The Society of American Period Furniture Makers

Books, Plans, Magazines and other media => Discuss plans and drawings. => Topic started by: JB on May 23, 2008, 12:20:45 PM

Title: Plans/Help/Guidance for a Burr Walnut Kneehole Desk
Post by: JB on May 23, 2008, 12:20:45 PM
Does anyone know where I can find some plans for a “Burr Walnut” kneehole desk?

I have lots of pictures of these desks, and found good overall outside dimensions for a nice one in Verna Salmonsky’s wonderful book "Masterpieces of Furniture", but the details of how the damn thing is put together escapes me. I’m especially confused about :

a). how the top connects to the sides, since there’s no sub-top that gets dovetailed into the sides. The top of the top drawer ends directly on the underside of the top. Do the sides go into long sliding dovetails into the top or something?

b). how are the two drawer boxes made and how do they connect to the recessed center “cupboard”?

Any help/guidance will be appreciated!

Title: Re: Plans/Help/Guidance for a Burr Walnut Kneehole Desk
Post by: dkeller_nc on May 30, 2008, 09:47:13 AM
JB - Do you have a picture of this desk that you could post to the forum?  I'm thinking you might be talking about a William & Mary dressing table, or lowboy, but I'm not sure.  Many forum members have made one of those and could probably advise.
Title: Re: Plans/Help/Guidance for a Burr Walnut Kneehole Desk
Post by: JB on May 30, 2008, 04:47:26 PM
Thanks for the response! I should have thought to include a picture.

Attached is a picture of a so-so example. I have better examples with fewer drawers and nicer proportions in books at home; but I think this will show you what I am looking for.

After posting the question, I discovered that Carlyle Lynch drew up plans for a similar, but later example. It's all Mahogany, and lacks all the cross grain moldings and burl veneer business that I admire so much. Still, it has provided a good data point for puzzling out the construction internals.

As shown in his plans, it appears the inner (kneehole) desk sides are dovetailed into the case bottom just like the outer desk sides. The dovetails get covered with a moulding that extends from the sides of the case, over the bracket feet, and continues intot he kneehole area under the cupboard door.

The outer case sides join to the top via a long sliding dovetail. So the top gets slid in from the front of the desk, and that locks the thing together. But from Mr. Lynch’s plans, the other details are sketchy. For example, are the drawer dividers dovetailed into the sides at the front, or are they simply glued into rabbets as shown in his plans? In other case work I’ve seen, they’re always dovetailed in. But was that a later development, or something that was only done on larger furniture? This Kneehole desk is tiny, less than 30 inches wide and about 18 inches deep. Perhaps that has a bearing on construction techniques?

Another point I'm nervous about is making the "cross grain" molding that covers the top edge of the bracket feet and continues under the cupboard door on the inside of the kneehole,. In Mr. Lynch’s example (which is a later example dating from about 1760) the moldings are simple straight grained Mahogany. But a large part of charm in the older “George II” style desks is the way the burl veneer continues in a cross wise direction from the draw fronts, through the dividers, and onto the moldings that wrap the top of the desk and cover the bracket feet.

Do you simply make this molding like regular straight grained stuff except the grain is going the wrong way? If so, is it simply glued onto the case and wood movement be damned? Or are they straight grained mouldings which are veneer wrapped?

I realize that I can just take a guess, and make it work. But this is my first foray into casework, and part of the learning experience for me is to try and educate myself as much as possible about proper period techniques. Living in the great period furniture wasteland of Northern California, it’s difficult for me to study period examples directly. So any clues about other sources or comments about construction details will be very much appreciated!

Thanks again,


Title: Re: Plans/Help/Guidance for a Burr Walnut Kneehole Desk
Post by: Bob Mustain on June 02, 2008, 06:29:31 AM
I am currently traveling and far away from my shop and bookshelf but on the subject of English furniture, burl veneer, and especially making the cross grain moldings, there are several books available in the States by an English cabinetmaker, restorer, (reputedly also faker) and teacher, whose name completely escapes me, that deal in detail with these subjects.  I'm hoping that someone will provide the name and book titles that I can't remember but if not, I'll be home in a couple of weeks and post the name and titles.  There is a plan for a desk not unlike the one in your picture in one of his books that should provide the interior detail you want.
Title: Re: Plans/Help/Guidance for a Burr Walnut Kneehole Desk
Post by: JB on June 02, 2008, 11:22:32 AM
I look forward to the book titles when you have a chance to post them. Thank you for your response !
Title: Re: Plans/Help/Guidance for a Burr Walnut Kneehole Desk
Post by: Bob Mustain on June 19, 2008, 03:07:52 PM
Okay JB,

I'm back at home and happy to be here after several weeks away.  The author I could not name is Charles Hayward.  The specific book I was thinking of is Period Furniture Design.  My paperback of the revised (1968) edition was published by Sterling Publishing Co. Inc of New York.  The ISBN number is ISBN 0-8069-7664-0.  I'm sure it's long out of print but may be available on line.  He has a number of other books in print and all are a mixture of British and American pieces.  The plans are not very detailed but his extra chapters like the one on cross grained moldings are worth looking for the book.  Let me know if you have a problem and I can photocopy the pages for you.  I hope this helps.

