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Campaign desk 1
copyright 2005

The Campaign Style Computer Desk

This style of furniture was developed during the civil war to be easily hauled by wagon and setup in the field. It has solid square lines and exposed steel hardware. General Grant was often photographed at his desk of this style and we are sure it is the style he would choose for his computer.

The design is heavy and solid but can be easily disassembled for transport. The special hardware is available mail order, for a price, but you can make your own and antique it at low cost. The design includes a keyboard tray, drawers, a secret compartment, and two book boxes.

This desk can be built in a moderate home workshop by an experienced worker. It features hardwood panels trimmed out with hand made hardware. The materials cost about $400.00.

Campaign desk 2
  1. Ordering the Sketches

    This design includes twelve detailed sketches that are critical to your successfully building this desk. Here is where to get all the ordering information.

    The plans for our major projects are brought to you on the Honor Plan. You may look at as many plans as you like, but when you start to build please pay for the plans you use. These small payments are critical to keeping this Web Site open.

  2. Desk Construction

    You can make this desk by:

    1. Downloading this text.
    2. Ordering the Sketches.
    3. Studying the information and locating materials.
    4. Purchasing materials.
    5. Making or mail ordering the special hardware
    6. Cutting wooden pieces.
    7. Assembling the components.
    8. Assembling the desk.
    9. Finishing all pieces
    10. Installing the computer.
  3. Discussion of Sketches

    The Campaign Desk is a thick desk top with drawers, two book boxes, and a sawhorse. Sketches #1 and #2 show the complete unit in three views.

    1. Campaign Computer Desk

      The front view shows the arrangement of the desk top, sawhorse leg, and front book box. The top simply rests on the sawhorse and book boxes. The keyboard and tray are on a low tray that slides into the top.

      The right drawer is big enough for office supplies. The left drawer is narrow but very long and is suitable for rulers and rolled drawings.

      The computer can be placed inside the sawhorse but this location does restrict access to the disk drives.

      A small grove runs all the way around the top. On the ends this serves to allow expansion of the top. In the front and back the groves are just decoration.

      The monitor is shown on a matching bridge. This unit can be made in any size to fit your equipment. Its construction is an excellent practice run on the construction of the main desk.

    2. Campaign Computer Desk, Sketch #2, Side Views

      This sketch shows each end of the desk. The right end rests on a sawhorse. The left end rests on two book boxes. These boxes were used to carry books while traveling and have optional lids. The keyboard is shown with the tray pulled out.

    3. Campaign Computer Desk, Sketch #3, Top Views

      This sketch shows the top view and the front view with the top surface not yet installed. The fine dashed lines represent the edges of pieces that are hidden behind solid parts. Note the cutouts for computer cables. Note that the metal hardware on the left end is not shown as this end must be removed to install the top. The bottom has an area cut out for the keyboard tray.

      The four boards running front-to-back are important strength members. These boards running side-to-side are simply fill. The middle ones are left loose so that they can be removed to get access to the back compartments.

      The computer cables can be routed out of sight through the cable area behind the drawers and keyboard tray . Oval shaped holes are shown for the cables. These must be big enough for your cable connectors and placed where you need them. The edges of the holes should be roughly rounded with a rasp so that they look like holes gnawed by mice.

      The center board also has cable holes, again gnawed. These should be sized and located for your keyboard and mouse cables. The notches in the left center board are really finger holes to allow you to lift the board slight so that it can be removed to expose the secret compartment.

    4. Campaign Computer Desk, Sketch #4, Top Surface

      This sketch shows the desk top and the bottom of the top section. The top can be either edge glued hardwood or a piece of 3/4-inch hardwood plywood with hardwood trim. It should be made of your best wood.

      It has small tongues on the end for the end boards and channels for the center boards. All the channels are .25 inches deep. The bottom has a cutout for the keyboard, matching channels, and cable holes.

      The bottom panel can be made of straight but blemished hardwood (secondary wood). It may have a few knots, small nail holes, dents, and discolorations. Some boards can be joined at the cross boards but all must be straight.

