Secretary Desks Vs Roll-Top Desks: What's The Difference?

After months of experimenting with sitting vs. standing desks, we've concluded that they both have their ups and downs. You all know this author always starts with a little humor, right? Ok, just making sure. 

Let's get down to business and find out the differences between a secretary desk and a roll-top desk, shall we? But first we should mention that both of these types of desks can be found in modern times, but are much more common when talking about antique versions. They're both beautiful and represent ingenious design and features, and make terrific additions to a home office space. And with their functionality, they actually can work in any part of your house, per Invaluable.

What many of us love about antique furniture is how well each piece seems to be made with excellent craftsmanship and care. However, antique furniture requires extra TLC and sometimes restoration work. If you don't mind doing projects like these, you can often find beautiful pieces for a fraction of the cost. But regardless of whether you already have an heirloom on hand, or you want to purchase an antique, you can't go wrong with either a secretary or a roll-top desk, as they never go out of style. These kinds of desks can add character and a touch of prestige to any room in your home. Now, let's talk about these two types of desks in a little more detail.

What does a secretary desk look like?

First up we have the secretary desk, so what distinguishes this type of desk from any other? There are quite a few characteristics that make this particular desk special. According to, it typically has a fold-down writing surface and several different sized drawers and cubbies, to start with. This alone definitely makes this type of desk distinctive, and easily identifiable. But there's more to these elaborate desks, because they often additionally have a curio-type cabinet on top, with shelves and glass doors for showing off other collectibles. Below that, is the section that houses the telltale cubby hole spaces and different sized drawers.

There's typically a fold-down cover to this middle section that, when open, provides an additional flat surface. And that's not all! They also often have cabinets below, with regular cabinet doors. They're a combination piece of furniture that provides functionality and design like no other. Antique secretary desks will often have ornate carvings and inlays, and have a totally unique design that allows you to fold a panel up and hide the work surface. Modern secretary-style desks sometimes only include the cupboard desk portion, but the old-fashioned type makes a sort of all-purpose piece of extremely versatile furniture, perfect for literally any room in your house!

What does a roll-top desk look like?

Now that we have a better idea of what a secretary desk looks like, how about a roll-top desk? Well according to Chairish, this type of desk has its own individual characteristics that also stand out. Today, it's also called a Carlton desk, and features a desk with — you guessed it — a rolling cover top. This stately choice also features multiple different sized drawers and sections beneath its roll-up top, but typically doesn't have all the additional space and functionality of a secretary desk. Some of the antique roll-top desks even have a key, so you can lock the top, keeping your trinkets from prying eyes (or children's hands), if you so choose. 

This piece of furniture has been redesigned into multiple different rolling tops and design mechanisms, but some antique versions do have additional sections that usually involve drawers beneath the desk section rather than above. And again, this enchanting piece of furniture is versatile, and can go in virtually any room of your home. If you're designing a home office and love antique furniture, the roll-top desk is a great choice for its functionality and beauty.

What are the features and materials of a secretary desk?

The secretary model is an extremely versatile piece of furniture, because it combines so much in one piece. Not only that, but being that many versions are antique, they're made with quality craftsmanship. Of course, there are also modern versions, and like anything else with proven popularity, there are lots of similar pieces out there. In any case, according to 1stDibs, the secretary desk can be composed of many features, some of which might include glass panes or mirrors on the doors of the upper half of the cabinet, and locks on the fold-up panel, as well as on one or more drawers.

Knee holes were also designed into the bottom of some models so they would accommodate someone sitting at the desk. Sometimes the bottom half has drawers like a chest, and others have legs like a desk. Secretary desks have a rich history, and many antiques were made with lavish woods like rosewood, tulip wood, satin wood, king wood, and then later cherrywood, maple wood, oak, and mahogany. In addition to this, many antique secretary desks have elaborate inlays, carvings, designs, and ornamental embellishments. Of course, the more ornate and unique the piece, the more expensive they can be.

What are the features and materials of a roll-top desk?

