Old Secretary Desk Gets New Life

Anita K
by Anita K
3 Materials
Fell in love with this beautiful old desk at a local antique store. It had great bones and features, so I wanted to give it new life.
My original plan was to sand the desk down and refinish it. After assessing its condition more closely, I decided to approach the project differently - to accent its awesome features: claw feet, wavy doors, to name a few - and cover its damage with paint.
The handles were rusted so badly, they broke apart when my husband tried to remove them. Sanding did not work well, either, as the drawers are curved. It was hot and humid outside, so I worked right in my living room! Onto Plan B: Paint the damaged areas, and polyurethane the beautiful wood top and interior.
The desk had a musty odor and was quite dirty. I used Rustoleum Degreaser to prep it for paint, and wiped it down a few times with citrus cleaner. Then, it was left to air dry for a few days, until the musty odor was gone. I used a rag to spread the citrus cleaner into every part of the desk - each drawer was treated as well as all the interior cubbies and drawers.
Here is a side view before poly and paint....The top had major water cup stains, and the sides were somewhat damaged from exposure to moisture.
I painted the top, sides and back with a black, high gloss paint. I decided to leave the wood framing of each drawer alone. The face of each large drawer was painted black as well. After three coats, she began to come to life! The paint hid the cup water rings all along the top perfectly - and the stains on the sides vanished.
After the paint had cured, I used a clear polyurethane on the desk front - and once that dried, I used it on the inside drop-down portion of the desk. Look at that tiger-patterned top! Swoon....
Here is a side view of the paint and poly all dried....
Now...onto the interior details! I decided to continue the contrasting pattern of wood and black throughout the interior of the desk as well. I did not want to disassemble the desk, to remove the slots...it is a sturdy piece and well assembled...why mess with its construction? Using a sponge roller, I painted the interior of each slot with the black paint. It took three coats of black paint to cover all the slots completely. Here is the interior in progress....
The tiny door handle was missing, but I had the perfect solution! The door pull is from a curio that had been my mom's. It is a fond reminder of her whenever I see it. I painted the fan pattern on the door to highlight that feature. See those columns that flank the mini-door? They pull out for more storage! I added a touch of paint to them to highlight their details as well. A very light sanding using fine-grit sandpaper, brought out the brass on the tiny brass drawer pulls. I removed them to avoid damaging the poly job.
Now for the "jewelry" aka. drawer pulls! At first, I wanted to replace the Federal style originals, but found that the holes were closer than pulls made today. This desk is circa 1950....replacement pulls were cost prohibitive. I sat and looked at the piece, then headed out to my local, friendly Ace Hardware store! The wavy pattern and the spacing of the holes presented a challenge. I opted to try these brass pulls. They look like buttons to me - and I love how they accent the piece.
Here is the interior, still with some of its original patina - a scratch here, a ding there...to maintain the charm of the piece.
Here she is....after her new lease on life! This is a piece that I enjoy seeing every time I walk past it.
Suggested materials:
  • Rustoleum Ultra Cover Premium Latex Paint in Gloss Black   (Ace Hardware)
  • Rust-Oleum Furniture Transformations Deglosser   (Home Depot (from another project))
  • Brass drawer pulls   (Ace Hardware)
Frequently asked questions
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  3 questions
  • Jane Rostami Jane Rostami on Apr 22, 2016
    I have a small chest of drawers that whoever had it before me cleaned the inside of the drawers with what smells like paraffin I have tried everything to try to get rid of the smell but 4 years in it still smells so bad that I have to keep it in the garage. Do you have any ideas to get rid of the smell?
  • Cfr2230743 Cfr2230743 on Apr 22, 2016
    If you painted with black gloss, why use polyurethane too?
  • Jan gaskins Jan gaskins on Apr 26, 2016
    When I was a teenager I had a desk just like this . When I left for college my mom sold it. i would love to buy one like it. Can you tell me who the desk is made by?
Join the conversation
4 of 97 comments
  • Patty Patty on May 02, 2016
    She was pretty rough, but you did a fabulous job and brought her back to life again. This is a piece you can hand down.
  • Miriam Illions Miriam Illions on Jul 14, 2016
    This is so fabulous Anita and can't wait to see it in person! :) :)
    • Anita K Anita K on Jul 14, 2016
      Thank you very much! I'm excited for your visit next week!