Vintage Desk Makeover

2 Months
When we moved into this house two years ago, before we learned how to craft and woodwork, before we figured out how to do-it-ourselves and find-it-for-cheap, we went on several IKEA sprees. Handan had been a big fan of the store, since they could be found in many countries and provided an easy solution to furnish apartments as an expat. On the other hand, I have been at odds with the Scandinavian behemoth since my first visit to the Emeryville, CA store in 2004. I detest the way they turn customers into maze-rats. Once entered, forever trapped! Shoppers are forced to wend through inescapable and endless warrens of gleaming, happy-colored crap. It is like traveling down the hallways of Hades, each step taking the hapless consumer farther from the world of the living and closer to some eternal damnation, where souls are forfeit for flat-faced furniture with unfathomable names. Bend your ear to the east; you'll hear the kronor piling up around a delighted Swedish family and hear their laughter as they haul that money to the bank.
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During one of these slogs through swamps of oak and frosted glass, we picked out a desk for me: a flat, black monolith, devoid of charm, beauty, and drawers. It was a perfect study in efficient minimalism. The absence of drawers or storage forced the user to adopt an ascetic work style. All material possessions (paper, files, pens, etc.) had to be shunned while at the desk, lest they spoil the clean, sterile form. I have no idea why we picked such a thing (besides price), and soon I was longing for drawers. Lots and lots of drawers.

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.
The top has a beautiful fiddleback veneer of what looks to be African cherry, but could be American cherry or another wood I can't readily identify. This is the kind of desk you dive under during an earthquake.
In some places, the veneer was peeling from the substrate, and in one of the corners it was missing altogether.
I repaired the veneer that had come unglued by squeezing some wood glue under the veneer and spreading it around with a toothpick. I clamped it and let it dry. The result was good enough. For the corner missing the veneer, I planned to leave it as is. Once I re-finished the top, it wouldn't show as much. Besides, this was going to be a working desk, so I wasn't worried about making it a perfectly restored show piece. I liked the character it had, and I just wanted to spruce it up a bit. The first step after gluing the two small patches of veneer was to sand down the top to get rid of any old varnish and dirt. Since veneer is so thin, any sanding must be done very carefully, especially when using a random orbital sander. I had learned the hard way (see "Veneer & Loathing" at our blog) that an orbital sander will chew through veneer faster than you can say "OH, SH!T!" What followed was a series of errors and course corrections that took an easy two-week project and twisted it into a Sisyphean summer of tears and despair.
First Attempt

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.
After a few hours, I checked to see how the poly was drying. The glossy sheen was mostly gone. I looked at it a while longer and realized something: I wanted it a little darker and a bit more red.

Second Attempt

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. it looked good, I guess. But, I don't know. Maybe it would look better if it were glossy?

Third Attempt

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.

Fourth Attempt

[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.
But...I still hadn't fully learned how poly works. Even though the can says to "sand with 220 grit," they're basically full of crap. Sanding with anything less than 2000 or 1500 is going to leave noticeable swirls and scratches.
Fifth Attempt

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.
But instead of stain, I applied some Danish Oil (like I did on my first try with the desk).
When this had dried for a few days, I gave them all a coat of my favorite dark finishing wax.

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.
After Handan finished, I re-attached the drawer hardware, put the drawers back in their places, and put a final protective coat of dark wax on the desktop.

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.
(Okay, so maybe I upgraded the typewriter)
Handan & Greg @ The Navage Patch
Want more details about this and other DIY projects? Check out my blog post!
Frequently asked questions
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3 of 4 questions
  • Reta Reta on Apr 11, 2016
    The desk turned out beautiful! What kind of poly did u use?

  • Cindy Cindy on Apr 11, 2016
    The link to the polyurethane at Amazon does take me to Amazon but not the product. What kind of poly did you use please.

  • 9530106 9530106 on Apr 11, 2016
    Great job again! I, too, love the wipe-on poly. I have used it for 20+ years!Ugh. Have you ever tried Formby's Furniture Refinisher, instead of all that sanding? :) It is another of my go-to's, It is not a stripper, so it does not ruin the patina of the wood, and it is so easy to use!

Join the conversation
3 of 162 comments
  • Lindalovie55 Lindalovie55 on Apr 25, 2016
    gorgeous desk and loved the storyline Clever writing skill

  • Nancy Nesbitt 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.