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A Mid-Nineteenth Century Lap Desk

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It can be hard to figure out what will keep someone with Alzheimer's occupied - and one that will keep them happy...  The activity has to be something the person is interested in, and it's better if it has some long-time personal connection.  It was difficult to find such things for dad to do - about the only two things he was interested in were gardening and woodworking, and gardening was out in the winter - so woodworking was called upon as an activity we could both do while in the shop.  I tried having him help make saws, but the tasks required were all beyond his capabilities in his diminished state.  I also tried to get him to make wooden mallets and other basic tools for me, but he lost interest quickly.

 One successful activity we had with him was having him make reproductions of a lap desk my great grandfather owned.  It's an interesting piece, one I thought would be fun to examine for this blog.  It's an interesting study - showing some signs of both elegant and of crude construction techniques.  It lends itself well to study of early furniture and casework, as not all that was done as high-end furniture.  Most stuff that survives today wasn't the run of the mill stuff, anymore than you would expect today's run-of-the-mill furniture to be around in 150 years.  What does survive is often the high end stuff that is heirloom quality, which I think often distorts people's views of craftsmanship during these earlier periods.  To that, I offer this piece, which has more sentimental value than anything, as one example of construction techniques used in early work:

 Lap Desk

This piece dates from sometime before 1876, which is the date it came over from Iceland with my great grandfather - in the native tongue, it's called a 'pult'.  All I know about it is that it was a gift to him on his birthday at some time before that, and don't know if it was made for him or had a life before him... though I don't believe it did.  The next bit on info on it is that it was given to dad somewhere around on his 2nd birthday in 1922, and that dad "refinished" it sometime in the 70's.  It also shows evidence of at least one previous restoration, also.  My best guess on the date of that resto would be somewhere around the time it was given to dad...

A brief history of just what a lap desk is may be in order... Lap desks such as these were a sign of the times...   Their use grew with the literacy of the populace - as more and more people became educated and able to write, use of these desks became more and more common.  The lap desk served as a portable desk, file cabinet, and writing tool storage box for the user.  Of course, ornamentation and quality of construction varied just as it did for most furniture.  There are examples of very fine desks in many museums, one that comes to mind is in the particularly fine lap desk of Thomas Jefferson (photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute):

Thomas Jefferson's Lap DeskThomas Jefferson's Lap Desk

 More info is available on Thomas Jefferson's lap desk here. It makes my little desk look positively crude...  It's a truly wonderful piece.

 The rough dimensions of my desk - I just measured the major  corners of the box - are as shown in the following diagram:

Dimensions

All of the wood used is about 5/8" thick.  It's a little small, at least to me - I would have preferred something about 4" wider or so - but my guess is the length of wood they had on hand is what the deciding factor was.

The basic construction is similar to that of the koffort I described in an earlier blog, though this one is obviously made from pine throughout nor is it as elegantly constructed.  The corners are dovetailed, and they are quite nicely done:

Dovetailed Corner

You can see a nail holding on the bottom edge of the writing surface - this is a modern nail and I suspect one that dad has put there - my guess is he replaced the original wooden dowel with the nail.  The only real issue I have with dad's restoration of this old desk is his choice of finishes ...  He was very fond of polyurethane finishes which can be downright nasty to repair/remove/refinish - nor is it appropriate to the age of the piece.  The color - or so he thought - was as close to original as he could get but from what I've seen in my investigations the color he used is far too red.  A more earthy ochre color would have been more like what I have seen.

The top is still held together with the original dowels, you can see three of them in the following photo.  There's no rabbet to accept the top, neither on the carcass nor on the top itself.  You can also see that little heed was paid for wood movement, and there is a crack from the dowels to the end grain at each dowel's location:

Top Corner

The bottom is really interesting... It's obvious the wood wasn't squared up before joining - and there are gaps between each board that I believe are too large to account for through simple shrinkage:

Bottom

Yet, the same issue with dowels and wood movement appear on the bottom, so it's a bit of a mystery to me why the boards are spaced as they are.  Again, there are cracks at every dowel, there's no rabbeting of the carcass nor of the bottom itself - but you can see in between the bottom boards where dowels were used to join them (the initials DJS in the side are my great grandfathers)

Closeup of bottom

You can see the dowel in the gap on the right side above.  There are three or four such dowels connecting each and every board in the bottom. 

