks great, the drawer dovetails are nice & tight, and the full blind dovetails are, I believe, more true to the original than the splines in the FW article.
How did you find working with the baize, is it similar to felt? Looks to be thinner than felt.
Nice work, will make a great display piece.

Congratulations on the Daily Top 3.

-- "I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The point is to bring them the real facts." - Abraham Lincoln

View oldnovice's profile


7753 posts in 4616 days

#11 posted 07-06-2018 06:29 PM

Well done!
Mr. Jefferson would be proud.

-- "Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored." -- Aldous Huxley

View Ted78's profile


415 posts in 3248 days

#12 posted 07-06-2018 07:04 PM

It does seem a like a fiddelly thing to get right. This looks very well done. A thought on the inkwell, a glass mold I think can just be a two part mold made out of wood, that is soaked in water before used. It might be a simple thing to make and provide to the glassblower.

-- Ted

View therealSteveN's profile


8906 posts in 1822 days

#13 posted 07-06-2018 07:16 PM

Nice job, beautiful desk.

Thanks for posting.

-- Think safe, be safe

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile


17535 posts in 3867 days

#14 posted 07-06-2018 07:16 PM

Wow, very nice (and faithful) build. Congrats on the full blinds as well, they look great. I’ve not attempted, not sure I ever will. Kudos!

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. - OldTools Archive -

View Lenny's profile (online now)


1721 posts in 4775 days

#15 posted 07-06-2018 08:23 PM

Thank you folks. John (woodenwizard), I enjoy writing almost as much as woodworking. Tom (oldtool), I made a purchase of some quality stringing tools from Lee Valley. The primary cutting tool has a fence to keep the stringing groove nice and straight. Regarding baize, adhering and cutting of it per Schleining’s instructions went surprisingly well. I’m guessing it is thinner than felt and it seems to be of good quality. I had no issues requiring me to shim the hinges. Ted78 thank you for the suggestion on the inkwell. With $35 already invested on such a tiny item, I’m going to stick to my plan. Smitty_Cabinetshop the full blind dovetails was easily the most challenging and difficult part of this project.

-- On the eighth day God was back in His woodworking shop! Lenny, East Providence, RI

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