A 16th Century Writing Desk

Closed Box Open Box:  First layer, for storing  paper or parchment Open Box:  First layer with a view of the lid Open Box: Bottom layer, to store writing implements Open Box:  Bottom layer, with the extra storage space open Side view Back view

Project

16th Century Portable Writing Desk constructed of walnut, with clear finish and brass hardware, and lined with black felt.  Based on the Writing Desk from the Court of Henry VIII, currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England.

Background

This project was inspired from several sources.  In the spring of 2006, several friends visited the Jamestown settlement and of course took many, many pictures.  One of the items that received a good deal of attention was a portable writing desk (the gentle taking the photos is also a woodworker).  The simple elegance and utility of the piece appealed to me.  I began to research other examples of portable writing desks.

The most famous example is the writing desk from the court of Henry VIII (see attachment #1) and is currently housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.   This is the box I have chosen as the main inspiration for my piece.

This box was constructed in approximately 1525.  It is made of walnut and oak, lined with painted and gilded leather and silk velvet.  The box is hinged on two levels.  The top surface is the writing surface.  This hinges up to reveal a shallow tray for holding paper or vellum.  A lock on the front of the box is released the front drops down.  The paper tray is also hinged and can be lifted up to reveal several storage compartments, some with locked covers, that are lined with silk velvet.  Below this section are several drawers.  There is even a “hidden” drawer on the side of the box for storage of, they believe, quills.  The box is supported on four brass feet.

There are several other examples of portable writing desks at the V&A, such as the Duke of Urbino Writing Desk (c. 1600) (see attachment #2) and a writing box from Southwark, England dating from 1600-1625 (see attachment #3).  The writing desk of the Duke of Urbino is also constructed on walnut, with ivory inlay.  The Southwark desk is constructed of elm, with various other woods used for the inlay work.  In both cases, the writing desk has a hinged writing surface with storage compartments below.

Materials

Walnut was the wood of choice for many small boxes that were used for luxury purposes, such as jewelry boxes, small storage boxes, and writing desks.  There were several small boxes found on the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship.  In each case, the boxes were used for storage of small, valuable items.  Many of these walnut boxes were made on the Continent and imported to England (1).  The wood I am using is black walnut, which is consistent with what would have been used in period.

Finishes varied depending on the maker of the box.  The Henry VIII writing box is heavily illuminated and gilded.  Both of the other examples use extensive use of inlay for decoration.  I am not attempting to recreate such elaborate finishing.  The box I am creating might have been used by a lesser personage than a Duke or a King, or possibly a well-to-do merchant.  Thus I chose a simple, durable finish which also happens to show off the natural beauty of this particular wood.

The brass hinges and ball feet are consistent with what was used on the Henry VIII writing desk, if not so elaborate.

Construction

The construction of my desk is somewhat simpler that the original Henry VIII desk in that I did not include the lower level of drawers and hidden compartments, the flip down front piece, or key locks.  All other elements are present.

The box was constructed using pegs and glue, which was common for the period.  Dovetail and finger joints were also in use by this time (as evidenced by the Southwark desk and the Mary Rose boxes), but they do not appear to be used on either the Henry VIII desk or the Duke of Urbino desk.  As the Henry VIII desk was the main inspiration for this project. I chose the peg and glue construction.

The writing surface was constructed of two pieces of walnut that were “bookmatched” and glued together.  “Bookmatching” involved slicing a section of wood in half and opening the two halves like a book, thus creating a mirror pattern of graining on the surface created.  The bottom of the paper tray and the bottom of the main body of the desk were also constructed of boards glued together to create a continuous surface.

The majority of the cutting of the walnut was performed with a table saw and a radial arm saw.  The remainder of the work was done by hand.  This included the drilling of the holes for the pegging and gluing; hand chiseling the rabbet in the bottom of the sides of the paper tray for mounting its bottom surface; drilling for and mounting the hardware; and sanding and finishing the entire piece.

The most time consuming part of the project was the sanding and finishing.  Approximately 20 hours of hand sanding were required to achieve the desired smoothness.  Each section of the desk – the writing surface, the paper tray, and the main body of the desk - were each sanded and finished individually.  In retrospect, I should have sanded the bottoms of the paper tray and main body of the desk before gluing them to their respective sides.  It would have made for a much neater, tighter construction.

The rough, uneven areas were first brought close to even with 80 grit sandpaper.  The entire surface was then treated with 100 grit, 220 grit, and 400 grit sandpaper.  The sealant I chose to use is a hand-rubbed polyurethane.   Three coats of poly were applied, with 400 grit sandpaper used in between each coat to keep the surface smooth.  All told, it took over 40 hours to sand and finish the piece.  The final touch was placing black felt on the bottom of the three compartments in the main body of the desk.

I’ve learned a great deal about small box construction from this project, and I look forward to my next attempt at this style of desk.  This one will most likely be based on the Duke of Urbino desk, and will allow me to try my hand at more inlay work.

 

 Figure 1: Image of the Writing Desk from the Court of Henry VIII .

Figure 2:  Image of the Writing Desk of the Duke of Urbino. 

Figure 3:  Image of the Southwark Writing Desk.

 

 

Bibliography

 Before the Mast – Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose - Edited by Julie Gardiner, Published by The Mary Rose Trust, 2005.

 Collections pages of the Victoria and Albert Museum Website – www.vam.ac.uk,

 The Tudor pages of the Victoria and Albert Museum and National Archives Website

 

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