Walnut Desk and Bookcase Part I: The Bookcase

Completed reproduction desk and bookcase.  The original desk was constructed in Williamsburg by Peter Scott in the late 1720s.

A little over a year ago, we completed work on this walnut desk and bookcase.  If you’ve been through the shop over the past few years, you may recognize this piece — it had been one of those on-again-mostly-off-again affairs.  Our estimated labor time of 450 hours is hopefully more in accord with eighteenth-century production rates than the four years we spent with this thing.

I constructed the bulk of the desk section and fitted its drawers along with then-journeyman cabinetmaker David Salisbury back in 2008.  Other projects and other people intervened, and this was then put on hold, but never forgotten.  In fact, I think there was one unexpected advantage to the drawn-out construction process.  When we first approached the original desk, the earliest piece our curators can attribute to Williamsburg maker Peter Scott, there were several structural features that seemed downright unusual. As time passed and my knowledge of Peter Scott’s work expanded, what were initially viewed as oddities came to seem almost mundane.  Peter Scott built this desk the way Peter Scott built desks and why would it be any other way?  As we look back at eighteenth century work, we tend to generalize how things were done, reducing myriad building techniques down to one or two textbook-worthy procedures.  In reality, while there were certainly commonplace approaches to construction, many shops were, in essence, academies producing and passing on their own solutions to aesthetic and structural problems.  This oral transmission of information accounts for much of the diversity we find in pre-industrial work and most certainly informs our understanding of regionalism in early American furniture studies.

Peter Scott was trained in a British shop in the 1710s and brought those traditions with him to Williamsburg in the 1720s.  His shop’s approach remained remarkably consistent for over fifty years (Scott died at age 81 in 1775).  This consistency, along with some documentary evidence, has enabled Ron Hurst to attribute several case pieces (all unsigned) to Scott.  Here’s a link to his article in the 2006 issue of American Furniture published by the Chipstone Foundation (the online edition does not include illustrations – you’ll need an actual book for that…but seriously every time you buy a book, you make a bookcase builder happy!)

Below are some views of the bookcase with text highlighting some of its noteworthy features.  In the coming days I’ll post a similar tour of the desk itself.  As for the original, it is owned by the College of William and Mary, but currently on display at the Dewitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.

A closer look at the bookcase.

On this early desk, Scott employs an applied half-round molding to conceal the seem where the doors meet.  Later, this was replaced with lapped stiles.   The raised panel arch is set into a straight top rail with applied pieces to echo the panel’s curve.  On subsequent bookcases with a Scott attribution the arch is “flattened” and the top rails are made from a single piece with a curved lower edge.

Cornice molding in process.

The cornice  features an elongated cove that is undercut at the top to create a stronger shadow line.  Because the molding is not sprung dramatically, there is ample surface for glue and nails along it’s back side.  Instead of filling the V-shaped void in back of the cornice with a secondary wood prior to assembly, I think Scott filled this space later.  See the photo below:

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Looking at an original Scott cornice from above.

Notice on the 1745-55 desk and bookcase above, that the molding itself is mitered at the corner, but the backers are butted.  This implies that they were dropped in from above later as opposed to being applied before assembly.  If the cornice and backing piece were glued-up first, this corner joint would have been unnecessarily difficult.

A view of the added pine cleat to receive the backboards.      

The bookcase’s back is made of several vertically arranged boards, butted together (not glued) and nailed in place.  Often back boards are shiplapped together, but Scott opted for a straight butt joint on several case backs.  This allows for seasonal movement, but does create gaps (often large) as the boards shrink.  As expected, the yellow pine top board is through-dovetailed in place, but surprisingly is under 1/2 inch thick.  Because of this thin top, a pine cleat was  glued inside (as shown above) to receive the back.

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The underside.

The bottom boards on Scott bookcases are dovetailed to the sides with two large tails and incredibly elongated pins.  By sliding the bottom up into place this way, Scott could create space for the candle slides.  I’ve described this process in detail in an earlier post.

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Detail of a shelf’s edge.

The double bead on the shelves carry a subtle refinement that’s easy to miss.  The upper bead is 1/16th of an inch smaller than the lower one.  Yes it’s subtle, but the graduated beads lead the eye upwards and visually lighten the edge.  After two years of exploring the original desk, I failed to notice this.  Fortunately, Mack Headley caught this detail and brought it to my attention.  One of the great advantages of working in the Hay shop is the number of experienced and helpful eyes that can be brought to bear in studying an object.

The shelves, it is worth noting, are single walnut boards not the more common secondary wood like pine fronted with walnut.  The solid walnut shelves are particular to this piece, not Scott’s work in general.

Iron pintle hinges.

Pintle hinges like this (essentially the same as knife hinges) were often used on English bookcase doors in the first half of the eighteenth century.  Other surviving doors attributed to Scott feature pintle hinges, though he did also employ brass butt hinges.  Either screws or nails were used to fix them in place.   These iron ones were replicated for us from the originals by Colonial Williamsburg’s blacksmiths.

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The hinges keep a low profile on the closed door.  Here you can also see the overall effect of the cornice, the applied piece on the door frame, and the beautiful walnut we had to work with.

Once again, in a few days I’ll share some thoughts and photos on the desk itself, but for now I’ve got chairs to build…

Bill Pavlak.

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4 Responses to Walnut Desk and Bookcase Part I: The Bookcase

  1. Dennis Heyza says:

    Beautiful work, Bill. Thanks for the great photos and details. Looking forward to your follow up posting(s). By the way, you can view at least some of the images, including that of the original piece, by clicking the ‘Fig.’ links in the article, though the book is certainly preferred.

    See you in January.

  2. Jerome Bias says:

    Thanks for a great blog post. I value the perspective and the details that you noted.

  3. Marsh Jim says:

    Thanks for the post. I always find it fascinating to hear someone perspective on a piece and look forward to your follow up post.

    Thanks again.

    jim

  4. Thanks Bill I love the way Scott set the bottom board on the bookcase. I will use this in the future instead of a straight rabett or a sliding dovetail. I’m wondering why I never considered this before .. its a good way to join the sides to the bottom when candle boards are in the plans.

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