I’ve built a lot of desks over the years, but this one is may
favorite. The uncomplicated design really helps the
book-matched curly-maple panels stand out.
All the panels were veneered in my shop except the top,
which was custom ordered. Compared to store bought plywood,
veneering can be time consuming and expensive but
the results make it well worth the effort. Veneering allows
me to choose the best materials and create the exact look
The large top would have been a challenge to veneer so I
had it custom made (see “Sources” below). The top is quartersawn
maple veneer because my client did not want figured
wood on the top. I ordered the top unsanded. That left the
veneer as thick as possible and reduced the chance of cutting
through when sanding the walnut edging flush.
I tweaked the desk design so it could be used as a computer
desk as well. For example, the pencil drawers are at the top
of the drawer stacks, not in the kneehole. This frees up space
for a keyboard tray if desired. Also, the second drawer in the
stack is sized specifically for CD’s. All you need to do for a fullfledged
computer desk is add a few wire grommets in the top.
The large drawer at the bottom is designed for hanging
files. I make my file hanging tracks from lengths of aluminum
angle. They look good, function well and don’t cost a lot. All
the drawer boxes are dovetailed solid birch. The drawer slides
are side mounted full extension with 1-in. of over-travel.
The cutting list gives finished dimensions. Many of the
parts need to be oversized to allow for trimming after assembly,
so plan accordingly.
Some of the maple edgings are attached to their cores
prior to veneering, and some after. The edging on the top of
the drawer case panels (D, E and N) and all of the drawer face edgings (L, M, P, Q and R) are under the veneer. The
drawer case front and rear edgings (F & EE) are attached
after the cores are veneered.
When you assemble the drawer faces you’ll notice they are
a bit oversize. This is intentional. I prefer to fine-tune the fit
of the drawer faces after the cases are assembled. I use my
edge sander to do the trimming but a well-tuned hand plane
works well, too.
The veneers on each drawer stack are made from one long
bookmatched sheet. This makes the grain continuous from
top to bottom. The good news is it makes the desk look great.
The bad news is if you goof one component you’ll need to
remake all four. But fear not, follow the step-by-step technique
and you’ll be fine.
If you’ve never veneered before, it helps to think of veneer
as super thin boards. Unlike a thick board, the grain pattern
barely changes from one slice to the next. That’s why veneer
is catalogued and sold in the sequence it came off the log.
Lay down consecutive veneers side-by-side and flip over ever
other one to create a bookmatched pattern. Each strip is the
mirror image of the one next to it. It follows that a bookmatched
panel always consists of an even number of veneers.
I use the caul and crossbeam method to press the veneer
to the MDF cores. Cauls are scrap 3/4” thick MDF or particleboard
used to evenly spread clamp pressure. Crossbeams are
roughly 2 x 4 sized boards with a curve on one edge. The
crossbeams apply sufficient pressure in the middle first to
push the glue to the outside edges of the core. This is critical.
Trapping excess glue in the center of a panel means doing it
all over. To determine the correct radius of the crossbeam
curve, start with the center of one edge 1/2-in. taller than the
ends. Test the radius by clamping two crossbeams together
curve to curve. You should be able to clamp the two boards
tight. If you can’t, reduce the curve.
I like to use Titebond’s Extend wood glue for veneering. I
thin it about 5% with water to make it flow out better. Plastic
resin glues or slow setting veneer glues are good alternatives
but a little trickier to work with.
It’s essential to build balanced panels when veneering. In
other words, when you veneer one side of a core, you need to
veneer the other side as well. If you don’t, you’re sure to get
a warped panel. It’s also important to apply both veneers at
the same time. You can use a less expensive veneer on the
backside of a panel where it doesn’t show.
Make the veneered panels
1. Cut the MDF cores (A-C and G-K) and edging strips (DE
2. Glue edging to the top of the case sides and case backs.
Trim the ends and sand flush.
3. Glue the edging on the drawer faces and case fronts.
Glue the drawer face edging on the bottom first, then the
sides and finally the tops. That way end grain is minimized.
4. Cut the lengths and widths of the veneer pieces (S
through AA) for the cores (Photo 1). Make them a bit oversize
to allow for trimming and joining. You want your glued
together sheets to end up about 1” wider and 1” longer than
5. Layout the veneer strips in a bookmatched pattern.
6. The veneers are joined into sheets by edge gluing them
together, much like you would regular lumber. First, joint the
edges of the veneers on the jointer (Photo 2). An alternate
method involves clamping the veneer to a straight edge
board and using a router with a flush trim bit.
