Antique Desk Transformation (with an important note about shellac as well as tips for cleaning antique brass hardware in minutes)

Antique market season is over. We had a blast at the last fair of the year enjoying some late summer weather that came mid-October. I always forget to take pictures while we’re there!

We stumbled across a lovely find during the end of our wanderings. When I first glanced at the price I thought it was $125 and was about to keep on but TwinDad took a closer look and we got this desk for $20. It definitely needed quite a bit of work, but it was solid wood, had some really neat features and details, and I love vintage desks. Sorry I forgot to get a real “before” picture (or any with a decent camera!)


Once we got it home and I scrubbed it down I realized the extent of the veneer damage. The multiple thin layers of veneer were peeling on every single drawer as well as the desk sides. Damaged veneer seems scarier than it is (in most cases). Most of the time all you need is careful wood glue application, some good clamps, and patience. For days I glued, clamped, and waited. Drawer after drawer. Some pieces of veneer were broken off leaving spots that will be patched with wood filler. After everything was glued, patched, sanded, shellacked, and cleaned again I was finally ready to paint!


Now for a brief digression about shellac…I’ve mentioned this product before but there’s always good reason to mention it again! Shellac is a clear sealant with many, many uses. I use it as a base to help chalk or milk paints stick to laminate (or other slick surfaces) without peeling or chipping, to seal stains or old finishes that might bleed through, or to make it easier to fully and smoothly cover wood filler patches. Be sure to follow all safety precautions when using shellac or any other sealant.

be sure to use clear, not amber!

We all know architectural salvage pieces (like old doors, windows, and shutters) are hot right now but it’s important to seal these painted pieces before ever bringing them into our homes, especially if we have children and pets. Old paint often contains lead which can be very dangerous. If it’s pre-1970s always seal with shellac. It’ll not only prevent further chipping but it’ll preserveĀ all that pretty shabby chic chippy goodness we love.

Ok, with that shellac PSA out of the way…back to the desk! I originally planned on painting it green but decided at the last minute to go with gray. It’s a more versatile neutral color and I want this desk to be a fast sell (it’s large and heavy; I don’t need it taking up room for long!). After two coats of Rustoleum Chalked “Country Gray” paint, it looks so much better. Without the distraction of the painted designs on the drawer fronts, the details of the desk stand out.

The shiny black top is some sort of filmy coating. I tried sanding but quickly realized I wasn’t getting anywhere. Out went the plan to sand to bare wood and stain. With a nice layer of shellac to help the paint grip, I gave a coat of FolkArt “Castle” chalk paint followed by a layer of Craftsmart walnut gel stain. I’ve used this trick before to give a rich wood grain look with a matte finish. It’s quick, easy, and looks lovely once finished.


I never got out my good camera for decent pictures so I apologize for the poor quality!

All the original, unique handles were included and I wanted to keep them but they were disgustingly grimy. The details were imperceptible on some due to the layers of filth. Thankfully, cleaning antique brass hardware is very simple. I soaked them in a hot vinegar and water solution (placed on the stove and brought almost to boiling) then rinsed and scrubbed with a wire brush. So many layers of disgusting grime came off so easily, revealing a lovely brass with an aged patina.

As a final touch, I applied white wax to the edges and side details to give a weathered, softened look. Feeling overly-creative, I decided to paint my own details on the drawer fronts (just simple strokes around the edges, nothing too fancy). I’m always inspired by my style-idol Miss Mustard Seed and her hand-painted pieces…though hers are so much more intricate and beautiful.


It was a lengthy process, but I was happy to have this transformation finished in time for an art fair at my shop. I think it makes for a great statement piece.






2 thoughts on “Antique Desk Transformation (with an important note about shellac as well as tips for cleaning antique brass hardware in minutes)

  1. Going with the gray will help this heavy desk sell faster, I think, because it is an easy color to coordinate with other furniture. You made this look very nice. I’d definitely put it in my home!


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