A George III Mahogany Kneehole Desk – Part One

I spend quite a bit of time in my office, yet I find it one of the least appealing environments: There are a couple of nice pieces of case furniture, a few antique prints on the walls and part of my collection of eighteenth century porcelain is displayed here too, but for all that, the idyll is compromised by the (albeit necessary) electronic gadgetry and it is entirely let down by a cheap-and-nasty wood grained particleboard computer desk.

The glued-on edging began peeling off the desk from new and is currently secured with staples. This frightful behemoth is long overdue for replacement and offers one of a declining number of opportunities to wheel another piece of my furniture into the house.

The alternatives

Library tables

I like library tables for their airiness and uncluttered appearance, but I have accumulated so much stuff that I need all the storage I can muster.

Fig. 1. George II mahogany library table, c.1740. (Jamb Ltd.)

Even with five drawers, this attractive table doesn’t meet my requirements.

Fig. 2. George III mahogany library table, c.1765. (Christie’s)

Pedestal desks

Pedestal desks tend to be rather substantial although their three-part construction (two individual pedestals bridged by a securely located desk top) allows easy disassembly for transportation. A pedestal desk would suit me admirably; however, while I covet the expansive top and storage they afford – up to eighteen drawers – I simply can not shoehorn a pedestal desk into my present office.

Fig. 3. George III mahogany pedestal desk, c.1785. (Christie’s)

Kneehole desks

Technically, kneehole desks also incorporate pedestals, but their diminutive size means they can be constructed in one piece.

There are two basic styles of kneehole desks; those with a through space between the pedestals and those with a cupboard and/or drawers occupying the rear of the kneehole. Drawer configuration can vary greatly with single, twin or triple top drawers, apron drawer (figs. 4 and 5) and anywhere between two and four drawers per side.

Fig. 4. George III mahogany kneehole desk with apron drawer and kneehole drawers, c.1750. (Christie’s)

Fig. 5. George III mahogany kneehole desk with twin top drawers, kneehole cupboard and ogee bracket feet, c.1770 (Christie’s)

Fig. 6. George III Horseflesh Mahogany (Lysiloma sabicu) kneehole desk, with plain plinth base, c.1765. (Christie’s)

Fig. 7. George III mahogany kneehole desk, with inset leather and plain bracket feet, c.1770. (Christie’s)

Fig. 8. George III mahogany kneehole desk, with triple top drawers, c.1810. (Christie’s)

My desk

I shudder when I see the imprint of a ballpoint pen in polished wood, so I will opt for an inset leather writing surface which teaches one better writing habits.

Working at the computer occupies a good proportion of my time and I must move my legs and feet frequently, so a kneehole unencumbered by a cupboard or drawers is essential.

A single top drawer, at almost four feet long, will not only be an interminable mess within (unless internally sub-divided), but is also inconvenient, requiring the sitter to withdraw entirely from the desk no matter in which corner of the drawer access is sought. Three short drawers are capable of being kept relatively tidy, and will also permit ready access with the minium of displacement of the sitter. At the expense of an additional handle or two, there will be two or three top drawers in my desk.

Three top drawers (figs. 2, 3 and 8 – with the outer two the same width as the drawers below it) look quite neat and tidy. However, the concentration of carcase elements at the junction of the desk top and pedestals can considerably weaken that area of desks without some form of bracing structure within the kneehole, such as cupboards or drawers – hence the frequent appearance of brackets to add some needed strength (fig. 8).

A sounder arrangement would have any vertical top drawer dividers staggered so as not to coincide with the inner pedestal gables. I’m not keen on the layout in fig. 9 though.

Fig. 9. George III mahogany desk with triple top drawers, c.1780. (Christie’s)

I would dearly love to make something again with ogee bracket feet (figs. 5 and 9), but I recall a couple of months spent at an hotel in Bray in County Wicklow many years ago, in which was a kneehole desk with ogee feet. I still wince at the memory of catching my tali on the protruding feet. It will be plain bracket feet for this kneehole and I’ll reserve the ogee feet for a chest of drawers or some such at a later date!

I am of two minds whether or not to fit brass lifting handles (figs. 8, 10 and 11) to the desk sides. On the one hand, they can afford otherwise bland carcase sides a degree of interest, but on the other hand, being generally ornamental, they were never intended to be used for lifting furniture of this mass. This doesn’t appear to dissuade belligerent removers – no matter how many times they are forewarned of the consequences – from grabbing hold of them and either wrenching the bails from the pivots, or tearing the entire handles off the sides of the furniture.

Fig. 10. George III mahogany kneehole desk, c.1770.

Fig. 11. George III mahogany kneehole desk, c.1760.

Jack Plane


About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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7 Responses to A George III Mahogany Kneehole Desk – Part One

  1. yaakov says:

    Good post. I always look forward to your blog. How about some photo’s of your shop?


  2. Paul says:

    So which kneehole will you build or will you take the best from each example?


  3. John McPhail says:

    Excellent, I really enjoy your interesting projects, I always learn many new things.


  4. Sean says:

    Love your work Jack. I like the top drawer arrangment in 8 best but then of course you really do need the corner braces which are a bit of a pain in use – have you thought about making a kneehole sized pedestal desk? Definitely bracket feet and it would be a shame to leave out the brass lifting handles.


    • Jack Plane says:

      A kneehole sized pedestal desk wouldn’t really hold any advantages. Pedestal desks must be demountable in order to transport them and manage them through doorways. Kneeholes are similar in size to chests of drawers and are therefore relatively easily manoeuvred.

      My desk will have bracket feet – just not ogee bracket feet!

      Lifting handles are in the minority, though I do like them. I’ll have a look at what’s available and make a decision on them then.


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