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Our Guide to Buying an Antique Desk

This is our short guide to help you buy an antique desk or piece of antique office furniture. It is aimed at answering some of the most frequently asked questions asked by prospective buyers of antique writing furniture and covers key points such as basic options, practical matters, types of writing furniture, age, woods, care of antique furniture and how to buy from Antiquedesks.net.

If you require more information on any aspect of this subject please do not hesitate to Contact Us for further assistance and advice.

Antique Writing Furniture - the basic choices:

Flat Top Desks: these are the most popular type of desk being the most versatile, particularly when a large work space is required for paperwork and/or computer equipment.  Various sizes are available from the smallest 36" (91cm) width up to larger workspaces of 72" (183cm) or greater.  The depth of the desk is important - the narrower the desk the closer the working material is to the user - a deeper desk allows more storage but some of it may be out of arms reach

Desks with Superstructure:  very popular in Victorian times and earlier.  These desks - which take many forms, Dickens desks, bankers desks, roll top desks, Carlton House Desks etc - have a raised structure at the back of the desk with drawers, small cupboards or pigeon holes for stationery.  Many of these desks were designed to stand against a wall and have a relatively plain or even unfinished rear elevation.  Some desks have flat writing surfaces, some have raised writing slopes with storage underneath - those with the slope are becoming popular again since the slope provides an ideal "work station" for a laptop computer

Desks for more than one person:  larger desks that have significant depth can be used by two people - facing each other - see Partners' Desks below. They would likely stand in the middle of an office or study to allow access to all sides of the desk.  Obviously such desks also offer a very large work space for a single user

Desks to be seen from all angles:  as mentioned above some desks were always designed to stand against a wall.  The original cabinet makers therefore spent less time finishing the rear elevation of the desk, sometimes even leaving it with relatively unfinished timbers.  Other desks were however always designed to make an impression on anyone entering a room and facing the person sitting behind the desk.  In this instance the "rear" of the desks would be highly polished, panelled and often decorated or carved.  Partners' Desks also serve this purpose in offering an interesting and usable rear facade.

Desks versus Writing Tables and Library Tables:  Writing and Library Tables come in much the same sizes as Desks, however the key difference being that the tables usually only have a single line of frieze drawers under the work surface.  (Writing tables have drawers on one side of the table only - library tables have drawers to both sides - sometimes called Partners' tables).  Tables can provide an interesting alternative to a desk if only limited storage is required.  Aesthetically a table can make the room look larger since more of the floor can be seen as compared to the bulk of a desk that comes right down to the floor.  For buyers with attractive floor coverings (or bare wood) a writing or library table can be a very interesting alternative to a desk.  Some Clients also specify both Desk and Writing Table/Library Table for their office.  The table can be used as an extra work space (perhaps separating paperwork from computer work - or as a meeting table.  The style and wood of desk and table will need to be compatible and the leather work surfaces (where fitted) will also need to be matched.

Things to Consider when buying your Desk:

Use:  Consider paperwork versus computer work?  Storage needs - drawers versus cupboards?  How much work area is actually needed and will you be able to reach it?

Size:  Does it fit the room? Can you access the desk and other parts of the room?  Is it a comfortable height (small adjustments can be made - but only small changes)?  Kneehole height and width? Check the depth of the desk so that the work surface can actually be reached?

Practical Matters:  Access for installation - most desks are made in three pieces (two pedestals and a top) but a one piece desk or table may require need the access into the room itself to be checked (remember to check the stairs if it is going above the ground floor).  Most professional furniture movers such as those employed by Antiquedesks.net can manoeuvre large piece of furnitures but sometimes it just doesn't fit!

Other Furniture and Decorations: will the new desk or table match the other fitting and furniture in the room and its decorations?  Sometimes a beautiful antique desk or table can actually be the focal point of the room and other pieces and decorations will be bought to match

Chairs:  Desk Chairs fall into three categories.  Genuine antique chairs that match the desk or table (including a matching or contrasting leathers).  Secondly, replica chairs with modern mechanisms and thirdly, ultra modern ergonometric chairs with fully adjustable mechanisms.  Antiquedesks.net can advise further on suitable chairs for your desk or table and supply most types as required.