      The front-to-back channels are .25 deep but the side-to-side channel is only .125 inches deep. This is important so that the center boards can be removed.

    5. Campaign Computer Desk, Sketch #5, Top Pieces

      This sketch shows the internal boards within the top section. Note the various cutaways for cables. The center loose boards may be secondary wood. The notches on the ends of the center board are for the keyboard Guides. The center notches are for cables. The notches in the right center board are just deep enough to put your fingers in and do not go all the way through.

      The end boards have tow ornamental 'V' grooves along their outsides. Inside they have tow small square groves to receive the top tung. They have small tongues on the end to fit into groves in small end piece blocks.

      The end piece blocks keep the end grain on the sides from showing. They all have channels but the ones on the outside do not come all the way to the top. This makes a nice decorative detail and compliments the groves. It does not mater if the tung- and-groves show on the bottom and the ones for the interior are hidden.

      Guides for the keyboard tray must be made of clear, straight grained hardwood. This wood does not heed to match the top.

    6. Campaign Computer Desk, Sketch #6, sawhorse

      This sketch shows the simple sawhorse leg. One half a sawhorse is shown laid flat. It is shown with tenon joints but you could use two dowel pins or even two biscuits. Mortise and tenons are the most authentic and should be secured with glue and a small brad. All the pieces are 2.25 inches wide.

      The top of the sawhorse and the legs must have a 15-degree bevel. The top can easily be planed. The hinges must be installed so that the hinge pin does not stick up above the top of the sawhorse. This means the two halves will not open much beyond about 90 degrees but that's OK as long as you can get the fasteners in.

      The metal folding bracket is easiest to obtain made from steel with a brass finish and a hinged end piece. You can file off the end piece rivet and antique the bracket (see instruction below).

    7. Campaign Computer Desk, Sketch #seven, Book Box

      This sketch shows the details of a book box. Two serve as the legs at one end of the desk. The joints are shown as course dovetails secured with nails. It is all right if these are loose enough to let the boxes adapt to uneven surfaces. The shipping tops are optional.

      The sides of the boxes should be made of your primary wood but all the other parts do not need to be as nice. The sides extend past the ends to form feed at both ends.

    8. Campaign Computer Desk, Sketch #8, Keyboard Tray

      The keyboard try slides in and out like a drawer. The side runners must be made of clear, straight grained, hardwood but they do not have to match the top. The tray should be made of your primary wood but can be planed thinner than the top. You can use plywood for the tray and trim in with hardwood.

      The side rails are shown riveted to the tray but they may be screwed. The molding at the front and back of the tray keep the keyboard from sliding off.

    9. Campaign Computer Desk, Sketch #9, Right Drawer

      The right drawer is shown with hand cut dovetail and hand made hardware. You could use a power jig to cut the dovetails or use a simpler joint but the hand cut dovetails make a nice woodworking exercise, are the most authentic, and do not have to be perfect.

      The sides and back can be made from .5 inch stock and do not have to be the same wood as the top. The front view shows handmade hardware riveted on. It also has some wood carved out for a finger hold. This can be done with a router or hand gouges.

    10. Campaign Computer Desk, Sketch #10, Left Drawer

      The left drawer is very like the right except that it is very long. Leave a little room behind it for cables.

    11. Campaign Computer Desk, Sketch #11, Hand-Built Hardware

      Sketch #11 shows the handmade hardware. You can purchase campaign hardware by mail order but it is more expensive. The hand build procedure, with antiquing, is described in the construction notes below.

    12. Campaign Computer Desk, Sketch #12, Monitor Bridge

      This sketch shows a matching monitor bridge. This device is optional and is only need if you need your monitor above the desk.

    Rockler order link to first page
  4. Materials

    The Campaign Desk is made of American hardwood boards. The cost estimate below is for red oak with handmade hardware.

    This is only an estimate (made in the summer of 1997). The price may vary in your area. Getting a good price on the hardwood is critical to keeping the price down.

  5. Tools

    This desk was designed so that it could be build by an amateur woodworker with a reasonable home shop. It requires the use of a radial-arm or table saw and common hand tools.

