Antique Writing Boxes- holy friggin’ crap!!

Okay, so I discovered these things called writing boxes a few months back. Basically, they were used back in the 18th and 19th century to house your paper, inkwells, and quills/pens. The boxes divide in half at a sloped angle so when it’s open it creates a large sloped writing surface. They are made by a few people in modern days, but obviously the demand for them has wained over the years. They’re much bigger in the UK and Europe than the US. They range from relatively simple, made of domestic woods and purely functional, to extremely ornate, showcasing the highest level of craftsmanship in an era gone by.

Many of you know that I got my start in woodworking. I actually didn’t know anything about pens, paper, ink, writing, or any of that stuff when I first got into all of this 3 years ago. I was inspired by Norm Abram and the New Yankee Workshop (which after 21 years is regretfully ending) and David Marks with his show Wood Works (also ended years ago). I have a passion for beautiful wood, and that’s what got me into making pens in the first place. Pens led me to fountain pens, which led me to paper and ink, and here I am.

As a daily user of various fountain pens, I find myself needing a way to house and organize the writing materials I use on a daily basis. Right now I have a velvet roll with my pens (over 100 of them), random cardboard boxes filled with paper, and all of my inks sitting in a half-open USPS small flat rate box (it’s been used, don’t worry I’m not using the boxes inappropriately!).

I’ve had a great interest in the writing boxes ever since their existence came to my awareness. I think about them constantly, to the point where I’m starting to annoy my wife with all the “ooooh! Look at that one! That’s so cool!”. The coolest and most intricate ones I’ve seen so far are at a British site called Hygra.com. Thank you Hyrga for the great pictures (no affiliation). Click around their site for a while and check out some of those boxes!! Some of my favorites are the Tunbridge with its micro mosaics, the Masonic box with marquetry, and the ebony with mother of pearl inlayed box. Mind-blowing!!! To think that there were craftsman working at this level at one point in time, it’s so entirely inspiring for an individual like myself. There are different variations of the boxes based on their purpose, whether they’re meant to be kept on a desk, or used for traveling (known as a lap desk or traveling desk). Here’s an example of a lap desk, no affiliation. And here’s a traveling desk, no affiliation. A writing slope is like a writing box, but is slanted when closed, sort of like a writing box but with the top half missing. Whatever your flavor, they’re all very, very cool

Seeing how I am in love with these boxes, I have a passion and talent for wood working (not to mention a shop full of tools), and the inability to afford these incredible antique writing boxes, I find myself inspired to try building one. I have many obscure and ornate woodworking talents that I can integrate into the designs of a writing box, and all of the functionality and hidden compartments within the box would be so much fun to design and build. I have access to a laser engraving machine, experience casting and dying resins, I’ve done inlaying, gilding, and air brushing. I think I could come up with some really neat looking boxes! Undoubtedly if I do decide to go past the ‘wishing’ phase of this venture, I’ll blog about it (with videos too, of course). For the time being though, just revel in the magnificence of the finely crafted antique boxes that continue to be an inspiration to writers and craftsman today.

***Update to this post: There’s no way I can build my own! It was something that really piqued my interest, but as soon as I began to look into it, I very quickly discovered that I had no where near the craftsmanship or time to do the kind of work you see here. These types of boxes appear to be representative of an era gone by, and the exorbitant prices you see for antique boxes are fair because boxes like these will never be made again.

2017-10-03T16:15:23+00:00 March 12th, 2010|Uncategorized|23 Comments
  • MIKE

    "I have many obscure and ornate woodworking talents…"

    I don't think I have heard a description of woodworking sound more mysterious and exciting. Thanks for that.

  • Fr. Matthew

    "Build it and they will come…"

    I've often thought about writing boxes and have thought how nice it would be to have one. I'm guessing that if you get past the wishing phase, you would have some buyers (such as myself). Something like this would probably work best on a custom-order basis.

  • Lexi0514

    Aren't these awesome? I look at antique stores but find most of them to be pretty un-inspiring. The English and French ones are certainly the most beautiful.
    So, I would definitely be a customer if you made these.