Title: Re: Plans/Help/Guidance for a Burr Walnut Kneehole Desk
Post by: JB on June 19, 2008, 06:59:37 PM
Thanks for the info. I found the book used on Ordered it right away.

Thanks again!

Title: Re: Plans/Help/Guidance for a Burr Walnut Kneehole Desk
Post by: JB on October 11, 2010, 09:47:42 PM

I finally finished the desk! As you may be able to tell from my previous posts I was sooooooo na?ve when I started this project! I was thinking ?Gee? I?d like to learn carcass construction, and besides, I need to learn how to cut dovetails better, so? I?ll make a desk! But I?d better make a small desk, since it would be easier than making a big one? ?. HA, HA, HA, HA, HA!!!!! Woodworkers don?t get any greener than that!

Well, to my credit, I decided to start by doing some research. Like everything else this turned out to be more difficult and time consuming than I had anticipated. I live in San Francisco which is a veritable wasteland of period furniture. I assure you - finding 300 year old furniture around here is not an easy task ? at least at first it wasn?t. I spent about two years haunting the local auction houses and antique stores looking for antique originals. I would peruse each auction preview hoping to find any Age of Walnut case pieces to study. There were some, but they were few and far between and small kneehole desks never showed up. More importantly however, I met people who did help me find what I was looking for through other sources. I mark this time as seminal in my period woodworking journey. I came across so many wonderful antiques that I could pick up and examine closely - chairs, chests, tables, highboys, you name it! I learned a great deal more from this direct examination than any amount of reading would ever have taught me. I not only learned how things were done, but more importantly, what not to do! The construction techniques and the repairs that don?t hold up well with time. I don?t think I can overestimate the value of this hands on direct examination. After a while I forgot about the desk. The whole thing took on a momentum of its own filling notebooks with details about joinery, wood selection, repairs, and literally many thousands of detailed photographs!

After becoming a minor (very minor) expert on English Age of Walnut furniture, I decided to return to the original goal of building my knee hole desk. By this time I realized that a ?small? desk wasn?t going to be any easier to build, and that such a desk was really not a good starting point for a beginner with a simple desire to learn carcass construction!  It was going to be a stretch for me on many levels since I didn?t possess any of the requisite skills;  hammer veneering, banding, carcass construction, drawer fitting, cross grain mouldings, to name a few. At this point it was clear that I should stop worrying about the dovetails ? they weren?t going to be the challenging part of building this desk!
I began by sifting through my notes and collecting pictures of the best examples. Many of these came from various on-line sources. One desk kept sticking out as more beautiful than the rest. At first I thought it was because it was made from a light colored burl wood (I believe it?s Ash burl) as opposed to the Walnut burl of the other examples. After a time I convinced myself that wasn?t the reason, and settled on the inset top as being the thing. But then I ran into a picture of a period example with the inset top that was made of Walnut, and it didn?t appeal to me at all! The reason this one desk remained special was a mystery until I started importing the pictures into Sketch-Up and reverse engineering the dimensions on a number of desks. Most of the other examples followed rules like the top drawer is 4? high, each successive drawer increases in height by the width of the divider, the width of the letter drawers is 10?, and so on. But this one desk had me stumped at first ? there was scarcely an ?even? dimension on the damn thing. Then it occurred to me to start using dividers instead of a measuring tape and - success! Most every proportion breaks down as simple whole number ratios. The top and sides even form golden rectangles ? George Walker would be proud! I believe this explains why this one desk stopped me dead in my tracks when I first saw it ? it is a perfect example of classical proportioning! That these rules affect the unconscious seems real to me in a first hand way now; I didn?t even have a notion of what Classical Proportioning meant until I started this project.

Armed with some well thought out, detailed drawings, a few maple burls, some Victorian era Doug Fir house construction beams salvaged from a neighbors remodel,  and some quarter sawn white oak I felt ready for the challenge. A few days after Xmas 2009 I confidently dag into that pile of wood in my garage. The size of the cut list was amazing; I don?t think anyone can believe how much goes into building one of these little desks until they?ve done it themselves. After six months of working nights and weekends I had the desk mostly banged out, sans bracket feet. I had to take a break for a couple of months this summer, but work resumed in September and now it?s finished. I?ve attached a link to  a web album showing the finished desk, the original period desk, and some construction photos.

I still consider myself pretty much a beginner/intermediate so any guidance/suggestions will be greatly appreciated. My ?do it differently next time? list is already quite large!

A heartfelt thanks to this group for providing so much guidance. I haven?t felt the need to post much because I usually find answers to my questions by perusing the old posts. But I think the thing I?ve found most helpful has been the ongoing inspiration I get from the amazing work that gets posted here!

Title: Re: Plans/Help/Guidance for a Burr Walnut Kneehole Desk
Post by: Woodmolds on October 11, 2010, 11:20:19 PM
Great documentation on the desk built and it turned out beautiful. I bet that tight grained fir was a joy to work with. The attention to detail is what makes this desk a masterpiece. Kudos for seeing it through to the end.

