Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Reviving a 19th Century Roll Top Lap Desk

Before Treatment

This is a 19th century lap desk made in China. It was made for traveling sea captains to pick up in their overseas travel. The primary wood is camphorwood. This piece came into the studio in pretty serious disrepair. The canvas on the back of the tambour (roll top) had deteriorated allowing the slats to become jammed in the track the tambour slides in. Because opening and closing the drawer is the way of opening it, this means the drawer was stuck too.

The first step was to disassemble the piece enough to get at the tambour. At this point, the old canvas was removed, the slats were numbered, and the backs were scraped clean. Some of the tabs (tenons that ride in the track) were broken off so new ones were grafted on. I used a router set to the thickness of the tabs to clear the broken material away and then glued on new tabs.

After the tabs were shaped, the slats were glued with hide glue onto new canvas. The final slats (the ones that show when it’s closed) were glued into a round profile using gallon paint cans underneath to recreate the original profile. The tambour was reinstalled into the track and attached back onto the drawer. Finally, the entire rising shelf was reassembled and dividers glued into place with hide glue. The wooden locks were repaired so that the unit would stay in place.

Here is a video how this thing works… (It’s a lot easier to show than describe in words.)

After Treatment


  1. Josh,

    What an amazing lap desk. Also great job on the restoration.



  2. Thanks, Freddy. It was a fun project. I learned a lot on this one.

  3. Never seen a writting box like this one. Excellent job as usual! Congratulations!

  4. That is really interesting! Thanks for sharing. I'm very impressed with your work, Joshua, and I enjoy your blog.

  5. It's easy enough to see how the undersized tabs on the tambour slats wore down over time whenever the drawer was closed. Was there also commensurate wear along the track?
    And I so wanted to see the wooden lock for the pigeonhole section and how you repaired it.

  6. Potomacker,

    The tabs didn't wear so much as they broke off because the deterioration of the canvas they were glued to allowed them to become sloppy in the track and eventually bind.. These were then broken off over time as they got stuck in the track.

    The wooden lock can be seen in photo #3. This bar is pressed into a recess in the pigeonhole section allowing it to slide down into the desk. When it comes up, it pops out onto a shelf mortised in the wall of the desk. (See the last photo and watch the video to see how I operate it.)

  7. Hello Joshua, excellent article, thank you. I have just inherited an exact equivalent of the desk that you restored. The roll top on mine is still in quite good condition but part of the brass edging has popped off its two retaining pins. Does yours have the "secret" area behind the flat, rear panel of the area under the writing slope? Mine has a tiny hole into which a piece of firm wire can be pushed thus releasing a spring latch. Behind the now freed panel are three draws with soft leather toggles. Doesn't the whole thing smell beautiful? Do you have any further information regarding their manufacture? You say they were made in China: do you know where, by whom, when, etc.? Finally, what kind of value would you estimate for it, I need to put it on my house insurance.
    Many thanks,

  8. David,

    I am not sure that it has this secret compartment. I didn't look for it when it was in the studio but I did have the thing apart and didn't notice anything like that. I don't really have any more specific information than that regarding it's origin. I would contact a certified appraiser for your insurance. I'm not an appraiser and don't really keep up on auction prices. Thanks for inquiring!