Liza Greis

Do-it-yourself projects and Home Decor

Refinished Desk Tutorial

 I love building and refinishing furniture! It all started when I was a newly wed and received a ton of hand-me-down furniture from family and friends. Most people probably would have left it “as is” until they could afford new things. But not me. I wanted them to look nice and match right then ( I don’t have a whole lot of patience). So I figured out how to fix them up. I still have almost all of that furniture and some are my favorite pieces even though I have lots of new things too.

Today I am going to show you how I refinished an old desk that has been collecting dust in my mom’s barn for years! The first picture is the before before.

And here it is all cleaned up. The before picture :)
 It needed a lot of TLC. It had a minor crack on the top, thumb tack holes along the front, and chunks missing. It also had a broken leg. I first addressed any repairs that needed to be made. I used Elmers stainable, paintable and sandable wood glue. I put glue along the crack and let it sink in. Then I wiped it off with a damp paper towel.
Putting the large clamp on caused some of the glue to squeeze out so I wiped it again. I glued and clamped the broken leg too. I used a small C clamp.
The desk wasn’t the best ever made. The drawers were held together with only 2 nails on each side. Needless to say, they weren’t very strong. I re-enforced them with my brad nail gun. I looked around the desk and found some other spots to re-enforce as well. Really I just like to find reasons to use it. It is my favorite tool!
 I let the glue dry for a day before I took the clamps off and sanded it. I was lucky because it was pretty much all flat. I did most of the sanding with my hand sander. There were only a few spots I did by hand. You need to remove the old finish so the wood will accept the new stain. If you have something that you want to refinish and it would be hard to sand, you can use gel stain. I have used that several times with very good results. I use Minwax’s gel stain. You can apply it over existing finishes. It is thick and sticky. It would be best to practice on something else first to get the hang of it. For an example, see my bathroom HERE.

It is all naked and ready for a new look! I almost forgot to mention that I used putty to fill in any small cracks or nail holes. Putty, let dry, and then sand. I use Elmers stainable, paintable, sandable wood putty. I used the natural color because it was outside and so was I. I should have used the darker colored putty (it was ALL the way inside ). This putty is stainable, but to a point. That is why they have a darker color. I added more stain to the puttied parts and it worked out fine, but in retrospect I should have got off my big behind and got the darker putty!
In a situation like this, I use oil based stains. This wood was old and dried out. The oil in the stain helps the wood. Plus it dries slower than waterbased stains and gives you more time to work at getting an even finish. Waterbased stains sink in fast, especially with dry or porous (soft) wood. You can also use a wood conditioner before applying the stain. It is sold in cans just like the stain and is milky white. I always use foam brushes too. There aren’t any brush marks and it makes for easy clean up. Just toss them in the garbage!

 I let the stain dry for a day and a half. It needs to be completely dry and not sticky at all.

Then you can add the polyurethane. I love the smell of polyurethane! I know, I know, in the state of California it is known to cause cancer yadda yadda. . . But I love it. In a well ventilated area of course. It brings the wood to life and protects it. I use Minwax’s Fast Drying Clear Satin finsih.
And drum roll please. . . . . .

Taaadaaaa! Isn’t she a beaut??? All I did for the drawer pulls was scrub them in some soapy water. I love the patina on them. I think this will make a welcome addition to my office.

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  1. Between Blue and Yellow says

    Sooooo cute! I love what you did with it, probably what it looked like when they first made it.

  2. Grannie K says

    You are amazing. I look forward to seeing more of your ideas. I'm trying the ones I can and saving the ones I can't right now.

  3. Anna says

    Hey there, this desk is perfect! I’m new at this DIY furniture stuff and still need a bit of help. I’m learning today, first hand, why everyone paints instead of restaining. :) I’m working on my second restaining project today and if you wouldn’t mind, could you please share the color/type of stain you used – I love the finished look of it! Thanks! :)

  4. Helena says

    I have a question about the hand sander. I have begun working on larger projects, such as bookshelves, that require sanding. I have been doing it all by hand *shudders* and really want to get a handsander. But I have joint problems (so you can only imagine how hard it is to sand by hand) and my husband thinks a machine will hurt even worse. Any advice?

  5. katie s says

    LOVE the table!! I need to find someone with an old barn and lots of old furniture they no longer want :) And then I need to go by a few more power tools :)

  6. Titia says

    I love this. I have one almost identical. Stripped it down and did the same thing you did. Lived with it for a year and painted it on the weekend. I’m even more in love with it now. :)
    Good job!

  7. Latoya @The Scotts Crib says

    Your desk looks amazing. It makes me wish I had taken the time to refinish one I found from an antique store. I brought it and the chair for $25.00 and it was solid wood. I got frustrated with the desk after half a year and had my husband curb it. I won’t do that again…I’ll come to your tutorial for assistance:)

  8. terry stewart says

    Awesome refinishing job…but the purist in me has to mention that, though it works beautifully as a desk, it’s design suggests that it was originally meant to be a skirted dressing table. Back in the late 1930s through the1950s, many brothers, husbands, and fathers made these curved-top dressing tables for the ladies in their families. Those two strange oar-shaped pieces you see sitting on top of the desk in the “stained’ picture were actually meant to hold two sides of the dressing table skirt. They sit just under the top of the table, and you would swing them out from the center so you could sit at the table and/or access the drawers. So, when you get tired of using it as a desk, you can make a pair of pocketed panels for it, add a glass top to put lace or photos under, and use it as a dressing table!

  9. Shannen says

    I just stumbled onto this site while looking for instructions on refinishing a desk. Thank you!!! My dad and I are going to turn it into a father/daughter project!

  10. Donn Andersen says

    I just bought an old beautiful oak desk for only $40.00. I am going to refinish it and am scared to death! I have NEVER refinished anything….

    Yours came out beautiful!

    Any advice for a newbie?

  11. Janice Greene says

    Hi: I wish I had the wear-with-all to do this to my old desk…but I live in a small condo with no room to do these refinishing things. Plus the fact that I’m old and don’t have the patience. The reason I’m writing you is perhaps you know of someone in my area who does what you do and wants a once beautiful mahogany desk to restore. It has been sitting on my porch. I covered it with a plastic tarp. I hate to just drag it down to the dumpster outside my building ( i live on the second floor). My desk is by no means as bad as the one you started with. I live in Las Vegas. Maybe there are some people who read your blog who would be interested. I DON’T TRUST CRAIG’S LIST so I don’t want to put an ad there. The desk is over 60 years old. It had been in my mom’s house and after she passed away, I moved it to a back bedroom. Unfortunately sitting in bright morning sun. Over the years the draws starting falling apart, but not so bad that they can’t be repaired easily. I would love to see this beautiful old desk go to someone who could restore it to its original beauty.

  12. Samantha Rogers says

    My grandmother recently passed away and I was lucky enough to lay claim to an old wooden desk she got as a wedding present. It does have quite a few cracks, so I appreciated your tip to use wood glue to fill in the holes. I think after it is stained, the glue won’t be noticeable at all.

  13. John says

    Liza.thanks for sharing your table.
    I have a old writers desk .it has a pull down, not roll up. It is a dark color looks like many coats of varnish shellac or paint.
    I don’t know if I should sand it down to th bare wood or use some type of refurbish fluid and rub it down. I think I would like the darker color but black as it nearly appears now,
    Is it any way I can send pictures




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