I found this darling little antique secretary desk on Facebook Marketplace and it was just screaming out to me. Let me walk you through my entire process of refinishing an empire secretary desk.
I picked up this piece of furniture for $50 and slightly regretted my purchase. The claim was "not in perfect condition". But when I got it home I realized the extent of the damage.
This unique piece was purchased for my 7-year-old son. And he is ecstatic at the prospect of his very own beautiful desk. So, let's get to work uncovering this beautiful piece of history.
This old piece has a few definite flaws like:
- Not in good condition.
- Not solid wood. It is entirely covered in (possible) mahogany veneer.
- Missing the original key.
- It's going to take almost too much work to refinish and repair it.
- The original stain color is completely hidden by 4-5 coats of oil paint.
But this vintage secretary desk is probably a diamond in the rough and therefore deserves another chance at life.
While I'm doing this entire process in my living room, you really don't need much space to do any of these processes. Just make sure you're ok with the mess that will ensue.
If you love antiques as much as I do you'll love these other projects I did recently: Antique Washstand Turned Bedside Table, Refinishing an Antique Piano Stool, or my full tutorial from start to finish How to Repair and Refinish a Thrifted Chair.
Tools & Supplies Used in Refinishing and Repairing an Empire Secretary Desk
There are a few must-haves when it comes to refinishing furniture. Thankfully if you've done it once you likely have them all on hand anyway!
- Paint Stripper - Citristrip
- Wood Filler - Bondo Wood Filler
- Drawer Knobs *I typically buy mine at Hobby Lobby
- New Drop Desk Hinges
- Early American Stain or
- Dark Paint* Optional - Chalk Paint or Milk Paint *I make my own chalk paint
- Wood Glue
- Brass Drop Front Stays & Screws
- Metal Scraper - Metal Painter's Tool & Contour Scraper + Attachments
- Paint Brush - 2" Angled Brush
- Vacuum - Wet Dry Vac
- Orbital Sander & 120 Grit Sanding Discs
- Impact Driver & Screws
01 - Remove Hardware & Drop Front
For this step, you'll need a flathead screwdriver and a Ziploc bag. And a lot of prayers.
With antique furniture, this can be one of the most frustrating parts of the whole process. Just trying to get the hardware off with flathead screws, especially if they've been painted. It seems like it should be simple, but it took me at least 45 minutes.
Be patient with the process and try not to strip the screw heads while you're evacuating them. I must be crazy because I even chose to put them back when I was done. I try to keep as much history with the pieces as I can.
Even if I think flathead screws are a piece of history that is better left in the past.
When you take them off put all the small pieces in a Ziploc bag for safe keeping and label it.
02 - Clean the Empire Desk Thoroughly
For this step, you'll need a powerful vacuum with attachments and a rag you don't mind getting gross.
The extent of the cleaning before I strip is basically a really thorough vacuuming process. I also do a good wiping down should there be any hitchhikers (aka bugs or egg sacks).
There really is no sense in going to great lengths to clean a piece when you're aware there are several layers of paint to strip off of it.
For this part of the process, I use my Wet Dry Vac, which is the favorite tool in my arsenal by far. If you don't own one and don't know the magic of this tool, I want to tell you it saves my life regularly. And not just in projects!
03 - Stripping Off the Paint
The original condition of this piece of antique furniture left much to be desired. Its previous life was being abused and left to rot in a garden shed. To say it was in less than excellent condition would be a gross understatement.
I found out during the stripping process (about 3 layers into it) that the reason it was giving me such a hard time was they had used oil-based paint.
I have never come up against such a rival before and am not too keen on ever doing it again if I'm honest. I've never had to work to achieve so little in 5 full days of work!
Follow These Easy Steps to Strip a Paint Finish Off:
Read the directions of the paint stripper product you've chosen to use and follow those directions. I use Citristrip and this is how I use it.
- Use gloves and a 2" angled brush. Goggles aren't necessary, but they definitely don't hurt as a precaution.
- Apply the Citristrip liberally all over the piece, or part you choose to work on. I started on the desk top but quickly chose to just do the whole thing all at once.
- Let the Citristrip sit for at least 1 hour. (It can sit up to 24 hours if covered by plastic wrap to keep the moisture level high).
- When the hour is up look at the coloring, it should change from orange to a flat light pink.
- Test a spot to see if the paint is ready to start coming up. If it comes up fairly easily it's ready.
- Use your scraper to start scraping off the old paint and into a trash can (with a liner).
- For all the detail work use the Contour Scraper Tool and different attachments to really get the paint out of hard-to-reach places.
- Continue this process until the old paint is off. You may need to do more than one coat.
04 - Sanding Down to Raw Wood
I have a love and hate relationship with sanding. On one hand, this is the part of the process of refinishing an empire secretary desk that I will start to really see the desk. On the other hand, it's tedious and makes a huge mess.
After about 2 full coats of Citristrip and hours of scraping off oil-based paint, I needed a quick win. So, I took the two small drawers and completely sanded them down. I just needed to see some beautiful raw wood.
