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top prev next bottom Roll Top Desk -- 367 hours -- Can$ 2715.00 -- Advanced

My wife, Jeannette, wanted to have a roll top desk for a long time. She likes the roll top, but above all lots of little drawers and cubby holes. And then of course some secret compartments. I really don't see the point as I would know where they are, but... when the boss speaks... I obey. As this desk will replace two other storage cabinets, another requirement is that there be some kind of "hutch" on top of it all. The whole desk will be made from red oak that is ready available in our area.

The total time includes approximately 25 hours of studying the plan and preparing the list of materials to buy. Some 20 hours can be contributed to learning how to use the Leigh mortise and tenon jig and the Leigh dovetailing jig, as well as time needed to correct mistakes. The first piece of wood was cut on 7-Feb-2005. The plan was to have this project completely finished by mid May or there about. On May 7th all the woodworking was done, and on May 31st the staining and varnishing was completed.

Compare this with the roll top desk project at the American Sycamore Woodworking School. Tuition and materials is US$ 1,800.00 for an intense 12 days of using professional tools under professional guidance with what looks like an excellent lunch as well. Hours are from 9:00 A.M. until 5:00 P.M., so roughly 96 hours at Can$ 2,200.00, and you take your own built roll top desk home.

(11-Feb-2016) The storage unit has "cubby" holes as per the drawing and instructions. I am reading the book Dragonfly in Amber, i.e. book 2 in the Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon, and in that book they are called pigeonholes on page 28. So you know.


Looking at the finished roll top desk I must say that it looks great. It is definitely my best project ever. Although the project had its frustrating moments, it was a great project to do, while I learned a lot in the process. Looking back at the project there were certainly areas where things could have been done more efficient, but on the other hand the time of a retired guy is free. And last but not least, the wife is very happy with it, and that is in the end what counts.

top prev next bottom Pictures

Click on a picture to get a larger picture and then used the back button of the browser to return.

How others did it

top prev next bottom Plans, Drawings, Sketches (inches)

The plan is from the American Furniture Design Co., plan #151, Roll Top Desk. You can order the plan directly from them. It comes with a clear large drawing and 13-page instruction manual.

Critical remarks about the plan

The importance of studying drawings, plans, instructions, parts list, etc., can not be emphasized enough. Working up to a project like this one, study it for several hours over the course of one or two months. These are the critical notes we want to shared before you embark on this project.

In other words we were not particularly impressed with the instruction manual we got.

---=== NOTICE ===---
As of August 2010 American Furniture Design Co. has new Assembly Instructions that comes with their Roll Top Desk plan. Not only did I have the privilege to review their new document, but I was also delighted that they featured several of my construction pictures.
---=== NOTICE ===---

Changes made to plan

In our construction we made several changes to the back of the lower desk. We wanted the vertical lines to match more with those of the back of the upper desk.

For the face frames we use mortise and tenon joints instead of dowels to connect the rails to the stiles. For the 1/2" tenons we added 1" to the length of those rails.

We used 1/4" space balls to provide for expansion and contraction of the panels, while at the same time preventing rattling of the panels. The panels have to be 5/32" smaller on all sides, or 5/16" smaller in width and height.

According to the plan the storage compartments with small drawers and cubby holes is 12-1/2" high and 7-1/2" deep. We changed that to 8-1/2" deep plus 1/4" plywood backing. Although it fits perfect, we recommend that you choose a depth between 8" and 8-1/4" plus plywood backing for a slightly better look and to provide enough space for the knobs that protrude from the centre drawer of the storage compartment. For the drawers we used rabbited drawer fronts and half blind dovetails.

Adding a hutch

The hutch sits on top of the upper desk, and measures 50" wide, 11-3/4" deep and 26-3/4" high. The left and right section is 13-1/4" wide, with two adjustable glass shelves, and covered with a beveled glass door. The glass in each door features a decorative sandblasted rose, which was very much appreciated by my wife. The centre has an arched top and two adjustable glass shelves. The top is the same as the top of the upper desk: 13-1/4" by 51-1/2". The back panel has the same lay-out as the back panel of the lower desk. The total height of the desk is 76-3/4".

top prev next bottom Materials List (inches)

No detailed material list, as that can be found on the drawing and in the construction manual. The desk will be made from red oak. The plan calls for poplar for the drawers and internal frame work. However, poplar is not available in our area, so we will use aspen instead -- I can even say this with a straight face --. Interestingly enough both poplar and aspen have the botanical name "populus". Got that?

The hardware we will get from Lee Valley. This is our shopping list:

1" x 8" (3/4" x 7-1/4") red oak 158 linear feet
1" x 8" (3/4" x 7-1/4") red oak
(to be planed down to 1/2" thickness)
43 linear feet
6/4" rough sawn red oak
(to be planed down to 1" thickness)
80 board feet
1" x 8" (3/4" x 7-1/4") aspen 22 linear feet
1" x 6" (3/4" x 5-1/2") aspen 45 linear feet
3/4" red oak plywood for writing boards 2 x 4 feet
1/2" birch plywood for filing drawer 2 x 4 feet
1/4" red oak plywood for drawer bottoms 4 x 8 feet
medium weight denim, large enough to end up
with a pre-shrunk size of 47" x 28"
1 piece
1/4" aluminium rod for file drawer 2 feet
small knobs for storage drawers 12 pieces
full extension 26" zinc slides 8 pairs
space balls (about 8 per panel) about 300
table top mounting fasteners, 3/4" #10 screws 14 + 8 + 10
22-1/2" x 9-3/16" bevelled glass for hutch doors;
decorated with a sand-blasted rose
2 panes
23-3/8" x 10-1/8" glass shelves for hutch centre 2 panes
11-11/16" x 10-1/8" glass shelves for hutch sides 4 panes
brass magnetic catch for hutch doors 2 pieces
lift off hinges with finial for hutch doors 2 pairs
tambour glue from van Dyke's Restorers less than 500ml
Acrylic Urethane Varnish, satin finish 1 gallon

You are welcome to have a look at my own detailed materials list (lower desk drawer material list corrected 28-Apr-2009), an MS Excel2000 spreadsheet. Although I have done my utmost to keep the spreadsheet up-to-date, it is possible that it may contain minor errors.

top prev next bottom Required Tools

top prev next bottom Construction

Followed the drawing and the instruction manual. These are notes on how I did some of the construction.

