Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Adding a Secret Compartment to Your Rolltop Desk

Okay, I'm giving away my secret hiding place. I'm not terribly worried about it. To find my hiding place, the average burglar would have to hit more than 200 million homes in the United States to find mine. The main reason to make such a hidey hole is to keep your wallet out of the hands of your sticky-fingered teenager or to provide a place for the keepsakes your wife threw out when she cleaned your desk and you retrieved from the garbage, but didn't want her to know you had retrieved them from the garbage.....

Not that I ever did anything like that, mind you.

Not really!

Anyway, roll top desks lend themselves well to creating little secret compartments.The easiest place to make one is behind the drawers in the upper part of the desk. Notice in the second picture that the space behind this upper drawer is quite deep. 

If you measure the drawer and the compartment, you will likely find about seven or eight inches of unused space behind the drawer.  This space is ideal for making a false back secret compartment.

Tools and Materials:

A few 1x4 boards made of the same wood as your desk. In my case, I'm using oak. 
Table saw
Carpenter's Glue
Tape measure
Small speed square
Stain to match your desk
Varnish or polyurethane clearcoat, gloss or satin to match your desk

Step 1
Remove the drawer and measure the drawer opening

Step 2
Measure the depth of the compartment. That's my wallet back there. There's plenty of room for it behind the drawer as you can see.  It was stuffed back there before I opened the drawer.

Step 3
Measure the length of the drawer

Step 4
Cut a piece of oak from the 1x4 that just fits flat inside the compartment to make the false back.  Trim it and sand the edges so the piece of wood will slide smoothly into the space as far back as you need it to.

Side Note:
If you test fit the piece against the back of the compartment, like I did, you'll need something sticky on a pole to fetch it back out again, so you might want to try this trick.  Screw a short screw into the back of your false back, turn it around and test fit it that way till you get it right. That way you can use the screw as a handle to pull it back out without marring the front face of the board.

Step 5
Figure the difference between the drawer length and the compartment depth that you measured above.. Cut two side pieces as tall as the compartment and as wide as the empty space, minus 3/4 inches for the false front.  Miter the back edges of the two sides at 45 degrees facing each other so the back piece can be glued in place with mitered corners.  Leave the front edges of the side pieces flat to fit against the false back.

Step 6
Measure the width of the compartment and cut a back piece that is not quite as high as the compartment (allowing room for it to slide in and out) and cut it 3 inches narrower.  Miter the corners

Step 7
Glue the side pieces to the back of the false front one at a time.  Test fit the pieces.  The sides should inset from the walls of the compartment at least 1-1/2 inches on both sides. Once you have them all glued in place, clamp or bungee the pieces together till they set and dry. 

Set 8
Now turn the assembly flat on its face and measure the inside of the compartment.  Cut a piece of 1x4 to fit inside the compartment to make a bottom for the box.  Blue it in place.  If you want to secure the bottom with small nails or screws, predrill the holes to keep them from splitting.

Step 9
Stain and varnish the false compartment back. To be really detailed, stain and varnish the whole thing, inside and out. It will make the compartment look like it was part of the original desk design. That way if you get caught with something in your secret compartment by a nosy spouse, you can always plead ignorance.

Not that I've ever done that sort of thing.....


Step 10
Test fit the false back and secret compartment into the compartment.  It should fit smoothly and securely when pressed all the way back and look just like an ordinary compartment back

Step 11
To open the compartment, just open the drawer. Press against either side of the false back. This will tip the assembly and allow you to open it.  If you fit the false back really closely, you may find that you have to sand or miter the back edges of the sides of the false back to allow the compartment assembly to cant and open. You can make your compartment a little more secure by only angling one of the sides so that the only way to open it is to push on just one side as shown in the diagrams. 

The assembly shown will only open if you press the left side. The right side may move when pressed, but won't open freely.

I've got 4 drawers I can use to make secret compartments on my roll top.  I plan to create false backs for each, just so they'll all look alike and not be as suspicious.  Check out these before and after pictures (left) to see how inconspicuous your new hidey hole will be.
 The top picture is the one with the fake back.
Of, course If you're lazy you can just stuff things behind the drawers.  In the picture below, I have my wallet shoved behind one of the drawers. It's an easy secret compartment that will defeat a cursory search of your drawers, but the false back secret compartment is way cooler.


The poor man's secret compartment.