#35 Woodworking | A Little Spruce (or Pine, or Oak…)

aka Refinishing an Antique School Desk

Since I was about 9 years old or so I had this antique school desk in my bedroom that usually served as my bedside table. When I started moving into homes where more than just one room was mine to do as I pleased, the little antique desk became an occasional table, usually stuffed with programs, take out menus, instructions for assembling furniture, and any other spare part sort of things that would more-or-less fit.

It was, essentially, a junk drawer.

And, over the years, it’d started to look a little worse for wear. For the last 2 years it’s been hanging out in our garage because there was no place in the house for it to be.

Top of the antique child's school desk, scarred and stained

Poor little antique school desk.

Originally I thought the desk had been something Mom had picked up along the way, but it turns out that the piece of furniture goes back at least to my paternal grandmother, and possibly to my great-grandmother (Mom said it was kept in Mamie’s room, which became mine when we moved in with grandma when I was 3). Apparently it was there when my aunt (my dad’s baby sister) was little and she used it growing up, but didn’t know where it actually came from, either. It was the place coloring books and crayons were kept for the grandkids until it eventually moved with us to Florida.

Knowing how far back the desk goes makes me feel more than a little ashamed at how it’s been treated over the years. There were stickers applied, candle wax melted on, wet glasses set on it, teeth marks in the top (an unfortunate incident that involved my brother jumping on the bed) and the cubby stuffed so full that the bottom long since gave way and had to be reinforced more than once. (Aunt M did mention that she also had a habit of over-stuffing the desk, so I don’t feel quite so bad about that one.)

I’m happy to report, however, that this tale has a happy ending. I’ve spent the last 2 weekends giving this old desk a makeover and not in the spray-paint it glossy white sort of way that seems to be so popular these days. No, no, I stripped what was left of the finish from it, had Todd cut a new, solid bottom for it out of matching oak (once we cleaned it up Todd was able to identify what sort of wood the desk was made out of from one of his book), sanded it 4 times, stained it (and parts of myself) a deep, rich brown (Kona, to be exact), and am now in the process of giving it a full 3 coats of polyurethane varnish so that it will be nice and pretty for a long time to come.

Antique Wooden School Desk Stained but not Varnished
It’s not quite finished, yet–I still have 3 coats of varnish to add, but it’s close! (The hinges are just there for show.)

You see, it has a very important role to play this fall, as we’ll be including it with our wedding decorations (right now the plan is for it to hold the programs). Until then, though, it will sit in our living room as I’ve recently made room for it by moving one of the armchairs into my office. Coincidentally, that corner is also the one that holds the silver platter from my Easter remembrances from that same grandmother’s house, so it’s fitting they’ll be reunited again.

Having accomplished this task to the best of my abilities, am I ready to hang out my restoration shingle? Not hardly.

I’m not going to lie, this was hard, sweaty work and not something I’d like to spend every weekend doing. I will say, though, that the getting started parts where Todd and I were working together to remove the 50+ nails holding on what was left of the original and repaired bottom of the desk was quite fun. So it’s not out of the question that we might tackle something like this in the future.

I took plenty of pictures during the long, messy, process; have a look-see:

What’s left is 3 coats of polyurethane and adding the hinges back on with new screws. We were able to salvage the original hinges, though they still need a bit of cleaning. I don’t want to clean them up too much, though, since then they might look too new. I’m not going to do any distressing–something tells me that will happen over time as we’re not exactly gentle with our stuff–but I think if it’s lasted at least 50 years and many kids that we know of, this facelift should hold it for quite some time to come.

3 thoughts on “#35 Woodworking | A Little Spruce (or Pine, or Oak…)

  1. Alexandra says:

    This is going to be a gorgeous piece. I have proudly salvaged what was once a cherry red book case. Lacquered it finely to a flat black finish and I adore it. Worth the work. WOuld I do it again? Well…its been about 8 years…

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