Building the tambour

One challenge was making the raised panels for the first time, and the other challenge was making the tambour from scratch.

Making the slats is easy. Take a 3/4" board, sand it on both sides, and make sure that the edges are parallel and run through the jointer. Then round over one edge with a 3/8" round over bit on both sides. On the table saw rip the half round edge at a thickness of 1/2". Run the half round slat, using a little jig, one pass over the jointer to smooth the back and to ensure that it can run free in the grooves of the upper desk side panels. The little jig is just a 3/4" by 2" board, with a stop block at the end and with the same length as the slats. Next run the sawn edge of the remaining board over the jointer, and start rounding over again. I used five boards at the time to speed up the process. Created 38 slats and kept 35. The plan calls for 34 slats, but I wanted to build the tambour with 35 -- just in case --. I can later cut off one slat if it is indeed too much. Sand the slats, ease over the edges, and make them free of dust.

For fabric I used a medium weight denim, washed it so it is pre-shrunk, and ironed it. I found very little helpful information how to glue the slats on the denim. In the end I followed the instructions that came with the tambour glue (a PVC-E glue) I bought from Van Dyke's Restorers in the USA. Apparently they have a quick way of applying glue to all slats, but I did it one slat at a time.

  1. Cut the denim to a width of at least 2" less than the slat length. Spread the denim on a flat surface and clam the bottom 3/4" to 1" of denim under a straight edge. This excess material will be used later to attach the lift bar. Secure the top edge of the denim with duct tape just so that the denim flat but not overly stretched. For the left edge of the slats clamp another piece of straight wood perpendicular to the bottom straight edge and about 1" to the left of the edge of the denim. Lay out the slats in the order you want to place them, back side up.
  2. Apply glue to the back of the first slat leaving 1" inch on each end without glue. Let the glue set for a few minutes while doing the next step. Apply about the same amount of glue as you would do for a normal wood joint.
  3. Apply glue to the back of the next slat leaving 1" inch on each end without glue. Let the glue set for a few minutes while placing the other slat on the denim. Push the slat against the left edge and the bottom edge or slat and press down while gradually lowering the right end of the slat. Apply pressure on the slat with a roller or rubbing hard with a towel. Repeat this step for the next slat, and so on.
  4. Let everything dry for at least one hour after the last slat is glued before handling the tambour. Attach the lift bar with glue to the excess denim at the bottom. Trim any excess denim at the top and the bottom. The tambour needs 24 hours to cure before you should place it in the upper desk and operate it.

My concern was that gluing with fabric would be messy, but the method from Van Dyke's Restorers makes it an easy and clean job.

My other concern was about the flexibility of the tambour. I could see that it would bend easily towards the fabric side, but I had a problem imagining it bending the other way as is needed in the S-curve of the upper desk. After the tambour was glued up I found that there is just enough flexibility when using the above construction method.

I hope that this helps future tambour builders.

Building sequence

In case you like to know

This desk is a heavy beast as the next figures will show. These figures include all hardware.

hutch -- door and shelf glass
hutch -- body and top
hutch -- complete
10 kg (22 lbs)
28-1/4 kg (62-3/4 lbs)
38-1/2 kg (84-3/4 lbs)
upper desk -- storage compartments and drawers
upper desk -- tambour
upper desk -- body and top
upper desk -- complete
21 kg (46-1/4 lbs)
6-1/2 kg (14-1/4 lbs)
23-1/4 kg (51-1/4 lbs)
50-3/4 kg (111-3/4 lbs)
lower desk -- top
lower desk -- drawers, slides and writing boards
lower desk -- body
lower desk -- complete
18-1/4 kg (40-1/4 lbs)
42-1/4 kg (93 lbs)
54 kg (119 lbs)
114-1/2 kg (252-1/4 lbs)
TOTAL WEIGHT DESK 203-3/4 kg (448-3/4 lbs)

For the staining and varnishing the desk was taken apart into 57 separate wooden pieces (bodies, tambour, drawers, drawer fronts, drawer handles, tops and storage unit) in order to do a proper job.

Moving the roll top desk

Disassembly of the rolltop desk and moving it out of my wife's office has two major challenges. The total weight is 204 kg or 449 lbs. Secondly, the depth of the lower desk is 29½ inch while the door opening with the door removed is 29¼ inch. However, the height of the lower desk is "only" 29 inch. Therefore to move the rolltop desk out of the room it has to be disassembled into its smaller components. Here are the instructions how to assemble it, and thus followed the reverse order to disassemble it:

What went wrong

There is always something that goes wrong during a project. Sometimes you can find a quick fix and sometimes you throw the piece away and start all over again. Here are some of the mishaps during this project:

top prev next bottom References

American Furniture Design Co., plan #151, Roll Top desk.

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