Thursday, January 14, 2010

Trash To Treasure Series: Vintage Green Desk found on street

This is the first in a new series of articles about trashed items I find (sometimes on the street, sometimes around my house and sometimes from clients) that I rework into treasures.

I found this vintage green desk a couple of blocks from where I live.  It was put on the street for trash but from the moment I saw it, I knew it was worth saving.

Here it is in my workshop.  My first exam of this patient turned up a beat up finish, peeling quartersawn oak veneer, over solid hardwood (which places its manufacture probably somewhere between the 1930's to the early 1960's), a solid hardwood base (oak, as well) in pretty good condition (and very stable still), replaced knobs, and drawers that still slide in easily (albeit with worn drawer bottoms).  There was a black wooden board attached to the right side back (for what, I have no idea) and a narrow board of pine that was used to replace a missing side, screwed in with sheetrock nails (ouch!), leaving a gap exposed at the side's top (perhaps to air out stuffy papers in the drawer?).

There is some writing on the front of the desk that looks to be from the hands of children, which makes me happy to think that at least somewhere along the line this desk was shown some love by being used as a play table. 

Despite the black eyes and missing teeth, I could tell that this little desk was a swan waiting waiting to be transformed.  The scrolled, front legs were beautiful and the base was solid.  The veneer on the top and drawers was a little rough around the edges but this was not a big deal to sand out, fill and smooth over.  I decided to bathe it in a fresh coat of the lovely green it came in (probably not the original finish) because I could picture sitting at it and being refreshed just by the color.  Hell, even if you had writer's block, it would be nice to just sit there and look at that color!

So, first step, clean it up, wipe it down and remove the offending boards in the back and side and the thorns they were attached with.

I then cut a piece of solid wood for the right side on the table saw and glued, nailed and clamped it into place, replaced the "air conditioner" board that was there. 

I then began the initial sanding using 150 grit (fairly fine but still rough enough to take off any loose finish without leaving too many scratch marks).  In this process (which took a couple of hours) I realized the veneer that surrounded the edge of the table top (and parts of the table top's solid wood edge underneath) was too damaged to be filled.  I could redo the veneer but that would probably result in the same condition after time.  I decided to replace the veneer with a thin, solid wood strip around the table's edge, giving it sturdier protection against bumps, bruises, scratches and inevitable peeling.

After hand planing the top of the strip so that it met flush with the table's top (which was slightly uneven [which is natural for the age of an everyday piece of furniture like this]), I gave the entire desk a couple more sanding passes, using finer, 220 grit sandpaper.

Since I'm going to repaint this, it's not necessary to "strip" this down to the bare wood.  In fact, in most cases, you should always try to avoid completely stripping a piece of furniture (especially, vintage and antique pieces and especially pieces with veneer) and instead, aim for a smooth, even "surface" to which you can apply a newer finish.

Detail: This is the original brass keyhole in one of the drawers.  The desk came with two locking drawers (the locks, which were mortised into the top of the drawer front, are brass too).  If only I had the original key...the secrets I could lock up in there (if I had any).

At this point, everything is sanded, filled, repaired and plucked.  It's time to paint!

The first coat goes on smooth, using semi-gloss latex enamel (a green that the guys at my local Home Depot mixed up for me using a green background from a magazine ad that was pretty darn near close to the original hue) and a small smooth roller pad.  This gives it a nice, even, streak-free coat that is difficult to get using a paintbrush.  I perch the table on four small paint cans so as to get as much paint to the bottom as I can (later, when the paint on top is dry, I'll lay the desk on its back and paint the bottoms of all the legs--I like to be thorough).  The green paint on the side of the drawer on the left is from the original green paint, so I left it there, for three reasons;

1. I like to remind myself of the humble beginnings of an item, especially when you can only see it on the inside (I believe objects can have dirty little secrets too).

2. No one but the owner of this desk will see the green paint on the side of the drawer (and if they do, they shouldn't be looking in there in the first place).

And 3. I believe that behind every beauty is an ugly duckling just waiting to be discovered.

Okay, after a few more coats (took me about four coats to get to the finish I liked and I ran through about a half a quart of paint--not bad--the smooth roller, although more expensive than a cheap brush, actually saves you money because it spreads less paint more evenly).

And now, the reveal:  Voila!

I left the silver replacement knobs (even though they clashed with the brass keyholes a little--that's okay--not everything should be so matchy matchy) because they still had a nice shine and they give the desk a little pop!

Despite four coats of paint, the finish on the top still reveals the wood's grain pattern, which I always like to see (it's nice to be reminded that you're sitting in front of something from nature [that is now in your home!]).

The finished desk, all dressed up and ready to go!


Now, if I only had something to write about...hmm...

UPDATE: This item has been sold!


  1. Beautiful! Love what you did, and absolutely love that green color. I love finding free things on the street! Great job.

  2. Thanks, Heather! I love finding long suffering items of beauty and then giving them the care and attention they deserve.
    Nice art, by the way. I'll be sure to follow you on blogger and twitter! Thanks again for the nice words.

  3. SO smart! I absolutely love it! The legs are fantastic, and that color! I just found the most amazing triptych mirror on the sidewalk in Capital Hill yesterday. It's now propped up in my bathroom until I find a spot for it. Great post!

  4. you have a keen eye for spotting "damsels in distress"! ;) absolutely love the makeover and that color? that color is just divine, i love it! i suppose you aren't selling it, are you? i didn't see it at your place...

  5. Thank you, Juana. Alas, I can't keep all the beautiful things I make and restore (my place is too small--otherwise I would). I have new pieces I'm working on this week (actually, another writing desk [a lighter shade of green] that I will be selling). I'll keep you posted.