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What You Need to Know About Buying a Roll Top Desk

Updated on July 20, 2014

Few furniture pieces elicit the affection that we hold for roll top desks. Renowned for their beauty and function, a few hundred years ago owning a solid roll-top desk was a sign of success. This was a grand piece of furniture, usually with many cubbyholes, drawers of various sizes, and perhaps a secret compartment or two. The large workspace functioned as a table desk, and could hold all the papers and files that it's owner was working on, and the roll-top meant that the desk didn't have to be cleared off at the end of the day. It could simply be drawn down over the mess of papers and transform from a functional workspace to a beautiful piece of furniture.

Your options for buying a roll top desk today include buying a custom-made new desk, perhaps a computer or pc roll top desk, buying an antique roll top that needs restoration, or buying woodworking plans and building a roll top desk yourself. Whichever option you choose, care and cleaning of the desk will ensure that it looks good and functions well for years to come.

Roll Top Desk
Roll Top Desk | Source
Roll-top desks were massed produced in the late 1800s.
Roll-top desks were massed produced in the late 1800s. | Source

The Early History of the Roll Top Desk

The roll top desk made it's debut in the early 1800s in England. Introduced to Britain by the French, the roll-top desk utilized the idea of a rounded upper working area, based on the earlier cylinder desks.

Cylinder desks were beautiful but difficult to operate as one thin piece of wood had to be fitted perfectly and slide smoothly in its grooves. With time, use, and humidity the wood could become bent and warped and begin to stick.

The roll top desk married the idea of the cylinder with that of the tambour desk, an elegant writing desk whose workspace could be hidden by drawing the sides of the desk closed - much like drawing curtains or drapes closed.

The term tambour refers to thin slats of wood that are fixed to a flexible material such as leather or canvas. By using the general shape of the cylinder desk and replacing the cylinder with tambours, the roll-top desk was an effective furniture piece. According to, Abner Cutler was the first to patent the roll top in Buffalo, New York in 1850.

Computer RollTop Desks

Originally, roll top desks were designed as a tabletop sitting on two short towers of drawers, with a covered cabinet on top. This designed worked very well in offices where paperwork could be organized into the cubbyholes and drawers, and locked up at the end of the day.

Today these desks are enjoying a comeback as a traditional piece of furniture for a modern piece of technology - the computer. The difficulty with choosing a computer desk is that the style of computers has changed so quickly over the past two decades - huge monitors are now a thing of the past, and more and more people are using laptops exclusively and foregoing a desktop computer all together.

If you want to buy a computer desk with a roll top, you have two choices. Buy a brand new one that was designed specifically for this, or buy an old desk that can be adapted for your computer.

Neoclassical Roll-Top Desk
Neoclassical Roll-Top Desk | Source
1827 Roll Top Desk
1827 Roll Top Desk | Source

Buying a Custom-Made Desk

Choosing to have a rolll top desk custom built for your home should allow you to get exactly what you want. Whether you prefer a large desk for your office with a myriad of cubbyholes and drawers, or a smaller, more delicate version for your den at home, consider the following as you do your research:

  • Can you specify the dimensions you need?
  • What choices of wood and finishes do you have?
  • Is it made of solid hardwood or a combination of plywood and hardwood?
  • Can you choose your handles and knobs?
  • Can you have a lock put on it?
  • Can it be built as a computer roll-top desk?
  • Is it possible to have file drawers and smaller drawers on the lower unit?
  • Does it come with a warranty?

How Can I Build a Rolltop Desk?

Building a roll top desk is an ambitious project. The result will be a beautiful and function piece of furniture that can be passed down to children, grandchildren, and eventually become a precious family heirloom.

Plans for building a roll top desk are available online through various woodworking sites, alternatively try a good bookstore, library, or local college for books and/or advanced woodworking classes. While the construction of a roll top is fairly straightforward, the need for absolute accuracy in measuring (triple measure for this one) and cutting is paramount. The most difficult part by far is the construction of the tambour, or hardwood slats.

Roll top desks are generally made of solid hardwood, or a combination of lumber-core plywood and hardwood. Walnut, maple, oak, and cherry are all popular choices.

Supply List for Building a Roll Top Desk

If you have decided to build a roll top desk, your first step will be to get plans for it. There are numerous sites on the Internet that provide these, and Amazon is a great source of books and plans as well. If you haven't yet attempted a project of this difficulty, start with a smaller item that incorporates the tambour, such as a breadbox or jewellry box. If you haven't made drawers yet, try building a standard desk or small microwave stand with a single drawer. Your plans should include a supply list, but at the very least you will need the following:

  • carbide-tipped or planning blade
  • saber saw
  • radial arm saw
  • router with a straight bit and a cove bit (see your supply list)
  • drill
  • hammer, mallet, screwdriver
  • clamps - likely two web clamps
  • framing square and steel tape ruler (the angled thing)
  • orbital sander and sanding block with variety of sandpaper
  • hide or resin glue, adhesive sponge
  • choice of wood stain, varnish, paste wax.
  • candle stub
  • canvas or hide - dimensions as per your woodworking plans for the desk
  • veneer tape
  • plywood
  • drawer slides
  • wood screws
  • nails

Breadbox with tambour.
Breadbox with tambour. | Source
Tambour construction diagram.
Tambour construction diagram. | Source

Tips for Building a Roll Top Desk

  1. Finish and wax the slats for your tambour before gluing them to your backing (hide or canvas) EXCEPT for the bottom of the slats, which will be glued to the cloth that you use.
  2. This is a project that is best completed in small sections and then assembled. Complete the tambour and case, workspace unit, bottom drawer units, and cubbyhole units and then assembled. Use caution when attaching the pieces together - you don't want to mark the wood.
  3. When using a router to make the grooves the completed tambour will slide up and down in, widen the grooves a bit where the tambour case curves. This will make it easier for the slats to make the turn when the tambour slides up and down.

Repairing a Roll-Top Desk

Caring for Your Roll Top Desk

Clean and maintain your desk carefully to avoid costly restoration and repair work in the future. Stay away from harsh chemical cleaners and waxes, especially if you have an antique or vintage desk. Daily or weekly dusting with a flannel cloth, feather duster, or Swiffer duster will keep dust and grime from building up. Pay special attention to the horizontal spaces between the slats on the tambour, and also to the grooves on the sides of the upper part (where the tambour des). Buildup in the grooves will make it difficult to open and close the top. If you find that the tambour is sticking, try rubbing a wax candle along the grooves. An occasional polishing of your desk with an all-natural polish should bring a nice shine to your desk.

Sarita Harbour is a freelance writer whose work appears at sites such as Bob Vila and Yahoo! Homes.


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