Lap desk


I wanted to update the lap desk or writing slope Thomas Jefferson designed and used to write the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The original is in the Smithsonian.


After some preliminary sketching, I made a cardboard mock-up to determine the appropriate massing and dimensions.


I changed the dimensions to make the lap desk shorter, or closer to the ground, as well as wider to accommodate different standard paper widths.


I wanted to simplify and update Jefferson’s design by removing the side drawer for quills and ink pots, and making the body a solid box. I also wanted to increase storage by making the interior accessible by lifting up the writing leaves.




Every component of my lap desk came from this slab of red gum wood.


Cardboard ‘windows’ help ensure you can get what you need from the wood.


Because this project was made of solid wood – which expands and contracts according to the humidity of its environment – I tried to maximize the amount quarter sawn material, which is known to move less than plain or flat sawn.


Wood storage that allows equal exposure to the air conditions on all sides helps reduce the amount of movement during the final drying process.


There were so many knots in this slab, it was hard to get clear pieces of wood.


Each table leaf consisted of six edge-jointed pieces of wood…


With three tenons on the end that went into a bread board, which were held together with dowels or pins. Jefferson’s writing box warped over time. I tried to prevent or reduce this movement by using quarter sawn pieces of wood and by adding bread board ends.


The bread board ends were pinned through the tenons. Both the bread boards and the edge jointed pieces of wood can expand and contract without compromising their integrity.


Several dovetail configurations were considered for the box.



My favourite part of this project is this simple frame and panel box bottom.


The frame and panel had to fit perfectly into the dovetailed box carcase because they were connected by an interior spline. Jefferson designed an enclosed box that the sloped writing surface rested on. I made an open box that allowed the surfaces to slope and provided room for storage.


The finished product. A thin strip of wood above the hinges acts a ledge for pencils or books.mI put my hinges directly above one another, which differs from Jefferson’s design. In between the two hinges, there is too little wood to screw into from both sides. Therefore, I had to plug and solder one set of hinges so that the top screw is countersunk into the top hinge, but threads into the bottom hinge leaf. Does that make sense?




Each table leaf was composed of eight pieces of quarter-sawn edge jointed wood. The entire writing surface was made of twenty pieces of wood.




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