7. Lay the veneer pieces face down, pull the bookmatched
edges together, and temporarily join them with masking tape
8. Flip the joined sheets over and apply gummed veneer
tape on the face side the joint (Photo 4).
9. Lay a piece of 3/4-in. MDF over the sheet so it dries flat.
10. Lay the sheet with the veneer tape down on a worktable.
Remove the blue masking tape.
11. Open the joints to apply glue (Photo 5). Lay the sheet
flat again to close the joints and place sticks aside the joints
to hold them down as the glue dries. When the glue is partially
cured, use a paint scraper and gently remove any excess
glue. Set the sticks on top again and let the glue completely
12. Gather everything you need to glue the veneer sheets
to their cores: Crossbeams, cauls, newspaper or craft paper,
veneer sheets, core, lots of clamps and glue.
13. Use a narrow paint roller to apply a moderate coat of
glue to one side of the core (Photo 6). Don’t over do it. You
should be able to see through the glue to the core. You can
gauge how much glue is enough when the clamps are set. If
a little glue oozes out at the edges, you hit the mark. Gobs of
glue means you need to cut back a bit. No squeeze out and
you’re in danger of starving the joint. Do not apply glue to
14. Lay the veneer sheet on the glue veneer tape side up.
You'll scrape and sand the veneer tape off later.
15. Flip the panel over and veneer the other side. Cover
the veneers with paper and place the panel between the
cauls. Add the crossbeams and clamps (Photo 7).
16. When you start clamping, you put crossbeams on top
and bottom in the center first and clamp their ends. Add the
other crossbeams to the right and left of center, and then
clamp around the outside edge. This will push any excess
glue out from the center to the edges.
17. Let the glue dry 24 hours before removing the clamps.
18. Flush trim the overhanging veneer edges (Photo 8). Scrap off any dried glue on the edges and flush trim again.
19. Attach the front edging strips (F) to the fronts of the
veneered case sides.
20. The procedure for gluing the drawer face and case
front veneer sheets to their cores is a bit different. I find it’s
best to glue all three drawer faces (G,H,J) and the case front
(K) at once on a single veneer sheet. Lay 3/8-in. x 3/8-in. x
16-in. spacer sticks between the faces to hold them parallel
with each other. Make sure the center joint on the sheets is
aligned with the center of each drawer face. That keeps the
drawer knob holes centered on the joint.
21. Pull the spacer sticks out immediately after clamping.
When the glue has dried overnight, draw lines across the
center of each gap in the drawer stack and separate on the
Assemble the drawer cases
22. Cut the case tops and bottoms (BB and CC), and the
edgings (DD, F, EE). Cut the rear corners (EE) equal to the
thickness of veneered case sides and backs. Glue the edgings
to the case parts.
23. Layout and cut the biscuit grooves and screw holes in
the drawer case components as shown in Fig. A. The screw
holes used to attach the front support (JJ) are set down 1-1/8-
in. to keep them clear of the case tops.
24. Assemble the case sides, case tops, and case bottoms.
Glue the assembled case fronts to the case tops. Then, attach
the case backs. Glue the rear corners to the back.
Make the bases
25. Cut the base parts (FF and GG) to match the assembled
26. Drill counterbore and clearance holes for the T-nuts
that hold the adjustable feet. Then, assemble the bases
27. Cut the modesty panel base (HH) the same thickness
as the modesty panel.
28. Rout 1/8-in. x 1/8-in. reveals (rabbets) on the tops of
the bases and the top of the modesty panel base, both front
Assemble the desk
29. Cut the supports for the desk front and modesty panel
(JJ and KK). Cut biscuit slots in the modesty panel. Glue the
support and base to the modesty panel.
30. Screw the bases to the drawer cases.
31. Dry clamp the front support and modesty panel
between the drawer cases. Make sure everything is
aligned and drill 7/32-in. diameter pilot holes for the
32. Rout the 1/8-in. x 1/8-in. reveals around the top
(Photo 9). There is no top reveal on the modesty panel, and
none on the top of the desk cases inside the knee opening. With the fence we used, you won’t be able to rout the top
reveals on the top of the case sides in front of the modesty
panel until the desk is disassembled. For now, mark the end
point of those reveals.
Make the top
33. Measure the width and length of the assembled desk.
Adjust the dimensions of the top components (LL, MM and
NN) so the top fits the desk. Assemble the top (Photo 10).