Title: Re: Plans/Help/Guidance for a Burr Walnut Kneehole Desk
Post by: MattH on October 12, 2010, 02:33:14 PM
JB     The desk is beautiful. I'm in Montana if you think Nor. Cal. is tough for antiques try here. Found this forum a while back and have learned tons.             Matt                                                                                                                                               
Title: Re: Plans/Help/Guidance for a Burr Walnut Kneehole Desk
Post by: jim vojcek on October 12, 2010, 09:53:58 PM
JB, what a wonderfull desk.  I love all the photos for the step by step construction.  Did you say you took the Fir beams from your neighbor's house?  If so I hope  he is not too upset!

jim vojcek
Title: Re: Plans/Help/Guidance for a Burr Walnut Kneehole Desk
Post by: Michael Armand on October 13, 2010, 08:21:25 AM
         That is a great looking desk. Thanks for taking time to photograph and document the build. That is a lot of work just doing that.  I am curious to know if you kept up with the build time and if so how many hours?
                                        Once again, Great work...
                                                                        Michael Armand
Title: Re: Plans/Help/Guidance for a Burr Walnut Kneehole Desk
Post by: JB on October 13, 2010, 11:12:57 AM
Thanks for all the compliments! I?m not sure it?s worthy of such praise, especially given the other stuff I?ve seen posted on this site. But thanks again, it feels good, especially after putting so much work into the damn thing.

Matt, you?re right ? I?ve got nothing to complain about w.r.t. access to period furniture here in SF - Montana would be a much tougher slog. But as I get to know people here, I?m finding there are lots of opportunities for me to pursue my interests. It?s just that I have to be more flexible.

Michael, unfortunately I started out tracking my hours, but gave up after a while. Given that I was working the odd 10 minutes here, hour there, it was difficult to keep accurate track. Too many interruptions.

And Jim; I?ve not yet taken to claiming beams that are in use ? at least not yet. I admit, I?ve seen some amazing stuff that I?d love to get my hands on ? even in my own house!  I?ve read period accounts stating that ?a river of wood? flowed into San Francisco during the 19th century to support all the construction. Much of it is still here - I intend to lay claim to all that I can! :-)

Thanks again for the kind words,


Title: Re: Plans/Help/Guidance for a Burr Walnut Kneehole Desk
Post by: Bob Mustain on October 20, 2010, 10:59:14 AM

I'm back on the road again and this is the first time I've had a chance to visit the site and view your photos. The desk is great and the photos are better than most of the articles in the magazines.  Really well done.  My compliments and thanks for sharing!

Title: Re: Plans/Help/Guidance for a Burr Walnut Kneehole Desk
Post by: Bob Mustain on October 23, 2010, 03:08:54 AM
JB,  I was looking at your slide show again, I'm still trying to take it all in, and realized there were a couple of other things to say.  First, make sure you send some of these pictures to the Arnolds for inclusion in the members' gallery.  The desk deserves to be there, front and center.  And second, you don't mention the finish on the project.  What did you use?  Finally, I think this thread is the perfect example of what the Forum is all about.  Help at the start of the project and then great results shared with everyone.
Title: Re: Plans/Help/Guidance for a Burr Walnut Kneehole Desk
Post by: JB on October 23, 2010, 11:30:37 AM

Thanks for the compliments, though I?m not sure the desk is worthy of such praise!  The stuff produced by this group is simply overwhelming - it?s the best furniture I?ve seen produced anywhere ? period or not! This was my first attempt at case work, and as such there are lots of things I?m not as proud of.

But what I really want to thank you for is the hint you supplied that lead me to the Charles Hayward books. I ended buying a number of them on Amazon (all for just a few bucks a piece) and got lots of useful information from them. There are techniques covered in those books that aren?t mentioned anywhere else.

But  as you pointed out, the real kudos go to this board. I read many of the old posts and found a treasure trove of hints and guidance that led me though the process. I can state without equivocation that I would not have been able to complete this project had this SAPFM board not been available to me.

One post that I should single out was the one that led me to Robert Millard?s blog and videos: . I would never have attempted hammer veneering without it. I think what I learned most from his videos and blogs is how to recover from things going wrong. It seems most of the other sources that are out there are like cooking shows ? everything?s prepared ahead of time, everything goes as planned. If something goes wrong it gets edited out. Rob simply places the camera in his shop  and walks you through the whole process. Stuff goes wrong  but he doesn?t panic - he simply fixes it and moves on. And this is very important, especially with hammer veneering, where the veneer hardly ever stays put down. Before I saw that I assumed that every mistake or mishap was my fault somehow. I?ve now learned it?s simply part of the process.

The finish is a French polish. I?m not sure if it was appropriate for the desk, but that?s where it ended up. I started out thinking ?I?ll put a couple of coats of shellac on, and then finish w/ wax?. Well, a couple of coats turned to a few, which then had to be rubbed out, which looked soooo good when it was wet and then?, oh well, you get the idea!