Design for a Modern Secretary Desk

      The clean modern look creates a tricky problem: support for the desk when it's open. April 14, 2005

Id like some advice or experience on designing a secretary desk. We have been asked to build a unique desk by a client who we have done a lot cabinet work for already. This secretary desk is not very traditional. It is a modern looking piece that would be painted and would use all flat panel sides and drawer fronts. The design calls for two drawers for file storage, and then a larger fold out drawer on top to make the desktop. The unit is 44" wide (wider than most others I have seen), 50" high, and 16-18" Deep. The foldout desktop or top drawer front is 19" in height (unique in that it is also deeper than the cabinet portion as well). I have a few questions:

We are planning to use 4 hinges and flap stays on either side to hold the desktop up. Can the flapstays withstand this amount of weight? Due to the modern design, we cannot work in any pull out supports to assist with supporting the large desktop surface.

On the back of the fold down drawer, the customer wants 1/4" Corian laminated on as a desktop surface. By our calculations, this would be an additional 12 lbs. Again, is this too much weight for the flap stays to bear?

To help prevent the chance of the screws stripping from the fold down desk top, we were intending to use inserts rather than screw through the Corian and into the plywood substrate that the Corian will be laminated to. Should we still have much concern about the insets pulling out?

Lastly, we intend to screw the back of the desktop into blocking in the wall as the piece will likely be a bit top heavy. Has anyone done anything like this with success? Are there any designs we might be able to try to incorporate to lend support to the desktop when folded down?

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor A:
You have pinpointed the problem. It is the screws that you have to worry about. Threaded inserts sounds like a good approach. T-nuts from the other side, if possible to hide, will offer even more strength. You can also find decorative sleeve nuts like those on a handsaw that may fit the design. I would also add a thin nylon washer to reduce friction on a single bolt connection and use threadlock. You might want to add epoxy to the threaded inserts. I was dismayed when a customer of mine asked where he could get some new hinges. I had used extra heavy duty butler style, but they were not heavy enough to withstand a big guy sitting on the flap. Good thing mine was fastened to the wall too!

From contributor B:
There is an adjustable flap hinge available also. You might want to try it instead of the fixed flap hinge. In reality, the hinges will not take the weight or the constant use and more likely the chance of more weight applied from books or leaning on the flap or worst case someone wants to climb up on there. I have had such bad luck with this type of hinge that I wound up going to a Salice heavy duty adjustable door hinge that I mortise into the double surface. You can also consider the heavy piano hinge which will distribute the weight better but you will have a visible pin. I hate these jobs where you have to build something that has been tried and failed many times, as if this designer has the magic touch and it will work for them. If this piece was designed correctly, then under the flap would have some swing out stay from the face of the desk to supply proper and useful support. In my opinion, if you are going to design something then you should see it through the design problems too. My best suggestion, without actually seeing the piece, would be to have the panel sides slide out to provide support at each end of the flap.

From the original questioner:
I explained some of our concerns to the customer from a construction standpoint, and while the customer is fond of the design by their designer, they are open to suggestions and possible design changes should it help ensure a more stable and durable product. The difficulty is with the European design. There is no place to really have any kind of support arms or extensions to come from without significantly altering the design, I dont think. Thanks for any further thoughts or suggestions. I always enjoy a challenge; I just hate it when my instincts tell me there isn't really a solution.

From contributor C:
Could you have the drawer below the desk panel serve as the support? Many fall-front desks utilize a levered mechanism linking the pull-out slides to the desk panel to automate the function of this much-needed support.

From contributor D:
I would ask that the designer work out the details.

From the original questioner:
I thought about using the drawer below as you suggested Thomas, but the drawer is 14" deep, so it only leaves 16" below that for leg room if it's a full extension (I think that's what you would recommend, yes?) The other thing is the drawer would likely be filled with files and folders, so that could be quite heavy and unnecessary weight on the piece when in the open position. Thought of putting a smaller drawer below to store some smaller items and serve as a support, but that then increases the height of the desktop to accommodate for the drawer height. Its quite a puzzler. Unfortunately, the designer does not have the experience repairing these things over the years that we have, to see where the flaws lie in the design. If left to the designer entirely, we look bad if the desktop falls off, regardless of how nice the design looks.

From contributor C:
I don't know how many people sit belly-up to their work surface, I know I don't. Maybe we need a survey, or a review of the ergonomics proposal from OSHA. No, don't assume I meant full extension, but enough that much of the load is borne (or shared) by the drawer, reducing the load on the hinges and stays. Make a mock-up and sit at it, and have others sit at it. Discourage anyone but the cat from sitting on it. Have the designer sit at it with his knees shoved under the drawer or wherever they get jammed up to.

From the original questioner:
The top drawer would effectively become the secretary desk top. It will fold down 90 making a 19" deep extension to the already 16" plus deep case compartment. With the drawer folded down, it will make a typical 30" high desktop.

The kick is actually recessed in on the sides, and 1" in front. Original design was calling for some funky legs and feet; the client was talking about some kind of slightly recessed base instead. The overall height is 50"plus with a marble or granite top. That 1/16" you see is the dimension for the drawers, not kick. The drawer fronts are inset 1/16 from cabinet ends.

From contributor B:
It's getting better all the time. It just might work. The drawers at the bottom are still wide but once they are filled then they will work better. I always disliked 2" high kick because I always get my feet stuck up under there and I don't have big feet. You might want to consider the stop lock slide for that top drawer so it doesn't move around when open.

Just thinking off the top of my head but if the face of the middle drawer was to hinge up, it would give some support to the fold out lid above. With spring hinges you might have a chance and the drawer can still have an interior face for use and pull out.

From contributor E:
There's a couple of things I'd do:

One: Redesign the desk so that the work surface is supported when opened by dividing the top drawer face into 2 "wings" that can serve as desk supports. Hinge the wings on the sides and just flip them outwards. The drawer behind them can still pull out if needed and access is by flipping the work surface upwards. Hinges should be piano type for extra strength.

Two: The lower drawer face can have a simulated divider line in the center to match the upper one's actual 2-door face. This will require a change in hardware from a single pull to 2 pulls per drawer but that's a simple thing.

Three: Change the toekick into a standard size. Toekick sizes have been standardized because people's feet need certain amounts of room and your designer should know this. If he doesn't, then he isn't a designer; he's just a hack who can draw. You can incorporate the toekick into the bottom drawer to avoid losing drawer height by stepping the drawer front. Aesthetics are king. Without them, it's just a box with stuff in it.

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