The Fire Watch desk

Like many folks here in the Pacific Northwest I am fond of the  Forest Service buildings and Park Service facilities built by the CCC (civilian conservation corps)  in the 1930's. Among some of the most interesting are the fire lookouts that were built on high mountain tops and ridges. These lookouts were staffed by Forest Service personnel during the fire season who's job it was to find and then locate fires within their immense field of view. Because the lookouts were in such remote locations the materials were often brought to the site by mule train. The folks who staffed these lookouts lived in them the entire fire season so they were outfitted like small apartments. 

After looking through quite a few pictures of these little structures I couldn't help but notice the desk that seemed to be present in almost all photos of the interior.

I began to wonder if there might be some sort of standardized plan out there for this great example of primitive Pacific Northwest furniture. After a lengthy google search I struck gold.

The image above was taken from a set of blueprints for one of the most common lookout designs known as the L-4. I was pleased to find that as I suspected, the furnishings for these lookouts were called out right in the construction plans. Although I plan to build a replica, I decided to first take inspiration from this utilitarian table and design a small desk that would bring a bit of the CCC into the home or office.

The result is the Fire Watch desk. Like the original, this desk features tapered legs and a Douglas fir plywood top. To give the top a 1940's look I radiused the corners and added aluminum edging with trim nails. To scale this piece down a bit from the original it has one drawer instead of two. A vintage cup pull finishes the pre-war look. Here is how it went together.

The legs and skirts of the original piece are joined with a bolt and brace system like much of the mass produced furniture today. This surprised me at first but these tables were built in the 1930's and 1940's when this type of joinery started to become prevalent. I decided to use more traditional joinery, the dowel pinned mortise and tenon joint. The image above is from my sketchup model of the Federal study desk  and shows the inner workings of the mortise and tenon joint.

Here is the frame before paint. I used fine grain Lodgepole pine for the legs and CVG Douglas fir for the skirt and drawer guides. The mortises in the legs were cut with a jig, a plunge router with a collar and a 1/2" high-speed steel end mill. The tenons were cut at the table saw with a stacked dado head cutter. The drawer guides fit into shallow mortises in the front and back skirts.

Here is another view of the finished piece. I found a nice piece of 3/4" Douglas fir plywood for the top. The radiused corners and aluminium edging really dress it up. The drawer is a flush front type, half lapped and dowel pinned. I picked the green paint from a federal color book and found the cup pull at the local salvage store. The table measures 30" tall x 40" wide x 22" deep. 

Douglas fir flat panel cabinets

I decided to build some cabinets for dust free tool storage. I've seen quite a few examples of turn of the century Doug fir cabinets in the salvage yards around Seattle. A lot of these come from  old schools or other public buildings. I like the institutional look and the simplicity of the design. The doors often have Douglas fir plywood panels. I cant help but notice the quality of the plywood from back in the day. After sorting through the entire 1/4" marine grade fir plywood stack at the local lumber yard I still ended up with football patches on my doors.  Maybe in 100 years when my cabinets are sitting in a salvage yard some one will look at them and think of a time when they still made fir plywood.

This was the insperation

This was my original Sketchup model. I considered wired safety glass for the doors but  the guy at the glass shop informed me that  it no longer qualifies as safety glass and is hard to find. It is still produced but in small batches and has the small batch price tag of $25.00 per sqft. I decided to stay with  Douglas fir plywood panels.

Here are the rails and styles with the dado for the panel and the open mortise and tenons. I started with 1x6 S4S CV fir stock.  I cut the dado on the table saw with the stacked dado head. I was able to cut the open mortise on the styles with the same arrangement and a tenoning jig. I switched over to a standard combination rip and crosscut blade for the tenons on the rails.  I used a miter sled for the shoulder cuts and the tenoning jig for the cheek cuts.

Here is a close up of the Open mortise and tenon or bridal joint.

Here are the staged components of a flat panel door.

After dry fitting the assemblies and sanding the panels I glued and clamped the doors.

Ready for dowel pins.

I built the Carcasses out of 3/4" ac fir plywood. They are held together with half lap joints , glued and nailed. I used 5/8" galvanized shelf standards for the inside of the cabinets and also on the two opposing outside faces for a shelf that will be installed between them. I cut the dado's for the standards at the table saw with the stacked dado head cutter. The insides of the cabinet got two coats of arsenic green to complete the institutional look.

I mortised for the but hinges with a trim router and a 1/4" straight cutter. I like to layout the mortise and route out most of the waste free hand and then clean up with a chisel. After hanging the doors I installed the pulls.

Finished with shellac and bolted to the container walls with stainless steel through bolts. A dab of caulking on the bolt head on the outside of the container seals the can back up.