    Peggy

  • I've wanted a writing box ever since I visited Monticello and saw that Thomas Jefferson was a huge fan of them. He wrote the Declaration of Independence on one, and he later designed his own: http://www.smithsonianlegacies.si.edu/objectdescription.cfm?ID=36.

    I'm super excited to see what you build!

  • Elizabeth

    Um….sign me up for one of those "Crazy cool writing boxes"…. 🙂

    I have thought about building one myself, especially since the ones I like cost more money that I am willing to part with. Too bad I don't know anything about working with wood 🙂

  • I'm going to be taking a waiting list for the boxes….if you're interested at all (no formal commitment here), email me at brian(at symbol)gouletpens.com (trying to avoid spam here). I'm going to try to put together a function on GouletPens.com to sign up for info/waitlist on the boxes, but until I figure out how to do that, just email me!

    Thanks for all the excitement about the boxes! I'm really, really pumped about them. I'm cleaning up and repurposing my shop to focus on box building. I'm doing all kinds of research and practicing the techniques I'll need to master to make the caliber of boxes I'm envisioning. I'll be sure to update with pics and vids as things progress!

  • […] else see Brian Goulet’s recent post about antique writing boxes? Also known as “lap desks,” these boxes were used in the 18th and 19th centuries to […]

  • I would buy one of those, especially the last pic. Awesome!

    I have an antique "Letter box" that I picked up at an antique shop a few years ago. No writing surface, but it has a removable tray for pens and what not. I keep sentimental correspondence in it now.

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  • It will create more stylish look if you put an antique handle on it.

  • It will create more stylish look if you put an antique handle on it.

  • I would buy one of those, especially the last pic. Awesome!

    I have an antique "Letter box" that I picked up at an antique shop a few years ago. No writing surface, but it has a removable tray for pens and what not. I keep sentimental correspondence in it now.

  • I've wanted a writing box ever since I visited Monticello and saw that Thomas Jefferson was a huge fan of them. He wrote the Declaration of Independence on one, and he later designed his own: http://www.smithsonianlegacies.si.edu/objectdescription.cfm?ID=36.

    I'm super excited to see what you build!

  • Lexi0514

    Aren't these awesome? I look at antique stores but find most of them to be pretty un-inspiring. The English and French ones are certainly the most beautiful.
    So, I would definitely be a customer if you made these.

    Peggy

  • Shangas

    Hi G.

    I enjoyed reading your posting. It's Shangas from the FPN (I've also commented on some of your YT videos). Writing-boxes are descendant from "bible boxes" of the 1600s. Writing-boxes proper started in the early 1700s. They died out at the turn of the last century when the Fountain Pen made them obsolete. You're right. The antiques cost hundreds (even thousands) of dollars. Best of luck in trying to make your own! There's a couple of handy videos on YouTube about how to glue on the leather writing-surfaces. You might want to watch them.

  • mdfritz

    Nice write up. I actually make these and sell them on a regular basis (mostly to people from Australia for some reason). They aren't as exquisite as the antiques, but still pretty cool. http://boxes.mdfritz.com/

  • Wow! Beautiful boxes, I have mad respect for you! There are very few writing box makers around, I'll have to keep you in mind for myself!

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  • Jon Auty

    I like the idea of these and also the Davenport desk (seems to take less space than a classic bureau) but want to update dimensions and make minor tweaks to their functionality to bring the design and function up to date. Perhaps lowering our expectations and making the first out of chipboard and veneer is the way to go till more affluent times!

    • Jon Auty

      An idea I have thought about is a light weight writing box / light box – you can get A4 sized writing surfaces that are illuminated by LED and quite thin. That way this could be the writing surface when turned off (or you could have a removable leather topper) but you could also use this for tracing etc. If only I progressed beyond making a wooden spoon in woodwork!

  • Byron Peterson

    Are there manufacturers that DO still make a box that you can at least store pens, ink, paper, etc? What does everyone do about this these days? Not so much for travelling purposes, but just for storage at home, in a nice and functional way?