Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Reproduction of John Marshall's Travelling Desk

Several years ago I had a pleasant visit with Mike Craw at the John Marshall House. Mr. Craw is a talented craftsman of period furniture reproductions, and was interested in making a reproduction of our desk as a gift for his sister. I'm excerpting some information from his letter describing the construction technique below along with photographs of the desk in process, and you can see finished photographs of the desk (as well as one of the original in situ at the Marshall House) here:

I have to say that working with interesting and talented folks like Mr. Craw is what makes my job so much fun! It makes the mountains of paperwork (which I don't blog about daily, out of kindness for the PS Blog readers!) worthwhile.

"[The] wood... was obtained from a local cabinet shop. It is end cuts of Sapele, also known as African Mahogany. The original desk was probably made of Cuban Mahogany, which is no longer an option.

Each of these pieces is approximately 2 ¼” thick, 4” to 6” wide, and range from 13” to 24”. The sides were first sawed square to the faces, and then one face was sawed to expose relatively smooth wood. This gave me a better idea of the grain and any defects in the board that might have been hidden under the original rough surface. I milled these down to just over ¾” thickness on my table saw and then planed the edges straight.

The boards were then “book matched” so that the two surfaces which were separated by the saw blade were opened like a book and the two edges which met were glued. This resulted in a board just over ¾” thick and between 8” to 12” in width.

Book matching is a fairly common practice in cabinet making. It affords the craftsman the opportunity to create interesting grain patterns and, as in this case, it also effectively doubles the width of the board. Since the original box was made with single boards on each side, sawed to separate the top and bottom, book matching allowed me to do the same with a limited supply of wood.

Once the boards were relatively flat and smooth, they were cut to size. Each side was cut to the overall dimensions of the box, and then they were cut lengthwise to separate the top and bottom pieces. This way, the grain of the wood matches on each of the sides, all the way around the box. The end with the drawer was cut slightly oversize, then ripped lengthwise to form the drawer. The upper piece was then cut at an angle, forming the upper and lower side pieces.

On the original box, the interior of the lower part of the case, the storage area under the hinged writing surface, the piece that separates that area from the small compartments for the inkwell, pounce pot, pencil till and storage areas, and the dividers inside the storage areas, are all made from mahogany.

Once all the interior pieces are cut and dry fit, a finishing oil was applied and allowed to dry. Once the oil was dry, the case was dry fit again, and then disassembled with the pieces all placed within easy reach and every clamp I own was stacked within arm’s reach. The wood glue has an “open time” of approximately 30 minutes, so there is no extra time to try and find a part or a clamp once the glue process is started.

The upper carcass was glued in the same manner, the mating corners were mortised, and the hinges installed. As soon as I could hinge the entire assembly closed, I located the position for the lock in the lower half, and the lock plate in the edge of the upper half, and both areas were chiseled out to receive the brass plate and lock body.

As I mentioned, each end and each side are made from single boards, and are sawed either straight across or diagonally across their lengths to form the upper and lower parts of the box. Additionally, the end with the drawer was cut slightly oversize, then ripped lengthwise to form the drawer. The upper piece was then cut at an angle, forming the upper and lower side pieces. With the carcass assembled, I had the exact dimensions to construct the drawer.

With that done, I constructed the two panels that are hinged along their adjacent edges to cover the storage areas in each half and, when closed, form the writing surface.

On the original box, the drawer locking pin is missing. Examining the hole for the pin, I’d guess it was about 1/8” diameter rod, probably brass, with a ball shaped head which may have been either brass or wood. For your case, I made the ball out of mahogany, turned on the lathe. In the photo above, you can see the hole for the pin in the edge of the lower case above the drawer directly above the near end of the handle, and a much larger hole in the upper case edge (directly above the white eraser tip in the mechanical pencil) for the head of the locking pin.

The brass escutcheon around the keyhole and the small brass swivel piece that keeps the lower writing surface from flapping open when the box is closed presented another challenge. I was pretty sure that I’d wind up having to make some sort of fastening mechanism for the lower writing surface, but how tough could it be to find a square, smooth brass escutcheon? Really tough, as it turned out.

After years of ordering all manner of woodworking tools and hardware, I get a lot of catalogs. Everything from Rockler to Restoration Hardware. They have round escutcheons, oval escutcheons, engraved escutcheons, escutcheons from every furniture period, but smooth square ones? Who would want one of those? So, since I was making the writing surface fastener, I made the escutcheon at the same time. Watch, I’ll get a catalog from the “Smooth Square Escutcheon Store” in the mail tomorrow!

This box has several different finishes in different locations. All of the cherry wood is finished with a hand-rubbed oil and wax. In the original box, the black pencil tray is a piece of soft wood, probably pine, that has been “ebonized” meaning stained or painted black to look like ebony. The pencil tray in your box is real ebony, sanded and sealed with polyurethane. Sharon wonders why I never throw out a piece of wood, but this is a perfect example. I knew that left over piece of ebony would come in handy. As in the original, if you push down on the right side of the pencil tray, it will pivot up, revealing another storage area.

All of the mahogany has been finished with three coats of shellac and two coats of varnish. Once the finish was cured, I rubbed it out with 0000 steel wool and furniture wax. A light coat of wax buffed on once a year should keep the box looking good for years to come. "

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