Writing Desk in Claro Walnut
March 1, 2014
My wife Rori has wanted me to build her a small
writing desk for sometime now, preferably out of a darker wood like walnut.
We went to our lumber purveyor (WoodWorker Network) to look for some wood
that would catch her fancy and found some rough claro walnut that held real
promise. Peter had milled it from a massive log, coming from a downed,
ornamental yard tree somewhere in Oregon. He thought the tree had been
down for as long as 20 years before even having been milled, so this was a
very old tree. We settled on one large, expensive piece --about 16'
long, 5" thick and roughly 18" in width. It had been sealed at both
ends and exhibited little checking or knots. It was all the three of
us could do to load it into a pickup.
Time to make that all so critical first cross cut, looking carefully for
knots, checks, twists, and other defects that could haunt the choice of how
to select pieces from the slab. First I crosscut one end of the slab
at approximate leg length, ran it through the jointer to get one flat edge
and then started resawing on the bandsaw. Right off, I found one of the
drawbacks to working with boards that served as ornamental trees in
someone's yard for maybe 100 years -- old nails, long embedded in the log.
This one (of several) immediately dulled my band saw blade and caused it to
track improperly, resulting is some wasted cuts and having to refigure my cutlist.
After replacing the bandsaw blade (Wood
Slicer from Highland Woodworking), I was able to successfully
resaw the slab into some sizes that would work with my cutlist and minimize
any waste. The resawing process yielded pieces of spectacular color and
I had also purchased some 5/4 planks from Peter of claro walnut when buying
the slab, my thinking being that I would use these planks for the desk top,
freeing up the entire slab for the construction of the desk carcass. After
rough planing these additional planks, I found that the grain and color,
while beautiful in their own way, did not really match that in the slab. Now
I would need to build the entire piece from the slab, making the "project
fit the wood" instead of typically the other way around. Usually, I would
select and glue up the pieces for the top late in the project, but in this
case it was necessary to build the top first (as that requires the longest,
straightest pieces) and then build the case to fit it. Notice the old piece
of soapstone (from when I worked in a welding shop in high school) that I
use for marking -- the wood has so much color that
pencil marks are difficult to see.
The top is glued up and I begin the case by mortising the legs for the
aprons. All of the tenons are cut on the table saw with the dado combo.
Legs and side aprons are fitted together. The more I work with this
wood, the more I'm impressed by the color and figure.
The top stretcher is clamped across the front while using a spacer stick
to keep the legs at the same spacing as the rear apron. Next, I trace
the position of the legs and aprons onto the stretcher and then mark the
dovetails onto the ends of board and cut them out on the bandsaw.
Clamping the stretcher back on the legs and apron allows me to scribe the
dovetail layout on the pieces and then notch them out with a chisel.
The front stretcher is completed and fitted into the legs and aprons.
Next I cut the mortises into the stretcher where the divider tenons will
meet it. The dividers will be mortised into the back apron and then
connected to the front stretcher.
I rough out the divider ends by cutting tenons on a over-size board on
both ends and then cut the board in half, one for each divider. After
fitting each piece to the mortises, I rip them to the correct width and
biscuit them to the ends of the dividers.
After the glue sets, the end caps are crosscut to the same width as the dividers.
The front lower aprons are connected to the legs with mortise/tenons and dovetailed into the bottom of the dividers.
Front lower drawer aprons are double-tenoned into the legs and then
connected to the under side of the dividers with dovetails. Because
this desk has quite a span across the front, with nothing but the stretcher
for strength, the joinery needs to be stiff and strong, and additionally, I
will add some corbals for some additional support.
After cutting out the corbels on the bandsaw, I add slots for biscuts to the
two flat sides of the them, as well as the adjacent sides on the dividers
and upper stretcher that they will attach to.
Glue up will be done in a different order for the desk. Normally, I
would glue the sides first, and then add back apron and front stretcher.
In this case, to allow for the dividers glued into the rear apron, first the mortise and tenon joints are glued together
with the front stretcher and the dividers.
After tapering and planing the legs (not shown), the front of the desk,
including legs, stretcher, dividers and drawer aprons, are glued up as a
separate unit. The corbels are also glued in place.
Part of making do with my limited supply of claro walnut necessitated
repairing some checks around a knot in the back apron. While the check
did not detract structurally from the piece, I found it unsightly. It
was fixed by cutting a 3/16" groove over the check, milling a piece of
similarly grained scrap to the approximate width and then gluing it into
Next, the back legs and back stretcher will be glued up as a separate piece as well. This piece will then be glued to
the previously-glued front section and the finished assembly is complete.
Drawers are done with hard-maple sides and alder bottoms, through
dovetails in the back and half blinds in the front using my standard
bandsaw/hand cut technique. Knobs are some that I turned from African
This desk present some real challenges with applying finishes.
Originally, I had opted just for wipe-on tung oil finishes and wax, but
didn't feel this finish to do justice to the beautiful grain of the walnut.
Finally, I ended up with many coats of a polyurethane, sanding down to as fine
as 2000 paper to get the look I was after.