Desk renovation

Once upon a time I had a little boy whose best toy was his imagination.
(“Because I can’t break it or lose it,” he told me earnestly when he was three.)

little boy playing outside


As he grew older…

…he put away his childish things (because even a boy with a big, indestructible imagination still has things).

However, he did not often put away anything else!

To be fair, it should be noted that he needs more room.  He no longer plays outside with sticks and rocks (and the occasional Papo figurine), but inside, with books and strategy games.  The little desk just wasn’t big enough to contain it all.

So, I did what I usually do when we realize we need a new piece of furniture:  I started scouting the thrift stores.  And this is what I found:

Sure, she needed some work:

But I really liked the old-school style, the warm, yellowed wood, and the shelves instead of drawers on the right side. She was the perfect size for Will’s room, and at $35, she was the perfect price. Sold!

How it usually goes when I buy something like this

I buy it with great intentions.  I fully intend to transform it into something really cool.

I’m going to paint it, refinish it, make it completely awesome. I put it in its space just for now–because we usually need it right now–and then…

I get busy, distracted, pulled away by other, more urgent things.

Like a bathroom that’s suddenly thrown into full-scale renovation.

And what happens is that we live with it in its pre-fabulous state for a long time.  Like this chair, which I bought more than two years ago:

I love this chair, but the wood need refinishing and the cushions need recovering.

But not this time

Unlike me, my son does not see the beautiful potential in every thrift store find. He tends to think that one man’s trash is every man’s trash. I knew I had to make this desk look good before I could take it to his room.

However, we do have that bathroom project going on, and I didn’t want to fall down the rabbit hole of some kind of extensive refinish job. I knew it would be easy enough to slap a few coats of paint on the whole thing and call it good, but I didn’t really want to do that, either.  I really did like that aged, mellow wood.

I decided to go for a half-and-half solution: I would paint the outlines of the desk, but leave the rest. Something like this dresser from Gloria at A Little Paint:

Getting started:  Sanding

Sanding the desk was the first step. I’m not sure why I did this, but I decided to sand the top down to the bare wood. I think I wanted to see if refinishing it might be a manageable option. What I found was that damage to the wood was deep, and sanding took a long time and made a huge mess.

Note to self: Don't wear the down vest while sanding.

This did convince me that I didn’t want to sand the whole thing down, and I’m sure I got some valuable learning.  No  harm, no foul.


If I had it to do over again, I might just give it a light sanding and move on to the next step: priming for paint. (However, I might not. The finished top is really nice and smooth.)

I am definitely a novice when it comes to painting furniture.  I did some Googling before I started, and I was a little frustrated because there doesn’t seem to be clear consensus about the best way to paint wood furniture. And then I found these words from The Nester, and all was good:

“For years people have been asking me how I paint my furniture and for years I’ve been doing it all wrong and honestly, It’s never really mattered. My paint usually sticks just fine and the finished product is pretty great. Not perfect but good enough.”

Did she say “good enough”? Yes, she did.

“Good enough” is a bit of a mantra around here, so I decided to do a few basics and stop sweating it.

Slapped on some water-based Kilz and she was ready for paint.

Put some Frog Tape at the edges of paint and wood. Love Frog Tape for a nice, clean line.


I will spare you the mental machinations involved in choosing the paint color. In the end, I went with an option that is always a favorite:  paint I already owned. It’s a deep, navyish-charcoal in an eggshell finish, and I thought it would look great against the warm wood tones and Will’s walls, which are a brighter navy, khaki, and white.

(Speaking of good enough, that’s what his walls are for now. We wrote about why we won’t be painting them soon–and how to paint a stripe on your wall–here.)

While I don’t know much about painting furniture, I do know that multiple thin coats are better than one thick coat. Here’s what the desk looked like after the first coat and a light sanding:

desk with one coat of paint close up

You can see that the wood retains its imperfections. I like it that way, and it made those few places I slopped over the the tape look just fine.

I ended up putting three light coats on the desk top, and two on the legs. I didn’t put any kind of wax or poly over the paint. I figure anything that might wear off will just add to the desk’s patina.

The drawer

Once the painting was done, I turned my attention to the main drawer.  She was in bad shape:

I was able to peel the old contact paper out of the trays, but in the main compartment the paper was firmly affixed. I did not feel like pulling all of that out of there.

Then I read a great idea from Diane at In My Own Style, and I had a solution: Use book pages to line the drawer.

Back to the thrift store…

What kind of pages for Will? He loves history, geography, and sports. I was hoping to score an old map, but instead I found a book full of black-and-white photos of classic moments in sports.  The paper was heavy, and the images compelling. Perfect.

As it turned out, the drawer is actually not that big, and there were so many great pictures. Instead of using whole pages as Diane did, I decided to create a collage to fill the main compartment:

Playing around with the images

A date with Mod Podge

Really, I’m a DIY newbie. Before starting this project, I knew even less about Mod Podge than I did about painting furniture. As always, though, you can find whatever you need on the internets. And I found a whole blog dedicated just to Mod Podge. Crazy (in a good way)!

Amy is the author of Mod Podge Rocks! I only wish I’d found her before I started the drawer.
(Don’t we always?)

See, I didn’t know that I should put Mod Podge on both the wood and the paper I was attaching to it. So, my edges didn’t stick. I spent some time fussing around with it, and then I ended up dumping big globs of the stuff on it. Which made my paper wrinkle a bit. Still, I think it turned out OK:

Originally I thought I'd put photos in the tray compartments, too, but I was able to get all the contact paper out of them. I decided I liked the mix of wood and graphics, so I left them alone.

Even though Will’s a bit of a snob, he’s not going to care about a little wrinkling on the drawer liner.

In fact, he said he likes the desk.  This is high praise from a 14-year-old boy who really doesn’t care much about furniture.

front of painted desk

The shelves are great for Will's books and for the storage case he uses to corral all the plastic pieces in the game he's got set up.

close-up of painted desk

A little close-up on the drawers.

painted desk with game board

We already owned that chair, but it looks like it was meant to be with the desk. Love it when that happens.

There you have it:  Easy, affordable, and (we think) looks pretty good, too!

In fact, I’m so pleased and feeling so bolstered by my successful foray into paint, that I’m setting my sights on this guy next:

striped chair

At $5, this was a great garage sale find last fall. Just needs a little paint and some new cushion covers.

How about you?

Feeling pretty pleased about something you’ve done lately? Know something about painting furniture that I clearly don’t–but maybe need to before I tackle that chair?  Would love to celebrate and learn with you–please drop us a comment.

And about that bathroom project…

If you’re wondering how I managed to do this while in the midst of the seemingly never-ending bathroom renovation project…

Truth is, we’ve been stalled on the plumbing for a few weeks now.  And by we, I mean Cane–who has become the master of all things pex and pipe and solder.

(But not really a master.  Once again feeling the need for a disclaimer:  Please don’t do as we do unless you’re sure you want to. And hold us harmless if it goes all kinds of water ‘sploding wrong on you.)

So, I needed a little something to do while he was not burning the house down.

And speaking of Cane, his day job’s got him hopping this week, so he won’t be making his usual post.  He’ll be back at it next week, though, with more bathroom business. Here’s a sneak peak into that:

stacks of 4-inch tiles sorted by color

 Stay tuned…

And if you want to see a whole bunch of transformations, click on over The Rooster and the Hen’s first Repurpose-Remodel-Reveal party, which is where we’re linking this post to.  Just click on the button: