Thomas Jefferson traveled frequently between his home in Virginia and Philadelphia. To facilitate his constant correspondence, he designed and had custom made a portable lap writing desk unlike any other of its time. On this very desk, he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and the original desk is now in the Smithsonian Institute.
Jefferson’s design is quite different than most writing slopes of the era. They are usually bulky boxes that can’t be used except in a wide-open position. Also, their storage compartments for writing material are usually underneath the writing surfaces, which makes it awkward to retrieve more material while using the writing surface. Jefferson designed this lap desk so that it could easily be used while closed, partially open, or completely open. The storage compartment for inkwells, quills, and writing material is a drawer that slides out from the side without interfering with the writing surface. Also, the writing surface, folded in half, can still be used even if the lap desk is folded shut, as it might be if one were holding it in one’s lap while riding in a carriage.
Some years ago Lon Schleining obtained permission from the Smithsonian to examine and measure the desk and to create plans so that accurate reproductions can be made. He published an article about how to build it in Fine Woodworking Magazine, September/October, 2000, and the original article is available here. The same plans are now available for sale on the internet, here:
Here’s a picture of the original desk with the writing surface half open and the drawer partially open to reveal the inkwell and a slot for quill pens. Behind that in the drawer is a space for paper, etc.
My interest in pens has led me toward other desktop and writing-related items, and I was interested in having a replica of the Jefferson desk, but have neither the woodworking skill nor equipment to build it. Fortunately, I was able to persuade a friend with both to build it for me! I bought the plans and he created it from solid walnut.
I added some finishing touches, including authentic drawer pull, lock and hinges from Londonderry Brasses, who make lost-wax castings from period hardware. Their customer support and service is excellent. I used genuine baize (woven wool felt – think billiard table cloth) to cover the writing surface. I’m very pleased with the results.
So, here it is, my very own Thomas Jefferson Writing Desk. Click images to enlarge.