    Rockler order link to first page
  6. Fabrication Notes

    This is not intended to be a detailed step-by-step construction guide but rather a number of points to consider. It is your desk and you can build it to suit your likes.

    1. Options

      Look over the desk drawing as decide what you are going to do:

      1. Handmade or Store Bought hardware -- You can order Campaign hardware from a catalog but you may have to search for a supplier. Manufactured hardware looks great but it is expensive and does not look like something that survived the Civil War. The handmade hardware looks very rustic and is cheap. It is not difficult to make but is it does take some time to do and you will need to antique the finished pieces (a procedure for this is given below). Choose whatever procedure suits you best.
      2. Two sawhorses -- You can make two sawhorses instead of the book boxes.
      3. Lids for the Boxes -- Box lids are needed only if you really are going to haul this desk around.
      4. Matching Monitor Bridge -- A bridge is needed if you need the monitor higher and want the computer in the tower position.
    2. Make Handmade Hardware

      You can follow these steps to make handmade campaign hardware.

    3. Materials
      1. Handmade campaign hardware is cut from sheet steel. It can be scrap material such as the top of a 55-gallon oil drum or part of an old car finder. You can also buy flat metal nailing plates from the local hardware store. These are cheap, predrilled, and readily available.

      2. Cut It Out

        The material should be thick enough that it is just possible to cut with hand tin shears. You can cut it with a very fine toothed hacksaw, a cutting torch, or very heavy shears. The inside corners are the hardest to get right. If the material is too thin, the finished hardware will catch on people's clothing, tear the clothing, and bend.

        Sketch #11 gives the dimensions of the four different pieces. Hand work does not have to be perfect but it does have to look good. Get plenty of material and be ready to make a few practice pieces. Be bold enough to throw away any that do not look good. Draw the patterns on the metal with a hand scribe and square. Punch and drill the holes on the rough cut pieces. Hold the work with a metal vice and vice-grip pliers. Remove all sharp edges and round all corners. The hardware for the monitor bridge looks best if it is slightly smaller the desk hardware.

        The drawer pulls are cut from the same flat steel stock and they have a flap in the middle that you bent in. You will need to drill two larger holes to start the center cut and then saw and file away. It takes a fair amount of work with files to get the finger holes to have a nice shape. Be ready to throw your first effort away.

        If you are using predrilled nailing plates, you will need to lay out the patterns to fit the existing hole pattern and you will need to drill only a few new ones. These plates can just be cut with hand tin snips.

      3. Nails

        The campaign hardware served a real purpose. The wood glue in 1860 was not very good. This furniture had to be carried by wagon repeatedly. The metal clad joints could move just a little under stress. The metal let this happen while preventing the joints from coming completely apart and the top from cracking. Modern store-bought versions of this hardware are just tacked on and do not add to the strength of the piece (boo, hiss).

        This handmade hardware really works, and to work it must be firmly attached to the wood. We do this with a large number of #6 common nails. Screws were rare and very expensive in 1860 and were seldom used on this type of furniture.


        You cannot simply nail hardwood. You can however easily predrill holes in the wood and drive the nails home. To do this, cut the head off one of the nails you will be using, leaving it as long as possible. Chuck the nail in a variable speed drill and use it for a bit. Make a good sized starter hole with an awl to start your nail bit and run it in and out several times. These bits bend easily, so make several at a time. This procedure makes a hole that is a tight fit on the real nail and is a little bit shorter.

        You want the hole as deep as possible, but you do not want to make swirl marks with the end of the drill. You can prevent these marks by placing small pieces of heavy cardboard or plastic from a yogurt container lid on the nail bit.

        The nails near the ends of the boards or in the corners will crack the wood if the hole is not the complete length of the nail. The easiest thing to do is simply cut .5 inches off these nails. If you look very closely, you will see this in the drawings.

        Modern nails look very uniform. They will look much more authentic if you place each nail in a metal worker's vice with the head just above the jaws and hit the nail head three times with a ball peen hammer. You should also dull the point on the nail by hitting it. This reduces splitting of the wood.

