The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Washington Desk layout.

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This very simple full-sized layout provides all of the major dimensions and angles needed to make the desk.

My latest project, a campaign style desk inspired by George Washington, is something of a first for me in that I am trying to make a replica without using plans. I admit that I rarely follow woodworking plans because I generally find them overly ambiguous and unclear. Normally my projects are simply inspired by furniture I see and not necessarily reproduction. Often, I will see a piece of furniture that I like, hopefully get the chance to measure it, and go from there, changing things up as needed. I never use cut lists mainly because cut lists are theoretical,  and actual woodworking is not.

As far as this desk is concerned, I am trying to make it as close as I can to the original piece using only a photograph. I know there are woodworkers that specialize in reproductions who are experts at working from photos. Unfortunately I am not one of those experts, so this project has required a good bit of guess work.

For instance, I want the desk top to have a height of around 29 inches, and that is because my computer desk at home is 29 inches tall (most desks seem to fall in the 27-31 inch height range) and for me that is a comfortable working height. The length of the top will likely finish off at around 44 inches, which was my original guestimate from the photo using the book and pen as a guide. Why likely? Because I still have to do some trimming, and that trimming may change the finished size, depending. The width of the desktop (front to back) should finish off at around 23 inches, partly because of the stock I am using, and going by the original photo, I believe it is close to the actual width of the desk shown.

The legs are a bit trickier. Most woodworkers will make a “story stick”, which work well for projects like tables and traditional desks with bases, but for this project the ‘X’ pattern of the legs make the story stick a less viable option, because I want to have the ability to see that ‘X’ in full size. So the simple solution was to draw out a side view of the desk on a sheet of corrugated paper. The drawing not only gives me an easy lay-out guide, it also provided the angles needed for the legs. And after looking at the drawing, I came to the conclusion that screwing the legs to the face of the desktop cleats is a better solution than using a mortise and tenon joint, as it will be stronger and allow for the panel to expand and contract.

Maybe most importantly, this drawing helped to eliminate a lot of measuring, and the full sized drawing allowed me to proportion the top drawer compartment to dimensions I found pleasing, and once the desktop base is completed I will use the drawing as a template to saw the curves for the drawer unit.

It’s always nice to find that the simple, low tech solution is usually the easiest and fastest. Some woodworkers prefer to use drafting programs such as Sketch-up to do layout work, but that has never appealed to me, though I do believe that Sketch up is a valuable tool. But as far as this project is concerned, I found it enjoyable to use a basic pencil, T-square, and yard stick to design the desk, and at that, I think GW would have approved.

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