Project Update: Oeben Desk

Dave is back today with an update on a piece you may have seen float­ing around our Insta­gram — the Oeben Desk, or Sec­re­taire a Cylin­dre in French. We’ll be using the hash­tag #oeben­desk to post pho­to updates of the piece on Insta­gram but today Dave has a process update.

Oeben reproduction panel | Charlottesville Custom Furniture | French Marquetry Louis XV | See more at

Sec­re­taire a Cylin­dre

In 2015 I went to Nor­mandy with my love­ly wife. She got to work, and I played tourist. With Paris only a two hour dri­ve away, the fur­ni­ture muse­ums beck­oned. I went to find a piece wor­thy of being my fur­ni­ture life-goal. Some­thing so amaz­ing that when I made my copy of it I could say that I real­ly am a fur­ni­ture mak­er and that would have real­ly stretched me to fig­ure out how to make it.

I had expect­ed this piece to be a Ruhlmann piece. His work is exquis­ite, very fine and very com­plex. There is a won­der­ful col­lec­tion of his pieces at the Musee des Arts Dec­o­ratif, and I spent sev­er­al hours with them, and have sev­er­al hun­dred close­up pho­tos from every angle, so that I could in the­o­ry make any of them. In the end, that wasn’t what real­ly grabbed me though.

At the Musee Nis­sim de Camon­do, which cel­e­brates fur­ni­ture of French roy­al­ty from 1740 – 1790, there is a desk by Jean-Fran­cios Oeben. It is a petite roll-top desk in the Louis XV style, com­plet­ed around 1760. It is sen­su­ous and ele­gant, and cov­ered in amaz­ing flo­ral mar­quetry. This is my objec­tive. The case alone is extra­or­di­nary – there are no flat sur­faces oth­er than the desk writ­ing sur­face and the top. Every­thing flows.

Even mak­ing a case this com­plex will be a huge endeav­our. Only a fur­ni­ture mak­er would even notice the struc­ture though, because the mar­quetry and veneer­ing for this piece is off the charts. And it is applied to curved sur­faces, often com­pound curves! This was one of the main rea­sons I went to the Amer­i­can School of French Mar­quetry in 2016 – to under­stand how to cut mar­quetry for curved sur­faces. One of the instruc­tors there, Patrice, gri­maced when asked: “It will be dif­fi­cult.”

One of the real chal­lenges for this desk will be devel­op­ing a work­ing draw­ing. I gen­er­al­ly design my fur­ni­ture on a nap­kin, but that won’t do here. I can get the case shape pret­ty close from pho­tographs but I was very con­cerned about the mar­quetry – not every sur­face is equal­ly vis­i­ble, so pho­tos of a cou­ple of pan­els were pret­ty sparse.

Volume 3 of Masterpieces of Marquetry by Pierre Ramond

Turns out, this is where my fur­ni­ture library came in real­ly handy: Vol­ume 3 of the Mas­ter­pe­ices of Mar­quetry by Pierre Ramond con­tains pho­tos and plans of some of the finest work by Oeben, Jean-Hen­ri Riesen­er, and Abra­ham and David Roent­gen, the stars of the 18th cen­tu­ry Euro­pean fur­ni­ture fir­ma­ment. And there, on pages 33 – 37, are detailed draw­ings and pho­tos of every mar­quetry pan­el on my desk. Thank you, Pierre. I don’t have to draw them at all, just inter­pret them — no small task.

This is a mul­ti­year project. My first bite was this spring. There are 12 mar­quetry pan­els on this desk. I made one of the medi­um sized ones, on the left side of the roll­top por­tion, as you look at it from the front. This is curved pan­el (lat­er) with a com­plex flower spray sur­round­ed by an elab­o­rate bor­der. The spray and the bor­der are this year’s exer­cise.

Painting in wood | Layoung out cut marquetry pieces | See more at

The spray has been cut. I used Paint­ing in Wood, a tech­nique taught at ASFM. There are about 25 species of wood in my ver­sion. The orig­i­nal used tobac­co dyed sycamore as the back­ground – I used wal­nut burl. My col­or use was a lit­tle more gen­er­ous than JFO’s, but he would have used more col­ors if he’d had them.

I’m pleased with it so far. The col­ors are vibrant but not crazy; the cut­ting was dif­fi­cult but not impos­si­ble. The biggest chal­lenge was man­ag­ing the deep inclu­sions of back­ground into the cen­ter of the pic­ture. It took me about 25 hours to cut the pieces, and I had enough wood in the pack­et to land up with three copies – two that are essen­tial­ly the same and one slight­ly less good but prob­a­bly sav­able.

My chevalet only has an 18” throat so unless (until?) I make a big­ger (and heav­ier, and more unwieldy) saw, so I am lim­it­ed in the size of what I can cut. Since the pat­tern with­out the bor­der was 17”, I made it with­out the bor­der, and I plan on inlay­ing the pan­el into the bor­der once I get some pur­ple­heart, which should be soon. I may regret this approach, but that’s why you make test pieces. I hope to have the pur­ple­heart with­in the next few weeks, and have time to work on the bor­der in July?

Pay­ing work­ing super­sedes this kind, but it’s been very sat­is­fy­ing to start work­ing on some­thing so grand.

Oeben reproduction panel | Charlottesville Custom Furniture | French Marquetry Louis XV | See more at


Be sure to fol­low Dave on Insta­gram to see more of the piece as it comes togeth­er!

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margaret heller - Hi Dave, this is ‘flip­pin’ amazing.….I will fol­low the sto­ry with inter­est.

What a clever bun­ny you are.

Love…Maggie xx

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