DIY: Refinishing an Antique Secretary Desk

Our first Labor Day Weekend together, my significant other (Dennis) and I decided to go yard sale-ing around the Hudson Valley and Catskills. We got up early and grabbed some doughnuts, hazelnut coffee, and local newspapers from a nearby Stewarts, and made a plan of attack: yard sales in Kingston and Saugerties first, then an estate sale in Woodstock, and last, a barn sale in Bearsville. Chairs, tools, and funky furniture were on our wishlist.

By the time we got to the estate sale it was late morning and there was a steady stream of people in and out. Most of the larger furniture items were either sold or kinda junky. Then I saw her, hiding in a corner, displaying some dusty $3 tchotchkes: a small secretary desk with its front veneer chipping off, but with great bones. No price tag. I asked a fast-paced woman with a clipboard (clearly in charge); she gave a glance to its left and right, scrunched her nose, and asked, “Eh, $30?” Dennis asked, “$20?” “Sure!” she said, shrugging and moving onto the next inquiry.

Perhaps it’s the writer in me, or the fact that I adore whimsy (or both), but there’s something about a secretary desk that just draws me in. There’s a sense of purpose. You don’t just sit and write and leave, you pull open the door and settle into this little hidden atmosphere with intention; when you’re finished, you close the door — finality. It’s a desk that’s filled with stories; literally, because you can store them there.

We packed it into the truck and went back for more with treasure-hunter eyes, scouring each room for another hidden gem… but none to be found that excited me the way the desk had. He bought a few tools and we moved on to the next sale.

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Eventually back at the house, I started thinking of all the ways I could refinish the desk’s front. Stain, paint, decoupage? I decided I’d at least begin removing the peeling veneer the following weekend, when Dennis would be away on a trip to climb Mt. Rainier. And this is how I learned to never refinish furniture when you’re stressed.

While he was away, I read an article about climbers who attempted the same climb but had died, just weeks before he was there. That worry, plus a glass of wine, are what I blame for taking a scraper a little too intensely into the desk, leaving several pock marks where I needed a smooth surface.

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Over time, I tried to fix my aggressive digs as much as possible, power-sanding away (which helped a little). But as other home renovation projects, travels, family parties, and general life moments came up, the secretary sat in the corner, looking just as weathered as she did when I found her, only more bare.

Then August rolled around. Determined to finish this project before the next Labor Day, I grabbed some wood filler, sandpaper, paint, and a stencil, and went to town.

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Filled in the marks. Sanded. Filled in the marks I missed. Sanded. Sanded more.

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Went to Michaels, bought Folk Art Chalk Paint in Sheepskin and Java. Painted the first layer Sheepskin and the second layer Java, with intent to lightly distress the edges.

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Taped on the stencil, used a Behr paint sample (Sleek White) and a sponge brush (I wanted a glossier feel than the chalk paint). It was going great!

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Then I removed the stencil… and bits of the paint with it.

Right down to the bare wood.

Ugh.

But then I stepped away, grabbed a beer (Southern Tier Pumpking), and when I came back, I kinda loved it. It looked more “intentionally distressed” than “Pinterest fail” and Dennis even said he loved it, too (although I’m still not sure if I believe him). The next morning, I still loved it. Talk about a happy accident!

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So there we are: A saved secretary that was first ruined more, saved a little, ruined again, but eventually loved despite her flaws.

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