Thursday, February 27, 2014

The top

As someone who spent thousands of hours at his roll-top desk, I can tell you that a desk is to a knowledge worker as a bench is to a woodworker.  It is absolutely essential that it be comfortable and highly functional.  Style matters, but it must be style that fully accommodates comfort and functionality.

The design for this desk was strongly influenced by Stickley designs I have seen.  They have a cabinet that sits along the back of the desk composed of drawers and cubbyholes, like you see on a roll top desk but smaller.  If you do a search for images of "Stickley writing desk," you will get an idea of the many variants of this concept that have been built.  This is why the writing surface only covers the front 16" of the base; the back 12" is reserved for a cabinet assembly.  16" was not chosen at random:  it is the same as the writing surface on my roll-top desk, a depth I found completely adequate.

This picture, which I used to get an idea about dimensions, will give you the basic idea:

When I first described this to my client (i.e. son), he liked it but wanted it to be easily detachable for moving.  I didn't think this was necessary because the desk will go through a door upright but he insisted, so I started thinking about the best way to accomplish it and had a brainstorm.  What if I built the cabinet to attach with table leaf hardware to the front writing surface?  The hardware would hold it level to the writing surface and tight against it but make the cabinet extremely easy to remove.  When I shared this idea with an expert professional woodworker he responded that I should try it first on scrap material, which I think is rather ominous, but I have decided to forge ahead.  I can always blame my son.

I've thought about all sorts of ways to implement this idea and decided on a simple modular one.  I am going to build two boxes each roughly a foot wide and then attach them to a top and bottom piece that is 12"x48" to run the width of the desk.  With setbacks from the sides of the desk and allowance for vertical supports, it will leave a space 18" wide in the center, so the writing surface in the center of the desk will actually be 28" deep.  There are a variety of uses for this extra depth in the center but the main one is to accommodate a large laptop computer.  My roll-top desk has a similar arrangement and I liked using it that way very much.  You just slide the laptop forward if you are doing a lot of typing.

I had to decide how tall to make the cabinet.  Most of the traditional designs appear to be quite short but I need to create a lot of space in two 12" wide boxes and also allow for comfortable viewing of a laptop, so I want them to be taller.  The golden ratio suggests a height of around 18" and that is what I settled on.

One thing I learned from using my roll-top desk was that the arrangement was upside down.  You want the drawers to be on the bottom and the cubbyholes to be on the top.  Otherwise you have to stand up to get in the drawers.  It is easy to reach up and get something out of a cubbyhole, normally papers or books.

Here is what I came up with.  I apologize for the hard to read image of a hand drawn plan but using SketchUp for a hand tool project is just wrong.  :-)

When I went back to the lumberyard to buy the material, there wasn't any wide enough, so I have to glue-up every single piece.  Looking at this pile is somewhat daunting:



  1. I understand what you say about drawers on top. On the other side , if you are working with a reference book on the left and another one or a mouse pad on the right, you will have to move them to open the bottom drawers. Nothing is perfect.
    What do you plan about the kerf between the writing part and the back part?
    two hinges and a lifting writing top to access some storage?


    1. You are right about having to move things if you want to get into the drawers and they are in the way. It's a tradeoff, like you say. On balance, my judgment is that this is the best arrangement because you access drawers from the top and cubbyholes from the front.

      Your idea about the hinges is interesting and I hadn't thought of it. My plan is to attach the cabinet with table leaf hardware, like this:,43586,43588

  2. Ralph,

    I tried to publish your comment using my cell phone and ended up deleting it. I am unable to recover it, but let me respond anyway.

    Thank you for your comments about the design. I like the asymmetrical arrangement of drawers as well, but it was actually driven by function. Bound written materials work best in vertical cubbyholes, loose written materials work best in horizontal cubbyholes, so I needed to have both. Given the overall height limitation of the golden ratio and the necessity to have the vertical cubbyholes 12" tall, that meant there could only be one drawer on the left side. There could be as many as I wanted on the right side with the horizontal cubbyholes and I chose two based on my own experience with my roll top desk. I was happy when I drew it out that it seemed to look good.

  3. As the client (i.e. your son), I have to say that I like the design you have drawn up. I think the detachable part is really important for someone who moves as often as I do. That said--and as you said--you can always blame me if it doesn't work--something you should be used to! haha :)