Al Sweet's Plantation Desk

A vernacular form that began with a standing tree.

LOCATION: Central Tennessee

    My real estate agent had a large black cherry tree in her back yard. The tree was over 100 years old and measured 42" through the center of the trunk with 10 feet clear to the first limbs. Two limbs measuring 2 feet in diameter extended up and out for 25 to 30 feet each.
    The owner was worried that the tree was dying and might fall on her house in a storm. She decided that she was either going to sell it or trade it for a piece of furniture. Being a greedy hobbyist, I was delighted to volunteer to make her whatever piece of furniture she would like in trade for the tree. She elected to trade for a "plantation desk."
    It was my job to have the tree cut down and sliced into lumber and build the project. The time frame was two years from the time the tree was felled until the desk was delivered.
    The tree only had a minor "disease" problem in one small area. The real problem was two strands of barbed wire embedded a foot deep on one side of the trunk. The barbed wire took about 5% of the yield away from the trunk.

     The idea of a plantation desk harks back to the days of the Pony Express. Some of the Pony Express stations had mail desks. These desks were nothing more than a table with a cabinet on top, with some cubby holes in it to hold supplies, to ready mail for outbound travel, and to sort mail for local recipients. I have no idea what those old desks looked like.
    My research into plantation desks involved finding several that were available for viewing and one local company that makes them for sale. What I built is similar to these designs.

    I air-dried the cherry for a year and then took it to a kiln for final drying. After that, I conditioned the boards in my shop for three months before dressing them to a final thickness of 3/4" (except for the table top, which dressed out at 7/8"). The back and lid of the cabinet and the dust panels under the drawers are made from 1/4" cherry veneer plywood. The legs are a combination of solid squares with some glued up pieces for the wider parts. My mistake was cutting my turning squares out of limb wood. Most of it warped too much to make up the entire square. The result was three-inch-square pieces that needed more wood added to produce the 4 1/2" dimensions needed.
Al Sweet's Plantation Desk

    I laid out the plans for the table and the cabinet using CADD, then I plotted full-size drawings for the table legs to provide a pattern for turning. I also figured other details for the mortise-and-tenon joints of the table, the half-blind dovetail joints for the drawers, the raised panel doors, etc.
    I assembled the table top with biscuits and took it to a cabinet shop for sanding. The sides and shelves of the cabinet are also joined with biscuits.
    The doors are standard stile-and-rail frames with raised panel inserts. I glued them up with "202GF-dark" high-solids PVA glue from Lee Valley Tools and hinged them with brass piano hinges. The locks in the table are full-mortise, skeleton-key type, and the knobs are cast brass with cast base medallions.

    The recipient did not want to receive a piece of cherry furniture in its natural salmon pink color. She wanted a very dark finish to match other pieces of commercial cherry furniture she already owns. So, I darkened the piece with Bichromate of Potash. I had to raise the grain with water first and sand it before applying the bichromate. I sanded it with garnet sandpaper. The final finish on the piece is six coats of Waterlox Original Sealer/Finish applied with a cloth.

...Al Sweet




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