The Shaker Lap Desk

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The lap desk is only one of many practical contributions bestowed upon us by the Shakers, members of a communal religious sect active in agriculture and manufacturing since the eighteenth century. In accordance with their lifestyle, Shaker furniture and other crafted goods tended to be straightforward, functional, and devoid of any frills.

This modified version of the original Shaker lap desk — developed by the tool folks at Dremel as part of their Compact Project Plans package — serves a like purpose: It’s designed to hold papers, correspondence, and business effects, yet it’s portable and lightweight enough to be set on the knees and used as a writing surface. The dimensions are appropriate to the storage of stationery, note cards, writing implements, and even a calculator.

To start, we’d suggest using a straight-grained, knot-free hardwood, such as the walnut we chose. A softwood could be used, but it wouldn’t take a stain gracefully and would probably be marred by the pressure of pen points.

Our materials list and assembly diagram will provide you with the finished dimensions for each of the desk’s component parts. Since the major pieces are 3/8″ thick, you’ll either have to purchase surfaced boards from a quality lumber dealer, or cut and plane the wood yourself from larger billets. A jack plane can be used to dress your stock as required, but you’ll also need a table saw, a router, a mortising chisel, a hammer, a drill with an assortment of small bits, some bar clamps, and carpenter’s glue to complete the project. (Many of these tools perform jobs which can be handled by the various Dremel products — as you’d imagine, since that firm produces these plans.)

Once you’ve cut all the pieces to size, fine-sand them, then measure and cut the dado grooves in the desk’s front and back sections. With this done, cut the matching rabbets on the sidepieces and check to see if the outside edges of the corners come out flush. (To guarantee accuracy, consider making a few practice joints using wood scraps; they’ll allow you to establish your technique and to set your saw at the same time.)

Next, prepare to assemble the right and left accessory trays by cutting dadoes into the bottom pieces to secure the dividers. We’ve located the right- and left-hand dividers 5 1/2″ and 8 1/2″ from the back edges,  respectively, but you should measure your calculator (if you use one) and reposition the appropriate grooves if necessary. Glue the dividers in place, then glue and screw the sides against the mated assemblies, using No. 2 X 3/8″ roundhead fasteners.

The finished trays should have a 1/8″ lip at each end. These will fit into the dadoes which you’ll cut into the front and back frame pieces. Once you’ve trial-fit the parts and made any necessary adjustments, spread glue on the joining components and clamp the box and trays together, assuring squareness by laying the assembly on a flat surface.

If you want to be especially meticulous, you can use 1/8″ X 3/4″ dowel pins to secure the desk’s base to its frame. This requires careful measuring, but it’ll result in a “hidden” joint and will help to true the frame if it’s slightly out of square. Alternatively, you can fasten the pieces using No. 4 X 3/4″ countersunk flathead wood screws and a glue bead.

Before making the final fit, you’ll want to attach the letter-holder lip to the inside face of the base, 1 1/4″ from the back. This, too, can either be doweled or screwed in place. Finally, the four feet can be added to the bottom. First, mortise square sockets in the base, centered 1 3/8″ from each corner. Then round the edges of the feet slightly and glue them, shaped side out, into the shallow niches.

The lid incorporates a breadboard edge at each side to protect the exposed end grain of the writing surface. Cut the dadoes into the edge pieces first, then make a sample tongue using a scrap of wood the same thickness as the top. Now, with your saw set, carefully cut the actual tongues and trial-fit the joints. If you’re satisfied with the match, fasten the pieces by gluing only the middle section of each joint. A 1″ bond will allow the wood to move with changes in humidity. (If you wish, you may use this edging technique on the base, as well.)

At this point, you’re ready to attach the lid. First, plane the upper edges of the front and back pieces to match the angle of the sides. With that done, mortise an area on the back edge for the two hinges, and fasten them flush to the box with the screws provided. Align the lid, mark the hinge positions, then mortise reliefs in the top, as well. When fastening the upper hinge leaves, take care not to pierce the writing surface with either the drill bit or the screws.

Finally, give the wood a last sanding and apply a multilayered finish of varnish, lacquer, or shellac (try to avoid oils, since they might stain stored papers). And if you like to combine beauty and function — as the creators of the lap desk did — you might want to cover a single coat of satin varnish with two successive layers of gloss varnish, thereby imparting an appearance of depth and offering a good, hard writing surface.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Dremel company has a complete line of Compact Project Plan offerings.

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