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

Sussex pine office desk

Pegged pine desk - drawer unit

Office desk in solid Scots pine from Sussex

This piece is a prototype for a suite of three similar desks commissioned for my client's workplace. I wanted to use Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), our only native softwood apart from the common juniper (Juniperus communis), which of course grows too small to be cut for timber.

The brief called for space for PCs and laptop docking stations, and a couple of drawers for paper and office supplies, but staff had to be able to communicate face-to-face at all times and also needed to consult large maps and charts on the desk surface.

The location, in a period building, is restricted, and there isn't much room to circulate around the office. Access is via a winding flight of stairs and through a number of narrow doorways.

The answer to the space issue was to build the three desks as an island unit, with two facing each other and the third - for a 'hot desker' - sitting at right angles across the end. And the solution to the access problem was to make the underframe considerably narrower than the top, so that the two parts can be carried separately along tight corridors.

The constraints of the brief largely dictated the design. The need for a narrow base meant the desktop would have a deep overhang. The need for a demountable top meant the drawer units had to be self-supporting, built strongly into the frame.

The timber I'll be using for the subsequent desks is highly figured pippy oak from Perton Wood in Staffordshire, full of 'cat's paw' knots and silvery rays. Each piece will be easily recognisable as part of a suite, but there will be subtle difference in style. In this first version, the end grain of the through tenons will create a repeating decorative motif at the front and back of each desk.

You can see pictures of the completed piece here.

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Scots pineIt's hard to obtain home-grown Scots pine for joinery purposes in England, despite big plantations all over the countryside. Most local supplies go for fencing, while furniture- grade material has to be imported, usually from the Baltic. (Photo: WTPL/Simon Mageean)

Four-way joint detailLuckily I found a source at the Cowdray Estate near Midhurst in Sussex, where the head forester, Donald McDonald, is looking at ways of economically utilising pine trees over 55 centimetres in diameter - too broad for the fencing sector to use.


Four-way joint detailThe timber I bought from the estate used was cut in early September 2008, sawn into boards in December 2008, air-dried to June 2009 and then kiln-dried at a local timber yard until the end of September 2009. It was planed to size at the Cowdray workshops.


Four-way joint detailVirtually all the Scots pine used for joinery in this country comes from Sweden, like the two pieces at the top of the picture. The Cowdray timber is wilder, with more colour, character and fragrance but also more knots and resin, making it sometimes tricky to work.


Four-way joint detailA lot of joinery goes into each desk: a total of 22 interlocking joints. They're all variations on the one sketched here: a bridle (the piece coming from the right) slipping over a double housing (going top to bottom) and pegged by a through tenon (pushing in from the left).


Four-way joint detailHere are the completed components for a single joint connecting a leg and a rib to the top rail, or apron. The handwork has to be pretty meticulous and the measuring and marking up must be accurate to within a fraction of a millimetre for everything to slot together.

Top level of underframe assembledWith the first set of joints finished and pushed together, you can see how the system will allow me to hang a heavy two-drawer unit safely from the apron, just using the hanging stiles (or vertical posts). The drawers will be on the left and the footwell on the right-hand side.


Four-way joint detailThe whole system is inspired by the traditional post-and-beam construction method used to make mediaeval barns. Here's a corner bridle, pegged to the leg by a through tenon coming in from the cross-rib. Even without any glue the assembly is very rigid.


Four-way joint detailHere's what 's called a T-bridle, connecting the wide apron to one of the stiles via a double housing, secured with a through tenon. In the Arts and Crafts manner, the revealed construction provides the entire decoration for the piece, without the need for any applied ornament.


Front of assembled underframeOnce all the parts for the prototype underframe are made, the whole assembly can be put together to test the theory. The drawer units will be on the left-hand side of each facing desk so the computer screens will be staggered, allowing colleagues to see each other.


Rear of assembled underframeHere's a view from behind, where you can see the 'stretchers', the narrow horizontal rails, interlocking with the stiles and the legs. The hot desk won't have any drawers and its ends will be canted, but otherwise the basic design and construction will be the same.


Pegged T-bridle When the whole piece is glued up, the end-grain of the bridles will be planed flush, providing a dark, rugged contrast to the smooth surface of the legs. But the through mortices will be simply chamfered and left a few millimetres proud, like little square knobs.


Loose through tenons In a couple of places in the footwell, where the user will be sitting, there aren't any cross-ribs connecting the front and rear of the desk. So the only way to lock the joints together is to make actual pegs, or loose tenons, and hammer them into place.


Front of drawer unit carcaseHere's how the framework for the drawer unit is built, integrated into the desk construction rather than hung separately. The carcase at the sides and back of the drawer unit will be filled in with solid wood panels and the drawers will slide through the openings at the front.


Rear view showing through tenons Looking at it from the rear, you can see all the through tenons and loose pegs protruding. The end grain will eventually darken, not just in the pine but also in the final pippy oak version, and the pegs will look much more conspicuous than they do at this stage.


Grooves for drawer unitOnce the main construction timbers are complete, the drawer unit has to be prepared. That involves slotting in 'runners' for the drawers to slide upon; 'kickers' to make sure they don't tilt down when you open them; and 'guides' to steer them straight in and out.


Completed carcase for drawer unitThe drawer sides and the drawer mechanism will be hidden behind solid panels. These panels have to be able to expand and contract freely as the moisture in the air changes, so they're rebated all round and dropped into the grooves before the whole frame is glued up.


Flushed bridle jointWith the assembly completed, the joints are cleaned up. The bridle joints are all planed flush to the frame, highlighting the contrast between the pale long grain and the candy-striped end grain. The through tenons are carefully sawn down so that only 5mm sticks out.


Completed underframeHere's what the finished underframe looks like. I like to think the overall design hints at influences on my work from Arts and Crafts pioneers in England and the United States like E.W. Godwin, Ernest Gimson, Gustav Stickley and even Frank Lloyd Wright.


Desktop glued upNow I need to make up the desktop. This is pretty straightforward, but smoothing the glued-up boards to make the top completely flat is harder than I imagined. The resin in the pine quickly gums up my planes and blunts the blades - not what you'd expect from softwood.


Shooting drawer partsThe last stage of the the joinery process is making the drawers. Before you mark up the pieces or cut any joints it's crucial to make the edges exactly parallel and the ends dead square. I use a home-made shooting board, with the smoothing plane on its side.


Dovetailed drawer partsThen you can cut the dovetails - lapped dovetails for the drawer fronts (where the tail isn't visible from the outside) and through dovetails for the back. They hold firmly without glue, but cramping them up and glueing them helps keep the whole drawer square.


Completed drawers in placeFinally I cut out fingerholds for the drawers, using a rasp, and make a handful of 'buttons', little rebated catches that slot into mortices in the rails to secure the desktop to the frame. The whole piece is then sealed with three coats of shellac to protect it and enrich its colour.