Fixing the secretary desk

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    Hi folks. My wife has an heirloom secretary desk that has been habitually broken as long as I’ve known her. The problem seems to be that it latches at the top, but the latch isn’t especially rigid and the desk tends to fall open at random times. The fall puts a lot of strain on the arms that hold the desk surface and then the screws get ripped out.

    After years of this, there were several stripped screw holes on the inner sides of the desk. I patched the holes with minwax wood filler last week and reset the hardware and that worked fine for a week. It wasn’t very pretty, but the patches generally aren’t visible so I didn’t worry too much about it. Yesterday it had another fall and hardware on both sides got ripped out.

    Pictures here.

    I expect I just need to re-patch the sides and re-install the hardware, but I’d like to fix the underlying problem too so I don’t have to keep doing this. Any thoughts on a fix? I was considering putting a little sugru (or something similar) on the latch so it’d mate a little more solid, but maybe there’s a better option?

    Edit: It seems like there are at least 3 classes of fix:

    1. Make it so the desk won’t fall (a la sugru or something similar, or making it a habit to always lock the desk when not in use (but this seems error prone))
    2. Make it so when the desk falls, the connections can withstand the fall (though this seems like a hard ask since the wood isn’t very thick)
    3. Make it so falls are less violent (like with a hydraulic arm, though it wouldn’t look very authentic)
    • This topic was modified 6 years, 9 months ago by kevinclark. Reason: Adding classes of fix
    David Payton

    You may need to replace the latch with a modern reproduction, but they are readily available from a variety of sources. The best fix IMO for the screw holes is to drill out the hole and fill it with a dowel of the same species. I have usually found 1/4 inch dowels to be sufficient. Allow the glue to dry for an hour, trim the dowel flush, make a small pilot hole, and re-attach the part.

    As you found, the wood filler products are really not useful for structural purposes.

    I’m not familiar with Sugru, but it appears to be a rubbery silicone-type of material. I would not use it in this instance. I’d first try to fiddle with the latch, and see what is preventing it from working properly. As this is a family heirloom, the price of new hardware, if required, should not be a factor.



    1. Ensure springs are working in the existing ball detents.
    2. Add additional ball detents across the top edge.
    3. Add a small length of brass chain that prevents the door falling all the way open. The end would have an open hook so when you actually wanted the door open you just unhook it.

    I thing you are going to have to install a Dutchman to repair the hardware damage.


    How much do you care about preserving this piece or restoring this piece? In other words, if you use it for learning purposes, and it doesn’t come out exactly as you want, how much will it upset you? If modifications are okay, then you could consider one of two paths. The first path involves developing finishing skills and you try to patch with matching grain, figure, color, and finish after strengthening where the hardware attaches, e.g., by mortising or boring a large enough area and then putting in a secure plug. The second general approach would be to replace the area where the hardware attaches as just described, but then do an inlay with a contrasting wood around the hardware areas. This is the “turn a problem into a decorative feature” approach. You would choose a pleasing shape you feel confident you can inlay for each of the four (?) areas where the hardware attaches (even if some of them are perfectly fine), do the inlay, then patch just the clear finish coat. From the photo, it looks like both approach will require inlay, but on the first you must match figure, color, and finish. Of course, even if you fix the latch, if someone drops the top accidentally, you’ll be back to square one. Not sure that a chain will save you, though. It would protect the hinge, maybe, but you’d just have the chain pull out instead. I’ve never made a fall front desk…are there slow-open hinges, similar to a toy-chest safety hinge?


    How about tilting the whole thing back slightly? You could experiment with adding a small block under the front legs first to see if it works…
    If it does, you can take a bit off the back legs.
    My guess is it shouldn’t take much then a few degrees of tilt to have the thing not falling open.

    Doesn’t get you out of the repair job but it might be an easy fix.

    For the repair job I’d go with replacing the torn up areas with hardwood blocks and some descent screws, not conical shaped ones (like most plate screws are) but ones that have most of their screw threads parallel.
    Not that I’ve done anything like that yet but it would probably be a more durable fix.

    HTH Diego

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