34. Screw the top in place and check the fit. Then, disassemble
the desk and complete the top reveals on the sides.
Make and mount the drawers
35. Cut the drawer parts (PP through YY). Note the dimensions
given are for a jig that cuts 5/16-in. deep sockets for
dovetails spaced 7/8-in. apart. Adjust the dimensions for your
jig. I leave the drawer bottoms 1-in. wide for now.
36. Rout the drawer dovetails and cut the drawer bottom
grooves in the drawer box fronts and sides.
37. Drill the 3/4-in. dia.. x 1/8-in. deep counterbore holes
and the 5/16-in. dia.. through holes in the drawer box fronts
for the screws that attach the drawer faces. These holes have
a little play so the drawer faces can be adjusted a bit.
38. Drill the knob holes in the drawer faces. Drill a 3/4-in.
dia.. hole in the letter and pencil drawer fronts for accessing
the knob screw.
39. Assemble the drawers (Photo 11). Use the drawer bottom
to square the drawer. When the glue dries, remove the
drawer bottom and trim to final width.
40. Bevel the bottom edges of the file drawer faces 10
degrees (Fig A. Det. 2, below).
41. Final fit the drawer faces (Photo 12).
42. Mount the drawer slides to the drawers and cases
43. Align and clamp the drawer face in position. Then,
slide the drawer out and screw on the drawer face (Photo
14). Not having the drawer bottom in place is a real benefit
44. Disassemble everything and finish sand. Be careful
sanding the veneer. It’s very thin and easy to sand through.
45. Apply your favorite finish. I had my desk professionally
finished with sprayed on catalyzed varnish. A brush-on
polyurethane is also good choice.
46. Slide the drawer bottoms in place and staple or screw
them to the drawer backs.
47. Fabricate and attach the file supports (ZZ) from
aluminum angle. Use #0000 steel wool to clean up the
48. Hammer the T-nuts into the bases and insert the levelers,
and then reassemble everything.
Fig. A: Exploded View
Click any image to view a larger version.
1. Cut the veneers to length and width using a veneer
saw and a straight edge guide. You can stack several
pieces of veneer together and cut them all at once.
2. Joint the veneer’s edges just like you would a board.
Clamp a shop-made auxiliary fence to the jointer to
support the veneer. Set the fence so the veneer is well
supported but slides through easily.
3. Apply painter’s masking tape to the back of
the book-matched veneer strips to create a wider
sheet. Make sure the pieces are tight and flat at the joint.
4. Flip the sheet over and apply veneer tape over the
joints on the face side. Veneer tape is water activated.
Dip precut lengths of tape into a bucket of warm
water. Apply the tape, then dab off the excess water
with a paper towel.
5. Flip the sheet over again and remove the blue tape.
Apply glue to the joints. Using a small tip on the
glue bottle makes this task easier. Lay the sheet flat
until the glue dries.
6. Apply slow-set wood glue to the panel core with a
paint roller. I thin the glue about 5% with water to
make it flow easier. Add a bit more glue around the
edges to make sure they are well secured.
7. Cauls and crossbeams on top and bottom distribute
the clamping pressure evenly across the veneer
panel. Make sure you have enough clamps on hand
before you start.
8. Remove the overhanging veneer edges with a laminate
trimmer and a flush trim bit. Back cut the corners
to avoid tear out.
9. Rout the 1/8” x 1/8” reveal around the top outside edges
of the assembled desk, but not the modesty panel. There’s
no reveal inside the kneehole. The small reveal creates a shadow
line that visually separates the desk components.
10. Glue the walnut edging to the top panel. The edging
is mitered so it’s best to apply one piece at a
time and fine-tune the fit as you go. Make sure the edging
stays perfectly flush with the top.
11. Glue and clamp the drawers together. Notched
clamp blocks push the side dovetails into the
dovetail sockets. The drawer bottom is temporarily slid
in place to square up the drawer.
12. Trim and fit the drawer faces in the drawer case
openings. Use 1/16-in. spacers to set the gap.
Temporary supports hold the drawer fronts in position.
13. Use spacers to position the drawer slides
in the cabinets. An 18-5/8-in. spacer sets
the pencil drawer slides, a 12-1/8” for the letter
drawer slides, and a 6-3/4” one for the file drawer
14. Screw the drawer faces to the drawers. Do
the file and pencil drawers first, then
remove the file drawer and do the letter drawer.
Use your 1/16” spacers again to align the drawer