ReLoving an Antique Desk

Normally, I don't give much glance to the furniture for sale at our Goodwill.  Most of it is '70s plaid, or those pound-it-together pieces that are falling apart.  And, there's not usually much in the way of furniture anyway, in our small store.

Until... The Desk showed up.  She was a grand old lady, with dovetailed joints on her drawers and all of her original handle pulls intact!  A mahogany-veneered curvy girl from the 1920's, I'm guessing.  But, it was her price tag (or tags...there was about 10 of them!) that drew me in completely, just $29.99.  Yep, you're goin' home with me, baby!

Now, her {ahem} top, was not so great. The veneer was about 60 percent lifted off {probably from moisture}, and had some deep gouges in it.  I toyed with the idea of re-gluing it, but those gouges were just too deep to try and sand out.  Also, her drawers were all very difficult to open...I had a few doubts, but ventured on.

The Lady sat inside our garage for a few days, and when I went out to start on her makeover, lo-and-behold, her drawers slid out like they were new! Humidity had caused the wood to swell, but now they were back to normal.  I discovered that each drawer was numbered and corresponded to a numbered drawer opening. Quality work back-in-the-day!  The back of the desk is stenciled "VAN NO 1920 MAH"...and I was sure that MAH meant mahogany.

After taking a few days to ask questions and research the best and easiest way to remove the veneer from the top (I wanted to leave the rest of the desk as she was), the overall opinion from experienced folks was to use a wet towel and a hot iron.  Wetting down an old towel (not drippy) and placing it over the top was the first step. I also put her out in the hot sun for a couple of hours, to let the 90 degree heat help soften that glue! Then, I peeled off as much of the already lifted veneer as possible, by hand.  Next came the hot ironing of the wet towel, which steamed the veneer and glue until it at last all came off.  I didn't do much damage with the putty knife I used, so not much repair was needed, but I did try to scrape off as much glue as possible.

After she was completely dry, I sanded until her writing surface was as smooth as silk.  Now, this next part is what became a nightmare:  Being told to use a pre-stain conditioner, I followed the instructions on the can, to the letter. Then, I carefully applied 2 coats of stain, again following the directions on the can and on the manufacturer's website. Result: TOTAL FAIL.

The stain didn't absorb evenly, and was a splotchy mess.  I was so disappointed!  And of course, it meant more sanding!!  I thought my right arm was going to run away from home from the workout I gave it, sanding and sanding.  At last, all the stain (eh, 99% of it, anyway) was gone, and I once again had a canvas to work on.

I wasn't taking any chances this time; I mixed up a batch of my trusty DIY chalk paint recipe in a rich, deep chocolate brown.  Two coats of that, and a light sanding with 220 grit sandpaper later, I then applied 2 coats of Minwax Water Based Polycrylic. It goes on milky, but dries crystal clear.

The heavens have opened and angels are singing!  I LOVE the way the desk turned out!  As a reward for letting me sand the heck out of her, I gave the rest of the desk a good "drink" of furniture oil.  Her mahogany curves really shine now!

This project took me longer than I thought it would, because of trips to Home Depot for this and that, and hours of researching: "Can I use chalk paint over fresh stain without sanding?" {um, no.}  However, I am very pleased with the results!

The only thing left to do is clean up the drawer pulls with some Barkeeper's Friend. But, that's tomorrow. For now, I'm sitting at my beautiful, perfectly imperfect antique desk and am crushing on the soft sheen the top takes on in the glow of the computer screen.

Overall I didn't spend a lot on ReLoving this desk, because there is almost a full can of stain, and Polycrylic, left over for other projects and I already had the ingredients for the chalk paint on hand.  My right arm has forgiven me, too.

Please leave me a comment below, and follow me on Instagram and Facebook.  Ta for now!


  1. Hi Juju
    Beautiful job on the desk. I, too, tinker with the forlorn discards of furniture and I am so glad that you have taken it into your skills of reviving those who are forgotten and turned them into useful items again.Safe and contented journey, Carol