Vintage Desk Makeover
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This past summer, we began the search for a suitable replacement. Handan hit the jackpot with an awesome old desk she found listed on Craigslist. We bought the desk for $150, but ended up offering an additional $50 to the seller for driving it in his pickup from the storage area to our house, since it wouldn't fit in our car. The desk is huge and has to weigh around 350 pounds. It took four adults, struggling, to move it from our driveway into the house.
When the top was sanded and cleaned, I applied a couple of coats of Danish oil. Danish oil is what is called a "hard drying oil." It is usually a blend of either tung oil or polymerized linseed oil and a varnish. It deepens the color of the wood and gives a subtle satin finish. Since the desk would be heavily used, I wanted to add more protection. After the Danish oil had cured, I applied a coat of satin finish polyurethane. I took the following picture when the polyurethane was still wet, hence the glossy look. So far, so good.
Once I again I sanded, careful not to blast through the veneer. When all the old poly and Danish oil were cleared away, the desk was ready for stain. I made a custom blend of my three favorite stains, which I use almost exclusively in various homemade blends.
When the stain was dry, I applied a coat of satin polyurethane.
I sanded yet again. Oh, brother was I careful! I knew the veneer must be getting dangerously thin. Since the sanding took off some stain, I grabbed my custom blend and re-stained the desk. I let the stain dry, then reached for my new can of glossy polyurethane. With gloved hand, I brushed on the first coat of the shiny stuff. This time...this time I nailed it! Deep color? Check. Glossy finish? Check! Now I just had to wait before applying a second coat.
The directions on the back of the can recommended waiting 2-4 hours between coats. The day was warm and a little humid, so I gave it 7 hours. I approached the desk, brimming with confidence and swagger, and started sanding just like the back of the can told me to. The beautiful glossy desk turned into a gunky mess. What the heck, I figured, I'll just slam it with another coat, and that gunk will melt right in to the next layer. I was a polyurethane neophyte. I didn't know that polyurethane doesn't work like that. Shellac and lacquer do...but not polyurethane. I applied the second coat, wondering why it looked like crap, but still holding out hope that some magic would happen in the next 4 hours.
The magic never happened.
[There are gaps in the recorded history here. It is believed that the subject suffered a psychotic break and ran off into the wilderness for some time.]
Handan, my sweet wife and savior, suggested I try something new. She had been reading about other bloggers having good luck with it, and she thought it might work for me as well. As with all things wife-suggested...who was I to argue? I got myself a can and set out to right the wrongs of my desk.
But first I painted the lower parts of the desk. I made an odd mix of blues using latex paint, chalk paint and milk paint. The result was hideous. But, a few coats of white would cover that eyesore and add some interest when distressed.
Time to finish the top. I grabbed a rag, shook the can, then popped open my new poly.
Wow, this stuff was great! It went on smooth and easy. It was a joy to work with! What a smart wife I have! I give this new poly my highest recommendation, and I have used it extensively since this project.
At this point, I was so used to starting this project over, that I just started working like an automaton. I sanded, stained, waited, and applied the first coat of poly. After each coat of poly, I lightly sanded with 1500 grit. And I mean LIGHTLY. No more pressure than the weight of my fingers. Once I had about 6 coats of my new poly, I decided it looked good enough. It was now time for Handan to paint and distress, while I started to work on the drawers. I took no pictures during the final do-over. No pics of me staining, no pics of me finishing. I was a little bit sick of the project at that point and just wanted to finish. My spirits were lifted, however, when I saw the results, and that carried me through the drawer part of the project.
I approached the drawers much in the same way as the desk. First I sanded them down to bare wood.
Meanwhile, Handan was a busy beaver, painting the whole desk with her homemade chalk type paint, custom color-matched to Annie Sloan Old White. After some light distressing to highlight both the natural wood and the blue under-painting, she waxed the desk with Annie Sloan's Soft Clear Wax.
What had started as a quick refinishing turned into a brutal test of will and determination, not unlike a trip to IKEA. But the results are well worth the effort, and I sit at the desk now, typing this post.
Nancy Nesbitt on Mar 31, 2021
Greg - I just found your desk makeover project. I have to say you are not old enough to be a "baby boomer" but your description of IKEA fits my generation. I love real wood and antiques - whether painted or not. Obviously, it has been several years since you posted this, but I have to say I also admire your tenacity with this desktop. It turned out perfectly.