Thomas Jefferson Bookstand
Many years ago, as a kid, I visited Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's estate near Charlottesville, VA. I was amazed at his creativity and his gadgetry. In the study, there was an awkward machine for creating duplicates of his writings called a polygraph. What impressed me more was a somewhat simpler looking device for perusing up to 5 books or sheets of music at a time. I believe that the stand was placed in the parlor in the 1980's but was later moved to his study. The five sided rotating bookstand, now referred to as the Thomas Jefferson bookstand, could only make me wonder how curious and studious a man Jefferson must have been. I can envision him furiously spinning this thing to cross-reference Palladio, Voltaire, or whatever sundry topic he was researching. Jefferson was a fan of modern technology; and this was probably state of the art. If he were alive today and still had his bookstand, he probably would have substituted a few books for a couple of iPads.
|Thomas Jefferson bookstand on loan at the Smithsonian|
|Jefferson's Cabinet with replica bookstand|
As I was not into woodworking as a kid, I had pretty much forgotten about this device for many years. I had dabbled in woodworking for the last few years, mostly with power tools. However, it was the discovery of the use of hand tools, particularly hand planes, that piqued my interest in woodworking over the past year. From a safety standpoint, there is probably less risk of a serious injury with hand tools and less concern for dust control. The latter is especially important to me since my shop is only a glorified walk-in closet at 10' x 6' without windows.
I scoured flea markets and antique stores in my area to procure a basic set of hand tools, and purchased a few tools new. Here's a list of hand tools that I find quite useful and used for this project:
- Chisels - including mortising and paring chisels
- Planes - Stanley No. 4 and No. 6, low angle plane, 71 shoulder plane
- Stanley 55 Combination Plane
- Veritas Router Plane
- Marking gauge and striking knife
- Saws - dovetail, Disston rip and crosscut, japanese pull saws
- Shooting board - 90 degree, 45 degree and donkey's ear
|Veritas Large Router Plan|
I have to thank Roy Underhill and his show, The Woodwright's Shop, for inspiring me to learn how to better use these tools. The episode that got me hooked was one I found on his website where he explains how to make the Jefferson bookstand. He explained that legend has it that Jefferson likely designed the bookstand. There is not another of it's kind. According to Bob Self (see video from Monticello.org), the Director of Restoration for Monticello, a provenance from Jefferson's grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, confirms that this piece was owned and used by him. He must have been inspired by André Roubo's tome entitled L'Art du Menuisier, in which there is a description of a folding two-sided music stand with a ratcheting mechanism to allow for angle adjustment. While Jefferson was an amatuer woodworker (Jefferson had his own workshop upstairs at Monticello), many authorities believe that the bookstand was created at Jefferson's joinery shop down the hill and immediately south from Monticello's main house, known as Mulberry Row.
It seems most likely that James Dinsmore and/or his apprentice, John Hemings, the latter who was one of Jefferson's slaves and the half-brother of Sally Hemings, built the bookstand around 1810. John was the primary cabinetmaker and woodworker for Monticello from 1809 through the 1820's.
|All that remains of John Hemmings joiner shop on Mulberry Row is this chimney.|
For years, historians believed that this stand was a music stand since there is a hole at the bottom thought to house a tripod.
Roy's episode focuses mostly on how to make the panel, which consists of 6 through mortise and tenon joints to create a breadboard clamp. The vertically oriented grain of the end "clamps" of the panel stabilize the main panel's horizontal grain from warping. To further stabilize the wood, the tenons are haunched, meaning that a tongue and groove joint accompanies the mortise and tenons. The vertical ends of each panel are then beveled back to eventually allow the whole contraption to collapse down into a 12" cube. I guess this would allow Jefferson to carry this contraption for travel - the ancestor to the laptop perhaps. Jefferson's bookstand was made of Mahogany. Roy Underhill used walnut in his episode, although it looks like he used cherry for another stand he has displayed in other episodes.
Fortunately, I was able to find the plans for this project on his Woodwright's School website. There is also a piece by David Richards on how to use SketchUp to make the plans which is quite useful. http://www.finewoodworking.com/item/24328/jeffersons-bookstand-another-workflow-example.
I decided to use cherry (I had enough darker woods in my study). My goal was to create this thing without power tools so that I could improve my hand tool skills. This was really my first project created without power tools. It was a good learning experience and broadened my knowledge of the craft. After making the 32 mortise and tenon joints for this project, my skills definitely improved (although my back and novice hands took a temporary toll). Roy's plans call for 1/2" panels. I opted for 5/8" because I was concerned about tear out when creating the 1/4" wide mortises.
What can you use this bookstand for? Perhaps, I am not quite the researcher that Jefferson was. But, I do use it to clear up desk space and display books. One slight problem of this design for modern day is that most reference books tend to be larger than 9", which is the approximate usable height of each panel. This can be circumvented by placing the larger books on one of the "rear" panels and opening up the top panel. Another point is that books with decent bindings do not tend to stay open on the page that you want. Therefore, you probably will need weighted bookmarks if you are using this for its actual purpose.
If you are interested in making this, first look at The Woodwright's Shop episode on the PBS website. Roy focused primarily on the panel. Then download the plans which you can download from the Woodwright's School website. Some additional tips are below.
|Breadboard created by vertical "clamps" of wood|
|Three tenons seen on the left pane|
The fit of the tenons was quite tight. Apply a dab of glue only to the central tenon to reduce the risk of cracking as the wood expands with summer humidity. I think I may have made a mistake by using wood filler to hide the tiny spaces in some mortise and tenon joints. The "clamps" were back beveled to 45 degrees using a "donkey's ear" shooting board. For details of how to make this type of shooting board, click here
|Notches allow adjustment of panel to different angles. These were simply marked and chiseled out.|
|Large groove on top panel created by scoring knife, saw cuts and router plane|
|Haunched tenon seen on top panel|