Jeff Segal Cabinetmaker - Handmade furniture in the Arts and Crafts tradition

Dovetailed oak office desk

Dovetailed oak desk - front elevationDovetailed oak desk - side elevation

Dovetailed office desk in solid English pippy oak

This will be the second in a family of three desks made in pippy oak from Perton Wood in Staffordshire. It'll have a similar footprint to its older sibling, the pegged oak desk, but the detailing is very different.

The accent in this one is very clearly on dovetails. There are almost 100 of them altogether, and the centrepiece is a solid dovetailed carcase for the two deep drawers, resting on a little stand of its own. You can see the long rows of dovetails in the right-hand sketch above, showing the side elevations.

The long front and back rails, shown in the left-hand drawing, are connected by four strong ribs and punctuated by the dark end-grain of the ribs showing through. The pattern is echoed in the stretcher below, which has little plates of end-grain at intervals. The rails also pierce the legs at the front and side with through tenons, providing another subtle style point.

You can see pictures of the completed piece here.

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Dovetailed oak desk - drawer stand componentsThe first part of the project that I tackle is the stand that the drawer carcase will rest upon. It's a small piece and deliberately modest, but there's a lot of joinery involved: bridle joints, cross-halvings and mitred tenons. Accuracy is critical if it's going to fit together cleanly.


Dovetailed oak desk - mitring tenonsThe mitred tenon is the traditional joint used where a table leg or any vertical corner post meets a horizontal rail. I cut mine with a shooting board and a specialist mitre plane, slid on its side along the board. This wooden mitre plane is by Phil Edwards at Philly Planes.


Dovetailed oak desk - repairing jointEvery so often you make the inevitable mistake. English oak is very fibrous and it's easy to tear out a flake from an edge or corner. The solution is to chisel the defect into a triangular shape and glue in a little dart of matching grain. Planed smooth, it can scarcely be seen.


Dovetailed oak desk - completed drawer standNow it's completed, I'm pleased with the simplicity and symmetry of the drawer stand, and the joints make it tough and rigid. It's barely one foot wide and two feet long, but it's easily capable of bearing the heavy solid-timber carcase and two drawers filled with office supplies.


Dovetailed oak desk - dovetails for drawer carcaseThe carcase is next. First I make up a big panel, like a table top, from five boards joined along their edges. Then I saw the panel across the grain into four equal slices and cut dovetails along two of them. You'll eventually be able to see the grain flowing all round the carcase.


Dovetailed oak desk - boring out socket wasteThe dovetailed sections form the two sides of the carcase. The top and bottom are where the 'pins' go - the narrow wedges that slot between the tails. After marking the locations of the tails I bore out some of the waste between the pins with an antique brace and bit.


Dovetailed oak desk - chiselling socketsThe pins are narrow, which is traditional in high-class English cabinetmaking, and it's essential to pare out the waste accurately with a set of sharp chisels. With 'through' dovetails, where every part of the joint is visible from the outside, a sloppy fit can ruin the look.


Dovetailed oak desk - runners and stopsNext I screw the simple drawer mechanism into the dovetailed sides of the carcase. The top drawer slides on a 'runner', which simultaneously acts as a 'kicker' to stop the bottom drawer tipping up. Vertical 'stops' at the back prevent the drawers sliding too far in.


Dovetailed oak desk - cramping drawer carcaseIt takes an industrial-strength scaffolding of 17 heavy sash cramps to pull all the dovetails in the carcase tightly together and to make sure the four sides are exactly at right angles to one another. Otherwise the drawers couldn't possibly move in and out smoothly.


Dovetailed oak desk - flushing dovetailsI intentionally make my dovetails and pins a couple of millimetres too long, so they stand proud of the sides, then smooth them down with a flush saw (shown here) and a low-angle plane when the glue is dry. That seems to produce a much crisper finished joint.


Dovetailed oak desk - locating drawer rail in socketThere are now a couple more dovetails to make, to secure the drawer rail which sits halfway up the front of the carcase. That means shaping the end of the rail into a single big tail and taking the equivalent notch out of the solid carcase side.