The hinges are homemade steel affairs that are held in place with rivets:

Hinge

I believe the hinges are original, at least they look that way to me - however the current rivets that are here are a part of dad's "restoration" - they are a modern nail head on one side that's been beaten flat to look like rivets on the top, as you see in the above photo - here's the underside:

Back of hinge

They are all a standard, modern, wire nail head. 

Inside the lap desk are two drawers, a pencil tray, and a main paper storage area:

Drawers

The drawers sit on a simple shelf that's let into a short mortise in the sides you can see here (the board that forms the pencil tray is let into similar mortises):

Shelf

You can see in the above photo one of the repairs dad made to the bottom - adding strips of wood to fill the gaps between the boards.   I'm glad he left the 'repair' obvious, as it's not how it would have been.  Had it been my own, I would have left the gaps showing.

The two drawers themselves are painstakingly constructed, each dovetailed fully at each of their four corners:

Drawer Sides

The bottom of the drawers is a classic beveled board, let into grooves on the inside:

Drawer Bottom

There's some sort of caulking or goop (technical term!) that's been crammed into the corners.  This isn't original, nor do I believe it's dad's doing - I don't know what it is.  My best guess is a glazier putty of some sort, from somewhere in the early part of the twentieth century, if my experience is any sort of guide.  It has the right consistency, it seems to match that sort of material - but I'm not exactly sure.  In any case, it's very hard and has shrunken considerably.  I can't fathom the reason for it for the life of me, yet it's on both drawers and one other location I show below.  My best guess is that it is reinforcing the drawer bottoms, perhaps they are or were breaking at the point they enter the groove in the sides.

The desk is lockable but the original lock is no longer and here's the other instance of the putty - filling the original keyhole:

Lock

The original lock is long gone, however - though I have the lock that was inside the desk when I got it, though I don't believe it's the one for this desk, not even the second one as it doesn't fit the mortise that's there:

Back of lock

Nor does it fit the latch that still remains on the top of the lid:

 

Top of lock

What's interesting about this piece is the dichotomy of construction methods...  Great attention was paid to dovetailing the drawers and the carcass of the desk, yet how the top and bottoms were attached seem more fitting to that of a palette.  Why would this be?  The best guess I have is maybe it was due to the tools available to the builder.  There seems to have been a saw available, but maybe not any tools for rabbeting?  Yet there's another mystery - the drawer bottoms are let into a groove and the bottoms themselves are beveled, yet the bottom of the desk itself are not?  The only possibility is they expected the bottom would need replacing, perhaps from sitting on a dirt floor.  It was the same basic method on the koffort.

 The dowels holding on the top and bottom are another mystery to me.  The builder knew about proper construction methods and wood movement, as is evidenced by the construction of the drawers - yet no attempt was made to account for wood movement here, and I find it surprising someone who would spend the time doing such good work with the dovetails would ignore basic construction techniques.

Anyway, it's an interesting piece of work, and it's fun to investigate how these things were built in the day.

As for the reproductions dad made of this desk - I didn't keep any.  They weren't faithful reproductions and frankly they weren't none too well made - he used lots of glue and nails with butt joints and no dovetails - but they were fun for him to make and we gave them to the rest of the family as a memento.  I do intend to make my own versions of these once the shop is up and running, as I got to know this one pretty well when I was working with him on his reproductions - and I think I could make an additional desk that takes into account some of the innovations of the Thomas Jefferson example, and perhaps a few of my own to make the desk relevant to our current love of laptop computers and Ipods and the like...  I'm looking forward to it with the greatest anticipation.  Of course, I will post about it when I do...

Thanks for reading!

 

Comments

Comment: 

 

Great story and a wonderful lap desk.  I always like seeing stuff that people actually used rather than that fancy stuff no one used that ended up in museums.
 
The construction details are interesting, especially how the bottom was made.  Also no overlap on the lid is of note.  And those nice drawers. Are the dovetails on the box wedged?
 
Thanks for posting all the pictures and the detailed description.
 
Stephen

Comment: 

Thanks. Stephen - and good eye!

 Yeah, it appears that some - not all - of the dovetails are wedged.  Interesting too that the cuts for the wedged aren't through the outside face of the corner, so they must have been cut at an angle so as not to show there.  There are a couple that have minor gaps, though nothing too severe.

