New desk for an old building, Part 3

Continuing the back story of the new reception desk at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center.

The Joinery

I used traditional joinery for most of the desk, although the construction was complicated somewhat by the need for the desk to be disassemblable.

An early scale drawing shows one end of the desk

There are five main panels, each made from plainsawn white oak. Rails and stiles are connected with mortise and tenon joinery. The panels float in grooves.

The two outside corners ended up being too narrow for frame-and-panel joinery; the panel would have been so narrow that it would have looked silly. Hence the slab construction, as it’s known.

Slab end and other parts mocked up during construction

The panels and these two outside corners are mitered and butt-joined, held together with screws so that they can be taken apart if necessary. Because the desk had to be disassemblable, the pilasters were affixed with screws, so that they could be removed. These pilasters are made from plainsawn white oak, mitered and joined with glue and brads:

Full-scale layout, seen from above. (Note how narrow the panel would have been. Hence the slab construction.)


Illustration showing mortise and tenon joinery, reproduced from Ernest Joyce, The Technique of Furniture Making (London: Batsford, 1970). The parts shown do not incorporate a groove to accept a panel, but would be applicable to the construction of a table.

The working parts of the desk, on the inside, include counters and casework with drawers. The receptionist’s side has a case with a file drawer and two smaller drawers, while the guard’s side has a file drawer, a general purpose drawer, and a pencil drawer mounted on the underside of the counter. The drawers, made of red maple from the Good-Woodling Woods, are dovetailed. Drawer bottoms of scrap plywood from other jobs are housed in grooves. File drawers are mounted on full-extension, heavy-duty file hardware; the other drawers operate on full-extension undermount slides. The drawer boxes, as they’re called, are fitted with oak faces to match the rest of the desk.

This illustration and the one showing "mortice" and tenon joinery are reproduced from Ernest Joyce, The Technique of Furniture Making (London: Batsford, 1970)

The counter miters are glued and fastened with “tite-joint” hardware. As I learned during the process, this hardware is designed for 3/4-inch thick material. The first miter I attempted to join according to the instructions would not lie flat, and a call to the technical department of Knape & Vogt confirmed my suspicion that the pressure across the joint was being exerted too close to the

underside. The technician, who said he had not heard from anyone trying to use the fasteners for 1-1/2-inch thick material, suggested drilling the holes deeper so that the bolt joining the two sections would pull at the center of the material, instead of closer to the underside. His recommendation worked.

Hand-planed miter

The grain in the brackets runs diagonally, to minimize the danger of breakage due to “short grain.”

Utilizing the natural strength of the tree (left) minimizes the likelihood of breakage due to what’s called “short grain” (right)
Frequently Asked Questions

Why didn’t you use quarter sawn oak for the whole thing? That would have been so much cooler.

Using quarter-sawn oak everywhere would certainly have been striking, if rather busy to some eyes. But for this desk, I wanted to focus on using locally grown lumber, and the quantities I found available worked out to allow for dramatic quarter-sawn panels framed by plain figure. This more restrained arrangement is also more appropriate in the context of the former City Hall lobby, the decoration of which is relatively modest—compared, for example, to the ostentation of fancy hotels and banks circa 1915.


Why is it dark red?

The wood trim around the lobby doors, like the newel posts at the base of the west staircase, is stained a dark mahogany color. According to a newspaper article published when the building opened as City Hall in 1915, the interior woodwork was stained to resemble mahogany. I provided a couple of stain samples, and the staff at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center chose this color.


Are those brush marks on the pilasters?

Good heavens, no! They’re the medullary rays, seen straight on.


Why do the brackets supporting the counter have their grain going diagonally?

The brackets, like the corner inserts at the bottom of the gates, have their grain oriented diagonally to minimize “short grain” and so avoid breakage. 


I understand there are worm holes in the drawers on Trina’s side of the desk. Does this mean there are worms living in the desk?

No. Any borers that may have been living in the logs would have been desiccated or killed by heat in the kiln, where the temperature rises to 145 degrees during the last few days.


THANKS TO: John Whikehart, Paul Daily, Trina Sterling, Eric Reynolds, Julie Anne Roberts, Doug Mattick, and Doug Giles of Ivy Tech; Will Murphy; Mark Longacre; Robert Woodling, Joe Davison, Kent MacPherson, and Darrin Kean, suppliers of lumber; Lee Huss, Miah Michaelson, and Julie Ramey at the City of Bloomington; Elizabeth Schlemmer, Lee Ehman, and Randi Richardson of the Monroe County History Center; Bob Miller and Cynthia Lea of Frank Miller Lumber.



2 responses to “New desk for an old building, Part 3

  1. Thanks Nancy for the well done article about a beautiful and enduring piece. You should be very proud.

  2. Nancy,
    You continue to amaze me with the detail, dedication and quality of your work. Not to mention your top notch instructional and writing skills.

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