Dovetailed oak desk - dovetailed drawer railThis joint is strong and practical and looks good when it's fitted. I've deliberately left this big scar in the carcase above the dovetail. You shouldn't always see knots as 'defects' to be avoided. They're part of the wood's character and if they're sound you can leave them alone.


Dovetailed oak desk - sliding rear panelRound the back, I make a solid wood panel and set it into a sliding frame. For technical reasons, through dovetails mean you can't groove a simple panel into the carcase sides. Doing it this way you get a nice little feature which you could even use as a secret compartment.


Dovetailed oak desk - drawer front lap dovetailsFinally, the last batch of dovetails. These are for the drawers - but in this instance they're a mix of lapped dovetails and through dovetails. Lapped dovetails can't be seen from the front of the drawers, but only from the sides, where the tails tuck neatly into sockets.


Dovetailed oak desk - drawer through dovetailsAt the back of the drawers, though, I use through dovetails again. These can be seen from all round - the tail shape from one side and the pins from the other. They give a pretty 3-D effect, almost like a Victorian floor tile pattern or a little bit of an M. C. Escher floor.


With all the parts in place, the carcase on its little stand looks good. I like the way the drawer fronts worked out, even though the handholds aren't cut out yet. The fronts show off the 'cat's paws' in the pippy oak - clusters of tiny knots that look like pawprints.


Dovetailed oak desk - drawer unit on stand from rearHere's the completed box from the back. The whole unit is my interpretation of the vargueno, a traditional Spanish or Portuguese chest or writing cabinet on a separate stand. The style was revived by Arts and Crafts designers like Ernest Gimson and C. R. Ashbee.


Dovetailed oak desk - leg morticesNow comes the frame for the desk itself. I start with the legs. These are 70mm square, which is thicker than any pippy oak I can find. The answer is to 'brick' them up, glueing two 35mm thick pieces together, making sure the grain and figure match so you can't see the join.


Dovetailed oak desk - leg morticesThe long top rails, or 'aprons', are carefully through-tenoned into the legs, exposing the dark end grain of the tenon. The aprons are joined front-to-back by four ribs, attached with cross-halving joints to provide strength and rigidity to the whole construction.


Dovetailed oak desk -  - housing for end-grain tilesThe ribs deliberately stick out from the top rails, exposing their darker end-grain. To match the effect on the 'stretcher' (the long bottom rail at the rear of the desk) I cut four housings and slot in four little tiles of end-grain oak. When they're oiled up the contrast will be striking.


Dovetailed oak desk - stretcher with mitred tenonHere you can see one of the completed tiles at one end of the stretcher. The stretcher itself attaches to the bottom of the rear legs with a mitred tenon. The other half of the mitred tenon joint, which sits at 90 degrees to this one, belongs to a short side rail.


Dovetailed oak desk - glueing up underframeThe whole frame needs to be glued up in one go, which means I have to use a two-part adhesive. You can vary the ratio of resin to hardener to make the glue stay moist for longer. Regular PVA glue would only stay usable for about 30 minutes, but I need three hours.


Dovetailed oak desk - completed underframeOnce the cramps are off you can see how all the individual parts interlock. The two end ribs, which are set back a few inches from the legs, replace the conventional short rails that you find on most tables, so it looks as if the legs are only attached at the bottom.


Dovetailed oak desk - leg morticesThe desktop is made of five boards matched for colour and figure. No matter how accurate the joints, there's inevitably some work to do to make it completely flat and smooth. I use a series of planes, starting with this old Stanley no.6 fitted with a new iron from Ron Hock.


Dovetailed oak desk - leg morticesThe final step is applying the finish to the separate parts - the frame, the top, the drawer carcase, the drawer stand, the two drawers and the sliding rear panel. I use Organoil Hard Burnishing Oil, from Australia, rubbed in with a cloth then buffed with a lambswool mop.