Thomas Jefferson lap desk

In 1776 Thomas Jefferson was given the task of drafting a declaration of independence proclaiming the colonists right to rebel against the British government. Thomas Jefferson lap desk

In his writing he stated that all men are created equal and have the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Thomas Jefferson lap deskThat document, the Declaration of Independence was written on the lap desk pictured on the right (my reproduction is on the left).



Jefferson was an inventor as well as statesman and he came up with the idea of a portable writing desk during his 200 mile coach ride between his home at Monticello and the Continental Congress in Philadelphia Pa.

He designed this desk, with an adjustable book rest and a locking drawer, so he could continue to work during his long commute. After designing the box he gave the drawings to Philadelphia cabinet maker Benjamin Randolph to build.

The original lap desk is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

I decided to make a copy of this lap desk after reading an article about it in Fine Woodworking Magazine (v 144, September/October 2000). The article described the process of making the desk and I thought it sounded fascinating.

Thomas Jefferson lap deskAlthough it looks relatively simple, many different techniques were involved in putting this little box together.

It took me around 20 hours to make the Thomas Jefferson lap desk. Most of the process was done as it would have been originally made in 1776, although I did "cheat" a bit. I used jointer and planer to mill the wood and I used shop made plywood with mahogany veneer for the box top and bottom.

The rest of the lap desk - including the drawer - was made from a single piece of mahogany that I had been saving for a special project.Thomas Jefferson lap desk


Techniques used included:

cutting dovetails (drawer)

miter and hidden splines (box corners)

veneering (box top and bottom)

banding (drawer front)

stringing (front and back)

mortising (the top of the desk has a support stand to hold it open, the stand needed a mortise in the top back so the writing surface would lie flat when closed, the top of the box needed mortises to hold the support stand open, lock and hinges needed mortises)

and I need to attach the baise (similar to the fabric used on a pool table) to the writing surface.

It was hard, in part because the pieces were so thin - especially the drawer (3/16" for the sides and 1/8th for the dividers). I practiced on couple boxes before cutting the dovetails for the drawer.

All in all it was a great project.

Thomas Jefferson lap desk

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