Then I decided to try to sand the entire piece and see what I could get to come off. The issue with sanding when you have so much paint left is it will quickly gum up a sanding pad. Which is just a waste of time and money. And a lesson in futility.
But, I felt it was worth a try at this point before doing the third round of paint stripping and hours of scraping. But a word of caution: Let the paint and leftover stripper dry completely before you attempt this.
Best Practices for Stripping vs Sanding:
- It is best practice to really strip as much paint off as possible in the refinishing process so you have to sand as little as possible. And only as a finishing process.
- Sanding by hand is also a preferred method of professionals as it really gives you full control.
The Proper Steps to Sand Veneer:
When sanding a veneer vs solid mahogany or oak you will need to take a few extra precautions.
- Use a lighter grit sanding pad like 220 grit or 120 grit. Though I typically don't ever use 80 grit on veneer. In this piece, I was tempted to almost try 60 grit. However, after having damaged too many pieces by sanding too far down, too quickly I usually opt for the lower grit first just to see what comes off.
- Slowly move your orbital sander.
- Apply minimal pressure to your orbital sander as it makes its way around the flat surfaces.
- Don't attempt to sand any curves or corners with an Orbital Sander, leave these spots for hand sanding.
05 - Make Any Necessary Repairs
Repairs are just a part of refinishing most antique desks or any old furniture really. Even if they're not a real antique (100 + years old) anything that's been actively or inactively used for decades will require a bit of maintenance.
The repairs needed on this desk were quite noticeable once I got it home and started to inspect it. At least one foot had been broken and poorly fixed. And the legs were quite wobbly as well.
The Damages On This Vintage Secretary Desk:
- Storage Compartment Cubby. The only part of this desk that was actually in great shape was the little cubby storage compartments that I actually had to uninstall to strip & sand. So, it will also need repaired and then reinstalled.
- The Desk Backing. The backing to this desk has seen its better days and unfortunately will need to be completely replaced. This is a structural part of the piece, so I can't just let it go.
Basic Repairs to Broken Furniture Feet:
- Start by assessing the damage. Do you have all the parts?
- If you can open up the damaged part and apply glue evenly on all surfaces that will be repaired together. Smooth it out with your fingers or a small brush.
- Squeeze the pieces together tightly and secure them with a clamp.
- Wipe away any excess glue. It will likely have drips continuously for at least the first 10-15 minutes, keep wiping it away.
- Then fill any remaining holes or missing pieces with wood filler. Scrape away excess with a putty knife. Let it dry for the allotted time specified in the directions listed on the package.
- Or use my instructions to repair wood damage with Bondo (if you're planning to paint).
The Broken Back
Unfortunately, the original back to the desk was too damaged with old water damage to keep it. I ripped it off and quickly cut a replacement out of some hardboard I had already in storage.
We then gave it a single coat of Iron Ore by Sherwin Williams.
06 - Chalk Paint, Milk Paint, or Stain
For this step, you will need good chalk paint (make your own homemade chalk paint), Milk Paint, or a stain color of your choice.
This is my absolute favorite part of the process when refinishing an empire secretary desk.
In typical empire secretary desks or an antique victorian secretary desk, you would see a dark color stain. It's typical of the time period, but this desk has so much damage I was not holding out much hope that I would be able to simply stain it.
Therefore I was preparing myself mentally for if I absolutely had to resort to painting it.
Recommendations for Paint or Stain:
These are the options I would choose.
Chalk Paint - Homemade Chalk paint using Plaster of Paris
Thankfully I was able to get this entire piece down to its raw tiger oak wood. And even more of a blessing was that it took stain beautifully. I was relieved I didn't have to paint this beautiful antique empire secretary desk.
07 - Protective Finishing
Because this piece had some veneer damage that I was not going to attempt to repair (so as to not ruin the natural stained finish) I chose to use Polycrylic. But for furniture, I typically will go with furniture wax.
I used a 4" roller for this piece with a roller tray so I could get the finish on quickly. This is because Polycrylic does dry incredibly fast and you don't have much time to work with it before you'll mess up the finish.
When your first coat dries take a 120 or 220 grit sandpaper to give it a light scuff sand. And then clean it off before applying a second coat. I did two total coats.
08 - Adding Hardware
It is always a joy to pick out new hardware for project pieces. Though I wish they always came with their original hardware, that isn't always the case. This desk did have its original drawer knobs, but they were covered in like 7 coats of paint.
If they had been something worth stripping, not simple wooden knobs, I would have patiently stripped them. But I was happy to find these 4 small beautiful brass knobs and 1 larger brass knob from Hobby Lobby on sale for $2/ea. They were just the right look.
I also had to replace the brass drop front stays because only one was left. And for all my searching I could not find a second one to match the size. I found this pair of Antique Brass Steel Drop Front Stays off Etsy for $6.50. They're beautiful and very well made.
However, they didn't come with screws. I didn't realize this until the last minute so we made a quick trip to our local Home Depot and picked up ½" brass machine screws that fit perfectly.
Thank you so much for stopping by! I hope I have inspired you to look for those beat-up pieces covered in some ugly paint job just waiting to be given their life back. It's hard work, but 100% worth it.