The roll-top desk also has a rich history, going all the way back to the 1700s, just like the secretary desk (via DutchCrafters). But it didn't make its way to the U.S. until the 19th century, and was patented in 1850 by Abner Cutler of the Cutler Desk Company, and since then blended with other styles and other company designs. It has features that also vary, but the telltale feature is of course the tambour, a wood slatted cover that slides down the desk front and secures with a locking mechanism and key. Underneath the rolling top cover are the multiple cubbies and drawers.

The classic roll-top desk has drawers on the bottom half, usually on both sides, and a top drawer, with leg room underneath. It has a stately look and these desks are typically heavy pieces, made from quality wood like oak, elm, cherry, or walnut. There are versions with slender legs and no drawers, but usually these are called tambour desks and the slatted top closes from left to right instead of top to bottom. The roll-top feature is the one thing that sets these desks apart from others.

Pros and cons of a secretary desk

According to Farm Food Family, the secretary desk has multiple pros and cons. They are much larger than regular desks and so they may not be suitable for a smaller space. Additionally, these beautiful pieces can be quite expensive. They come with multiple compartments which is great for both storage or for putting items on display. They definitely don't just have to be used as a desk, and can simply be the perfect addition to your home decor. 

Antique versions are gorgeous and add a touch of prestige and elegance to any room, and if you prefer a modern version, you can opt for one with less bulk and more desk functionality. However, probably the biggest drawback is the size and weight of these pulchritudinous pieces of history, but if you have the room, and you love the look of antique furniture in your house, you really can't go wrong with a secretary desk.

Pros and cons of a roll-top desk

When it comes to roll-top desks, there are multiple pros and cons to consider. One of the things to think about is they are usually quality-made and thus costly, via HomeOfficeApproved. Of course, they're typically also quite heavy to move, but can fit in a corner or other smaller space that a secretary desk might not. However, they're still relatively bulky and larger than other some modern desks. 

That being said, they give any home office or room a regal look, and you can roll the handy top over your workspace and cover up the mess when you need to. You can also (usually) lock up the desk, so if you need to keep valuables safe from prying eyes, this choice offers an extra level of privacy. Plus, this option also has multiple spaces, cubbies, and drawers for all kinds of odds and ends. Unfortunately, it doesn't work for a home computer, but it's fine for a laptop.

What is the maintenance of the two?

By now you might still be conflicted over which type of desk you prefer, especially since they both have so many great qualities! If you're basing your decision off of care, then this section is probably not going to be helpful in that respect, since both desks require regular maintenance (via Lynchburg Museum). Antique desks of any kind need regular dusting with a soft brush or feather duster. For the most part, you don't want to use water of any kind to clean the wood, but if you do need to deep clean or spot clean it, only use a microfiber cloth and mild detergent diluted with distilled water. 

Do not apply liquid straight to the wood — only use a dampened cloth. Be sure to dry the wood completely with a new clean, dry cloth when finished. Afterwards, you'll need to apply wax, and when it's hardened, buff and polish the desk again to keep the wood beautiful and protected. Modern versions may not need the same maintenance, but these classic antique pieces do require considerable care. However, with proper attention to detail, either one of these antique desks will stand the test of time.

Cost differences

As you can imagine, there's no set price range on antiques, as they're rare and vary greatly in design and detail. Let's start with the secretary desks. According to Chairish, you can find some stunning pieces at anywhere from $299 to several thousand dollars. Modern versions, such as ones you can find on Wayfair, range from $150 on up, but these are small and look more like end tables or small desks with a fold-down top. Keep in mind, the classic antique versions of secretary desks can get ridiculously expensive — we found one at Sotheby's for a cool $28,000!

Moving on to roll-top desks, and same goes for these. Looking at 1stDibs, the prices are definitely high for the antique roll-top desks, ranging from about $2,000 all the way up to $100,000! This is an auction website, so prices may vary greatly, of course. However, it still gives a good idea of the price range these gorgeous pieces can go for. For modern versions, Wayfair has some at around $500, give or take. So, as you can see, they can be quite an investment. Either way, owning one of these timeless pieces of versatile furniture adds a touch of elegance to any room in your home!