Desk and Table Combinations:  As mentioned above there are circumstances where more work space (or meeting space) is required.  In this instance a combination of desk and writing or library table could be appropriate (or boardroom type table).  Antiquedesks.net is able to source such combinations and matching chairs if required.

Matching Colours and Styles:  Since each Antique desk and table is by definition unique, it is often difficult to get exact matches to existing furniture.  However by sympathetically matching period, style, woods, colour and type of furniture it should certainly be possible to achieve a fully harmonious collection. Again, Antiquedesks.net can advise on this aspect of choosing your desk or table.

Antique Desks:  Specific Types of Antique Desks, Writing Desks and Writing Tables:

  • Partners': A desk originally designed for two people to use, with cupboards and / or drawers on both of the longer sides. The partners' desk usually comes in three sections, with two pedestals, each containing drawers or cupboards which support a flat top, which is normally inset with a leather writing surface. The top itself often has three drawers in the front frieze (the horizontal section beneath the desk top which links the pedestals together), and two drawers at the same width as the pedestals, which flank a larger central drawer. This arrangement is usually matched in the frieze at the rear of the partners' desk. These desks are often placed in a free-standing position in a room, as they look impressive from all angles, whether viewed from the front or the rear.

  • Semi-partners': Similar to the partners' desk description above, but with false drawers to the rear. Cupboards to the rear may be false or fully functional.

  • Pedestal: The pedestal desk also usually comes in three sections, with two pedestals, each containing drawers or cupboards which support a flat top, which is normally inset with a leather writing surface. The top itself often has three drawers in the frieze (the horizontal section beneath the desk top which links the pedestals together), and two drawers at the same width as the pedestals, which flank a larger central drawer. Pedestal desks are often purchased to be placed against a wall, or in an alcove or recess.

  • Knee-hole: A flat top desk often made all in one piece, the knee-hole section between the left and right hand arrangement of drawers being either open or enclosed, sometimes with a cupboard door.

  • Roll-top: Usually a four piece desk consisting of two pedestals containing drawers, a rear panel and a either a cylinder top or sliding tambour. The top opens to reveal a flat writing surface, stationery compartments and drawers.

  • Davenport: A compact form of desk or writing table which was developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Regency versions were box-like in appearance with a hinged lid above a case of drawers, but during the mid 19th century, versions with "piano tops" were made, with a recessed slide-out writing surface. These davenports often had hidden catches to release a rising compartment fitted with stationery drawers.

  • Writing table: These usually have one, two or even three drawers in the frieze and can have either solid wooden tops or inset leather writing surfaces. Edwardian pieces often have a superstructure to the top, containing additional drawers, stationery compartments, inkwells and so on.

  • Library Table: A similar concept to a Partners Desk and sometimes called a Partners Table since they have two or sometimes three drawers on each side of the table.  The table will usually have an inset leather writing surface.

Antique Desks: Woods

The vast majority of our stock is in mahogany, oak or walnut. There is a great deal of variation in the appearance of each desk, not only due to the type and cut of the wood used, but also in the patina built up on the piece over many years.

  • Mahogany: The earliest extensive use of mahogany dates from 1720, with the importation of 'Spanish' or 'Cuban' timber from Puerto Rico, San Domingo, Jamaica and Cuba. Baywood or 'Honduras' mahogany was used in later years and is lighter in colour and is generally less well figured.

  • Oak: The wood used from the 18th century onwards is lighter than that of earlier years, with distinctive tight grain and 'medullary' rays easing the process of identification. In the best of desks, oak was often used to line drawers.

  • Walnut: In the solid, walnut can easily be mistaken for mahogany. Walnut was much used in veneers until the mid-18th century. The most attractive types of veneers are burr, oyster or curl.

  • Other Woods:  desks and tables or often found made from more exotic and expensive woods.  satinwood, satin birch, various tropical hardwoods, teak etc .  The rarity of these woods is often reflected in the price of the desk or table.

Age:  The Antiquedesks.net Antique Furniture Period Guide can be used to help identify the age of  Antique Writing Furniture.

Care of Antique Furniture: The Antiquedesks.net Care of Antique Furniture Guide gives useful advice on how to care for your Antique Desk or Table once it arrives in your home or office.

Buying Via Antiquedesks.net:  more information how to buy your desk via us can be found on this website at Stock Notes and at Buying from Us.


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