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

64 Arts, Projects

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.

Antique Child's School Desk, Open

Woodwork | Giving It a Once-Over

64 Arts

In my garage is a sad, neglected little table that has served me well over many years. It started its life as a child’s school desk. Growing up, it was my bedside table for most of my childhood and early adult-hood. When I graduate to a proper nightstand, it served as an entry table to catch keys and mail and whatever else. Inside it I stored owners manuals, take-out menus, show programs, and whatever else it would hold.

Antique Child's School Desk, Open

Except on the many occasions I’d stuffed it far too full of whatever I considered a keepsake at the time and the bottom gave way. The original bottom–tacked back into place many times–finally gave up the ghost and a piece of scrap wood was attached so it could still serve as a hidey-hole, but the message is clear: this desk needs a makeover!

Makeshift replacement bottom of an antique child's schooldesk

But why now? Well, I have a very special job for this little desk. Next fall, when Todd and I get married, this desk will be tasked with holding our programs for our guests and it will need to look its best.

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

So here’s  my game-plan:

  1. Clean the surfaces. There’s layers of dust and pieces of at least one sticker on its surface and all that needs to come away before anything else is done to it.
  2. Remove the current, ill-matched bottom and have Todd help me find a better piece of wood to replace it with.
  3. Strip what’s left of the current finish. There’s no telling what varnish might be left underneath the dust, but I have a feeling it’s mostly worn away.
  4. Sand smooth any rough patches.
  5. Fit the bottom piece into place as seamlessly as possible.
  6. Stain the entire thing. I can tell from the bottom of the lid that the original finish was a golden brown of some hue, we’ll decide when we get it all cleaned up how dark we want to go, though.

The hardware (2 hinges) might be worth saving and reusing, the seem to be in pretty good shape, now. We’ll see.

This isn’t going to be an overnight project, but we might be able to knock some of it out over the coming holiday weekend. And you know I’ll show you the “after” pictures once we have some!

Until then, I hope you have a thankful Thanksgiving (those of you in the US). If you’re still planning your menu, consider the Apple Mallow Sweet Potato Bake a possible side-dish (at my food blog, Nibbles ‘n Bites).

the 64 Arts | #35 Woodworking

64 Arts

Oooh, power tools!

The next art, in case I didn’t make that clear already, is

35 Woodwork

Using a lathe and other tools.

See? Just like I said: power tools. We don’t own a lathe, but Todd does have a good selection of other tools to choose from.

Only I get a little antsy around power tools.

I developed a phobia of large blades–both still and electric–after a small blade incident* made it necessary to get four stitches in my left index finger. Sounds like a simple accident, right? But somewhere between doing the stupid thing to cause the accident/incident (because it was totally my own fault), driving myself to the emergency room just shy of being in shock, waiting 6 hours (from 10pm to 4am) before getting into the doctor, and the meltdown I had when they gave me the shot of lidocaine before the stitches I was scarred, way more than skin-deep.

Todd mows the lawn and I flinch every time the mower hits a stick or rock and changes rhythm. If he’s in the garage cutting something (often a project I’ve cooked up for us, as I’ll be showing you in future posts), it takes a LOT of deep breaths not to completely panic over the worst-case scenarios flashing through my head. I haven’t even touched my beloved Dremel in years. Even the huge cutters at work–which require each hand on a safety button, well away from the blades, before the foot-pedal to start the cutting action can be engaged–give me the willies!

But Todd loves his power tools and enjoys almost any reason to use them or, you know, buy more. And he’s always careful, I just can’t help but worry. As scared as they make me, I’m certainly not going to stop him!

(Typing all of that out makes me think of Aunt Josephine from Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which just makes me feel all the more silly, but there you go.)

So this art, while I’m going to enjoy showing you a couple of the projects Todd & I have already done together, will be a challenge on a couple of levels. First, to find a fresh project I’d like to do for the blog and, second, to tamp down my fears enough to actually do it!

Wish me luck!

*Fallout notwithstanding, I managed to make light of the situation as best I could in my comic strip. Click through that link and you’ll see my take on the experience.