Thomas Jefferson

about the 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.

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

That document, the Declaration of Independence was written on the lap desk pictured above which now resides at the Smithsonian.


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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.

replicating the Thomas Jefferson desk

Jefferson lap desk

I decided to make a copy of the Jefferson lap desk (on the left) 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.

Although it looks relatively simple, many different techniques were involved in putting this little box together.


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 Most of the process was done as it would have been originally made in 1776, although I did "cheat" a bit.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

cherry lap desk
lap desk detail

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.

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.

lap desk detail
Thomas Jefferson lap desk
Jefferson lap desk
lap desk variation

Since then I have made several more, including variations on the original, ones with  leather writing surfaces or single support. Each time I learn something new.




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