      4. Rivets

        Nails will not hold in thin wood like the drawer fronts. Screws were expensive. A common answer was to use rivets. The plans show the use of rivets to hold on the drawer pulls and to attach the runners to the keyboard tray. These rivets are easy to make.

        The flat washers with 1/8 inch holes used for pop rivets fit a #6 common nail very well. To make a rivet, drill a hole as we did for the nails. Press the nail through, put on a washer, and mark the nail shaft with a file. The length of the nail left sticking though should be about the same as the nail's diameter. Remove the nail and cut it off flat on the mark. A hacksaw does a better job than cutters. File the cut end flat and clean of all saw marks. Reinsert the rivet, but on the washer, and expand the end with a few blows of a ball-peen hammer. Back up the rivet head with a second hammer head.

      5. Antiquing

        Steel hardware can be given an attractive rustic appearance by simple heat treating. This needs to be done with all the plates, the drawer pulls, the sawhorse hinges, the sawhorse braces, all the common nails, and the rivet washers. You can pass on the finishing nails.

        You need a normal wood or charcoal fire. This work can be done in a fire place, in a barbecue, or in a camp fire. You also need an old tin can or two (not aluminum).

        Build a nice bed of coals. Place the hardware in the tin can and dig them into the coals. You will want the hardware to get to a nice red heat and to stay red for at least 10 minutes with air getting to it. You can stir the parts a little with a scrap metal rod to make the effect more even.

        If the hardware is plated (zinc, cadmium, or brass color) it will take several more minutes longer to burn this off. Do not cook food on the fire while this is going on, and don't breathe the smoke unnecessarily.

        Remove the cans from the fire and let the hard ware cool slowly. Do not quench it. The hardware will be covered with scale. Remove this with a small wire brush or course steel wool. Wax the finished pieces with paste furniture wax to prevent further rusting. Black wax works particularly well.

    4. Make the Monitor Bridge

      Making the monitor bridge is good practice before taking on the desk top. Determine the dimensions you need from the size of your monitor's base and the height you want for the monitor. If you have your computer flat on the desk top, you will not need a bridge at all. The exercise Air Typing on our Web Site can help you determine the monitor height you need.

      Note that the bottom of the bridge is kept 1/8 inch above the desk top by the extended sides. This keeps the two flat surfaces from grinding together. You can add tack on feet if you like. The book boxes have similar feet top and bottom.

      The small tongues on the ends of the top and bottom can be made with a table saw, radial arm saw, router, or speciality plains. The panel will be edge-glued boards and it is difficult to get this tung even, unless you do the glue-up very well.

      For an authentic construction, use hide glue. This classic material is still widely available but is not nearly as strong or easy to use as modern glues. With Campaign furniture, it is best if the glue cracks before the wood panels. The metal plates will hold the piece together.

      The sides and the top edges are both slightly beveled. This will produce a nice groove when assembled. This is an important anti-cracking feature for the top but here it is just for looks.

      The sides have matching groves for the tongues. These can be made by hand with a parting tool or a speciality plane. Then can also be made with a radial arm saw, table saw, or router. Practice first on scrap.

      Assemble the bridge with glue and a few finishing nails. You will have to drill for these nails too. Trial fit the Campaign hardware but do not drive the nails home. These nails must be predrilled and the corner ones cut short. Remove the hardware and mark the backs so you can put the exact same pieces back in the same place. Handmade pieces may vary a little so you need to put each back in the place it was drilled for.

      Sand and finish the bridge then reinstall the hardware. When you are happy with the result, you can start of the main desk.

    5. Make the sawhorse

      The joints for the sawhorse are shown as short mortise-and-tenon joints. You could also use two dowels or even two biscuits. You can use two sawhorses for legs instead of the book boxes if you like.

      The 15-degree angle may be a bit wide to your liking. You can move the folding hardware up or down to make the sawhorse look the way you want. The wooden cross brace should be high enough off the floor to allow a vacuum cleaner to get under it.
    6. Make the Book Boxes

      The book boxes are shown with course, hand-cut, coveralls. These do not need to fit tightly and they do make the box look much more authentic. This construction makes a very nice, and forgiving, exercise in making dovetails.

