Handwriting & Writing Desks

Christine at Mirabilis.ca turned up this great article from Paperpenalia on improving one’s handwriting. Good handwriting is not about copying a particular style of penmanship but of learning how to hold and wield a pen properly. The key is to use one’s whole arm to move the pen, rather than just the fingers, and to write in line with the hand, rather than to the left of it (for right-handers). Just making those two small changes resulted in a dramatic change in the look of my writing, from cramped and jagged to smooth and flowing (though still a bit wild). Practicing basic strokes on a large scale (e.g. on a chalk board) will also help train the arm and shoulder to finely control one’s writing.

Portable Writing Desks by David HarrisOne of the tips mentioned is to write on a tilted writing surface the way calligraphers do. This brings up another issue: where to find one of those great writing desks you see in Austen and Brontë film adaptations. After much surfing I found and acquired the booklet Portable Writing Desks by David Harris. It traces the history of writing desks (also known as writing slopes, writing boxes, and lap desks) with excellent photos and illustrations on every page. It is geared towards the antique collector, and it seems the majority of writing desks around these days are antiques, often in disrepair (if eBay is any indication).

Few of these are these marvellous inventions are being made any more, and that is a real shame. Writing at an angle is more ergonomic for the body, eliminating the need to hunch, and being able to keep all one’s writing tools and supplies together and out of sight is very convenient. My favourite style (by N. Middleton ca. 1815), pictured on the front of the booklet, also has a book rest for comfortable reading. What’s more, the book rest can be removed and stowed inside, leaving the box with a smooth top. Mr. Middleton thought of everything!

Some of the more elaborate writing desks had secret compartments that you could only get to by removing specific drawers and pushing hidden levers. Others had pigeon-hole and drawer units that lifted up and locked into place at the head of the desk. One SUV of writing desks came with candle sconces to create a completely self-sufficient writing environment. This model could be screwed to a table and secured by lock and key to prevent important papers and valuables (which were often stored in writing boxes) from being absconded.

The only new portable writing desk I’ve found that comes close to the originals is this Elizabeth Brontë Lap Desk (Elizabeth Brontë was a sister of the other Brontës and died at age 10). Although it doesn’t close up into a rectangular box (like Charlotte’s writing desk, pictured below), it is a traditional style. The price of this beauty is almost low enough to tempt me, though I’d rather hold out for a full box style. If anyone knows where I can get one, let me know!

My favourite: Charlotte Brontë's writing desk, from Portable Writing Desks by David Harris

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13 comments on “Handwriting & Writing Desks

  1. Mike says:

    I actually picked up a nice writing desk that unfolds and has lots of nice nooks and crannies. Unfortunately it doesn't hold my Noodler's ink as well as I would like. and none of the little crannies quite fit what I want them to.
    I picked up a nice leather-covered writing surface from Levengers called the Writer's Oasis:
    http://www.levenger.com/PAGETEMPLATES/PRODUCT/Product.asp?Params=Category=5-24|PageID=969|Level=2-3
    It's a nice yet pricy desk hutch that has a nice leather surface and a pair of adjustable straps to angle it to the perfect angle. I've used it along with Moleskines and my Pilot Vanishing Point fountain pen loaded with Noodler's Ink for a while. Not bad at all. If you want a nice writing plane, this is a good one. Instead of a writing desk with a bunch of little compartments, just carry around a bag with your gear and this writing surface.

  2. Sylvia says:

    That looks good. There are also portable slopes made for calligraphers, but they sometimes lack a lip (to allow for oversize papers).
    And I think “nice yet pricey” applies to just about everything at Levenger!

  3. Bob Crawford says:

    Here is the link for something very affordable but maybe not quite what you are looking for: http://www.gentlemansemporium.com/store/000110.php
    Bob

  4. Sylvia says:

    Thanks very much, Bob, that looks very interesting!

  5. Chad Boehlke says:

    Hello, I have been making a few portable writing desks and slopes. I am working on a web site to show my work. I do custom work with all types of wood, any size. Thanks.

  6. Bob Crawford says:

    Sylvia,
    Have you ever written with a glass nibbed dip pen? I'm a new fan of them. Check them out at http://www.glasspens.com
    Bob

  7. Sylvia says:

    Chad, do let me know when you get your website up. 🙂

  8. Sylvia says:

    I've heard of them and seen pictures but haven't tried one. I see they were developed for marking fabric since they don't snag, which makes me think they might be good for writing on rough paper. The price is pretty steep, though!

  9. George says:

    Chad's website:
    http://boehlkewoodshop.tripod.com/id2.html
    If you have some woodworking /finishing skill and are willing to part with $450 or so (ouch!) there's
    http://www.bartleycollection.com/accessories8.htm
    George

  10. John Housden says:

    If you are looking for manufacturers of new writing desks, take a look at http://www.rutlandwoodcraft.co.uk/exhibits/writingslope.html

  11. Steve says:

    Does anyone know of a good site to price and get info on these desks? I have an antique leather covered desk from 1873 that used to belong to the Receiver General for Canada – an absolute precusor to the briefcase, with stationary and file slots in the lid. Any good info would be deeply appreciated.

  12. Sylvia says:

    I'd like to know that myself. I'm afraid I don't know. Sorry.

  13. Kim says:

    If you can finish it yourself, I suggest talking to Deb and Dan McBride at AzWoodman. They just recently started making writing slopes, and they do them to your specs. The ones shown on their writing slope page had inkwell holders specifically designed to hold the 3-oz. Noodler's ink bottles. Pick your own wood, and go at it. The more detailed, the more expensive, of course. Anyway, here is their writing slope page link: http://www.azwoodman.com/writing-slope.html
    FYI, I'm not affiliated with them except as a satisfied customer.

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