Leif

Comment: 

I take it back - they are all wedged (on the desk, not the drawers - those aren't).  The ones I thought weren't were simply flush and obscured by the finish...

Like I said, there are some gaps, but actually those are small enough that it could be just age and shrinkage...  The dovetails themselves were well executed enough, so my best guess is they were wedged for extra hold...

Leif

Comment: 

 

First time comment but long time reader of your blog. That is a verty intersting desk I don't think I have ever seen a laptop desk quite like that one. It almost looks like a miniature stand up desk without the legs.
 
Most I see hereabouts are the sort where you open them and they are cut at an acgle and it becomes one surface, when opened at a slant if you take my meaning. Will you restore that one again, or simply build another from scratch. I have a laptop that is of the style I described that belonged to my mum's great uncle who was a lawyer.
 
Keep writing I am looking forward to more on the desk and the work shop and thanks for your efforts.  
 
James Mittlefehldt

Comment: 

Thanks for posting, James!

 I really don't know how many lap desks like this one there are out there - it does kind of look like it could use a pair of legs, doesn't it?  Talking more with Stephen about it in another venue, he tells me the wedged dovetails are somewhat common in certain German and Scandinavian pieces...  Most lap desks I'm familar with are more along the lines of what you describe.

 I won't be re-restoring this desk, at least not for a while.  If and when I do, it will be more in line with how it was orginally, but right now it would take more work to undo the current restoration than it's worth.  I do hope to build a replica of it someday - of course when I do, I will post about it here.

 Hey, thanks again for posting, no worries about being too long-winded on this web site!

 Leif

Comment: 

 

James,
 
Interesting you should comment about the legs, I thought the same thing until I saw the size of the lap desk, too small.
 
However there are examples of lap desks with legs.  In Baltimore at some museum, can't remember which, is a lap desk that belonged to Edgar Allen Poe.  It was a square box that had a fold out part forming a slanted writing surface.  Only a part of the box folded out leaving a row of exposed drawers along the back.
 
It also had an aproned base, I have only seen one picture and I don't know how it is constructed.  It was meant to be used as a desk when 'at home' and the base left when 'on the road'.  I have the hardware and intend on building one of these soon.
 
Stephen

Comment: 

I'm looking forward to seeing the completed desk, Stephen!

 If you have a copy of Wallace Nuttings "Furniture Treasury", Plate #597 is of a "Standard Desk" by J.S. Stokes that look quite like the above desk mounted on a single pedestal...

 

Edit - I scanned it in:

 

Stokes Desk

Comment: 

Thanks for the detailed pics and analysis!  Lapdesks are akin to campaign furniture, something I've developed an increasing interest in.  I've been toying around with an update to the lapdesk for use with a laptop, using some sort of campaign table as the platform to rest it on.   I like the contrast of traditional joinery and construction with modern application.

Jim
(Archias Domesticus)

Here is a sketch of what I have so far:

Laptop lapdesk

Comment: 

That's a neat idea, Jim!  If you get one built, I'd love to see the end product..

Comment: 

Anonymous comment relocated:

First time comment but long time reader of your blog. That is a verty intersting desk I don't think I have ever seen a laptop desk quite like that one. It almost looks like a miniature stand up desk without the legs.Most I see hereabouts are the sort where you open them and they are cut at an acgle and it becomes one surface, when opened at a slant if you take my meaning. Will you restore that one again, or simply build another from scratch. I have a laptop that is of the style I described that belonged to my mum's great uncle who was a lawyer.Keep writing I am looking forward to more on the desk and the work shop and thanks for your efforts.

Comment: 

You are so right about today's manufacturing not showing the workmanship of the mid-nineteenth century.  I look everywhere, constantly, for either old items that are still in fair shape, or new items that replicate the old.

 
I loved your story, as my father also had Alzheimer's and spent his entire life in woodworking.  There's just something in them that can't be erased when it comes to wood.
 
Thank you for sharing your story and these photos.  Now I'm off to search for something remarkably similar to this so I can buy it for myself.  (Absolutely love the one on the pedestal as well!)
 
Stacie

Comment: 

You could certainly see your expertise within the work you write. The world hopes for more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to mention how they believe. At all times follow your heart.



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