      You can eliminate the book boxes all together and use two sawhorses for legs. Or you can make three boxes and use one on top of the desk for a book shelf. The box tops are only used for transport and are completely optional. They fit in a grove at the top of the box and rest on the shelf. Only two of the four box ends need to have this channel.

      Note that the ends of the box are extended 1/8 inch to form feet. This keeps the box lid from grinding into the floor and the bottom of the desk. You could tack on metal feet afterwards instead but the wood extensions are a nice touch.

      Use little or no glue in assembling the boxes. They are suppose to twist very slightly to adjust to uneven floors. The dovetails are locked with a few predrilled finishing nails. The campaign hardware adds a lot of strength and is only used on the open front.

    7. Make the Desk Top

      This is the biggest part of the job.

      1. Glue up the Top

        Cut the boards for the top a little long. Lay the board out carefully selecting the best surfaces for the top. The best edge joint is tung-and-grove but this uses up a lot of good wood. You may use biscuits or even simply edge glue the wood with modern glue.

        You can glue up the bottom section in three pieces and later glue them together and cut out the keyboard cutout.

      2. Groves

        Most of the groves are .25 inches deep. The side-to-side one in the bottom is only .125 inches deep. This is to help make the center boards removable.

      3. End tongues

        The top panels fit into the end pieces with shallow tung-and-groves. These are rather small, only .25 inches square. This is to leave as much wood as possible on the top of the end boards.

      4. End Boards

        The end boards have two inside groves, two external 'V' groves for ornament, and two end blocks. The inside groves match the tongues on the top and bottom panels.

        The ornamental 'V' grove can be cut by hand with a parting tool, with a router with a V bit just exposed, or with a table saw. On the table saw a small blade like a dado blade can be tipped at 45 degrees and just exposed.

        The end blocks are just to hide the end grain. Their inside grove should not break out the top but it may show on the bottom. You can install these with biscuits rather than tung-and-grove. The edges of these blocks could be beveled to form the ornamental 'V' grove. Install the blocks with predrill finishing nails and glue.

      5. Front-to-back Boards

        The two front-to-back boards have end blocks to match the end boards. One board needs a cable hole that looks a little like a mouse hole. Install four small blocks on each board to back the center and back boards.

      6. Make the Keyboard Tray

        Sketch #8 shows the keyboard tray. Leave about 1/16 inch space at the sides and 3/4 inch space at the back of the tray. The space at the back prevents the cables from being pinched.

        The front edge should be well beveled and form a 'V' grove with the front edge molding. The tray area should be finished just like the desk top.

        The side runners must be clear, straight grained hardwood but they do not have to match the top. They should be made long and cut off so that the tray front stops even with the desk front. You can first screw the tray together without glue and be sure of the fit. Then go back and replace the screws with rivets.

      7. Install the Keyboard tray Guides

        Drill and tack nail (no glue) the two keyboard tray guides to the front-to-back boards. Fit them to the keyboard tray runners but leave enough space so that they will not later bind. The thickness of a piece of manilla folder is about right. Leave too much space and the tray rattles up and down. Leave too little and it binds. The guides are not glued to allow later adjustment if necessary.

        After finishing, lubricate any areas where wood slides on wood by rubbing them with paraffin wax. An old candle works well.

      8. Right Drawer Stop

        Install a small block to stop the right drawer at the length you have chosen for this drawer.

      9. Assembly

        The top panels will expand and contract different amounts from the end boards because of the difference in grain directions. This can often result in a cracked desk top. To prevent this happening, we must allow the top to move slightly with respect to the end boards. The movement is slight but the forces are quite large. The following assembly steps will accommodate this slight movement:

        1. Use the small tongue and grove shown.
        2. Have an oriental V grove so that the crack is hidden at its bottom.
        3. Glue and nail only the center 12 inches of the panel and edge boards.
        4. Use the Campaign hardware with predrilled nails (center one shortened).

        This is a lot of work to let the top move 1/16 of an inch but it can make the difference between building a five-year piece of furniture and a 75-year piece of furniture.

