There might be several reasons you choose to upcycle a Victorian writing desk – you might have this old piece of furniture and not really like it but don’t want to throw it away and think could be transformed into something you do like. Or your piece of furniture could be damaged but with some filler and paint, could look perfect albeit in another guise. Or you could just fancy taking up a new hobby and “pimping up” furniture sounds interesting. Make sure that if this is something you are looking to do, that your antique desk is not worth a lot of money and you won’t be effectively vandalising a valuable item.
Normally you’d look to upcycle an antique desk because you dislike the look of the item and think you could transform it into a much more attractive object. As well as changing the colour of the item, you can very easily replace any handles and locks on the desk. More ambitious upcyclers might also choose to change the shape or height of the object by altering the leg height and also by chopping the object up and putting it back together seamlessly with the aid of hidden screws, nails and glue. This is far more complicated than a simple decoration job as it is transforming the original shape completely – these can be wonderfully satisfying project however for the moment we’ll cover the process of executing more simple projects.
It is important to have an end plan in mind, however working with the item might inspire you and you should be open to this process. You might have an old desk that if the colour and handles, escutcheons etc were changed, could easily become a dressing table or hall table, dresser, console table etc. Consider the shape of your desk to decide what function might suit it.
Before you start
This an easy job that requires some basic equipment. The tools you may need to upcycle your Victorian writing desk may include all or some of the following; diy gloves, goggles and mask, paint stripper, steel wool, sandpaper (coarse and fine), a cloth, primer, paint, paintbrushes, replacement handles and any other ironmongery you may need. The colour of the paint and the style of the ironmongery should be chosen to suit the purpose you have for the upcycled desk. You might decide you want to restain the wood and varnish it, or that you want to paint a certain colour to match an interior colour scheme. As this is a messy job involving chemicals, it’s best to work inside in an area that you can get dirty such as a garage or shed or if not, outside.
Put down layers of newspaper or plastic to protect your patio/grass/floor. If you are working inside, make sure the space is well ventilated if using solvent based products.
Disassemble the desk into it’s constituent parts by removing the drawers and handles, hinges etc as its difficult to paint around them. If you are staining and varnishing the wood you’ll need to sand the current layer of varnish or wax off the wood so that only bare wood remains. Start with a coarser sandpaper and use a finer one once the surface is wax or varnish free. You could use an orbital or belt sander on flat surfaces. A multitool with a sander attachment can also get into awkward corners. But it’s sheer elbow grease you’ll need for some of the curved surfaces and crevices such as the legs and sides. Do not use steel wool on wood unless you are trying to obtain a distressed finish as it’s a very abrasive tool. Be careful not to sand too much if your desk is a veneer as you’ll erode the veneer surface. After sanding remove all dust with a specifically designed “tack cloth” to provide a clean base for the stain or paint to adhere to.
If you are painting the desk, the surfaces will only need a light sand to make them smooth and even and give a grip for the paint to adhere to. Any filling of any dents or chips etc can be carried out with a two part wood filler if so desired.
If painting, apply a coat of primer on all surfaces of the drawers and frame and leave to dry. Expert tip: if you are using a custom colour, most professional paint suppliers can offer you a primer or base paint in the same colour. This can save on top coats and give you a better finish.
If staining, mix your stain to your desired hue (you can test this on a piece of test wood maybe on the inside of a drawer). Once the test stain has dried, if it is the colour you desire, apply the stain evenly all over the desk. If not, remix and retest until you achieve the colour you desire. If creating your own stain, it is imperative that you mix enough to be able to finish the job or to note your recipe so you can recreate it and ensure consistency with the stain. Many wood stain colours are on sale but often they’re not the exact colour you may require. Mixing them is very often a prerequisite of any project.
You may decide to use a two tone effect with paint/wood stain and an accent colour such as black or gold to highlight decorative parts of the furniture. If you are doing this, allow the main colour/stain to dry. Apply a second coat after 24 hours and allow to dry again. Then apply the accent colour. Do this very carefully and wipe off any imperfections before they dry.
You should also paint the inside of the drawers and underneath the desk if desired and especially if you think it will be visible.
If you are going for a shabby chic look, after you’ve painted the piece, distress it in areas where there would naturally be wear and tear by rubbing off bits of paint, revealing the wood for example on the corners and the centre of the desk. Start with coarse sandpaper, then blend in the distressed areas by going over with the finer sandpaper you used earlier. Expert tip: be careful as if this look is overdone, it can look very fake and distressing should be done sparingly. You can always distress it more later if you wish, and it will naturally become distressed as it lives on in your house.
Lastly, attach the old or new ironmongery to the piece once the paint is completely dry, being careful not to mark or damage your new paintwork. Brass handles look fabulous on almost any colour but especially on dark wood or dark paints. Antique brass gives a quality period look.
Mistakes happen – don’t panic if they do. Most are completely recoverable, especially if you are painting the object.
If you want to have a go at upcycling but are a DIY novice and don’t’ feel confident about your piece having a great result, search out old pieces of furniture at your local car boot sales and junk shops that you won’t mind using as guinea pigs and once you grow in confidence, you can tackle more precious pieces. Most importantly have fun and enjoy breathing new life into something that could have ended up in landfill.