      10. Back Boards

        The back boards are not fitted and secured with glue and predrilled finishing nails. The nail them to the small blocks.

      11. Loose Boards

        The two loose boards need to be fitted so that they can be moved into place tipped, their tops pushed into the top groves, swung upright, and dropped into the bottom grove. You may need to plane them a little to fit.

    8. Make the Drawers

      You can make the drawers any way you want to make them. The sketches show them with the sides dovetailed into the front. Doing this by hand makes a very nice exercise in craftsmanship. Again, They do not have to be perfect but they do have to look good. Be ready to throw away a first attempt at the drawer front.

      The sides, back, and bottom can be any wood you like and to not have to match the desk top. They should be made from thinner stock, about .5 inches.

    9. Fit the Hardware

      Fit the hardware and drill all the holes for the fasteners. Lightly install the fasteners but do not drive them home. Check the result for square and centering.

      Remove the hardware for finishing. Mark all handmade hardware on the back so that they can be put back in exactly the same place. The holes on handmade hardware are not as uniform as the factory stuff.

    Rockler order link to first page
  7. Finish

    You may finish your desk any way you like. We recommend: oil stain, a spit coat of shellac, and two coats of spar varnish.

    1. Staining

      First practice on a piece of scrap wood (both primary and secondary). Do not start on the panels until you are satisfied. Do not hesitate to write off an $8 can of stain and go purchase another of a different color.

      You can choose to stain or not stain the inside of the desk. The keyboard tray should be finished exactly like the desk top.

    2. Spit Coat

      A spit coat made of one part 3-pound shellac to five parts shellac thinner makes a good wood sealer. A spit coat can also be used between applications of stain to limit penetration and as a general sealer after staining.

    3. Exterior Finish

      We choose either a spar varnish or several coats of a modern tung oil finish. The spar varnish (originally developed for the spars of sailing boats) gives the wood a rich dipped-in-honey look. The tung oil finish gives a tough hand rubbed finish.

      The spar varnish must be applied with a good brush and well brushed out. Watch for loose brush hairs. Follow instructions on the can for drying time and sand light between coats. At least two coats are needed.

      I like the modern tung oil finish:

      ----- Formby's Tung Oil Finish

      These are applied with a cloth pad rather than a brush. This desk will take at least two 16 oz. bottles. Follow the instructions on the bottle carefully and apply a liberal number of applications. It is easy to apply but you have to put on at least four coats. The toughest finish is needed on the keyboard shelf directly in front of the user so you might need an extra coat or two there

  8. Completion

    All that is left is to reinstall the hardware, stack up the pieces, and install the electrical cables.

    1. Reassembly

      Reinstall the hardware and tap the nails home. Be sure to put the short nails in the corners. A small amount of glue on the nails will help. Also, install the rivets.

      Check the fit of the drawers and keyboard tray. Plane or sand the runners if necessary. Lubricate the drawers slides by rubbing them with paraffin wax. An old candle works well.

      When the finish is completely dry, paste wax the finished surfaces and the hardware.

    2. Cabling

      Detailed cabling instructions and plans for a remote power switch are given in our Web page under Freebies. Make up several cable tie mounts and be ready with mounting screws and tie wraps. The remote power switch is optional.

      Determine which leg will be closest to the wall outlet. Place the remote switch box or surge suppressor either on the sawhorse or inside the desktop. Route the switch cable up to the monitor shelf.

      You can install a number of cable tie mounts on the inside and bottom of the desk where cables will run. Dress the cables neatly base and table legs using tie wraps. Do not pull the tie wraps too tightly, the cable should be able to slide back-and-forth a little. Trim off all the tie wrap ends. Black tie wraps look best and last longest.

    Rockler order link to first page
  9. Conclusion

    Thanks again for using a Woodware Computer furniture plans. We very much want to know how you are getting along with your project and would be happy to answer any questions by email.

    If you send us a picture of your finished desk, we would be happy to put it on our web page. We need pictures of desk with real people standing beside them.

Don't forget to order the sketches.

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