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Upcycled Drop-Front Desk

Updated: May 21, 2022

I love vintage drop-front desks! I bought this piece (originally a mahogany reproduction desk from the 1950's) from a local store specializing in vintage furniture. They charged me a little extra to have it painted in Antique White Milk Paint, and to add a little distressing. When I received the painted piece, I thought it was really nice. However, after a few weeks of living with it, I realized that I wasn’t a huge fan of the original hardware, the heavy distressing, or the yellow tinge to the white paint. So, I set about changing the drawer hardware, repainting it, and fixing a few other flaws, inside and out!

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Perhaps I should have used chalk paint, but I like using Benjamin Moore paints because of the quality and consistency of their paints. It is also easy to get the exact color that you want. For furniture, I usually use a water-based primer followed by a satin (or pearl) paint. However, depending on the wood species, and the color you want to use (such as white), I would recommend using a shellac-based primer (see 'lessons for the future' below).

I used two colors for this project. I used Wedgewood Gray (HC-146) inside the desk, and the front-facing parts of the removable cubby section, including the little drawer fronts,

Upcycled Secretary Drop-Front Desk

the little door and the pull-out columns. I used BM Capital White (CW-10) for all the outside areas, the main drawers, the back, and the upright parts of the cubby. The color inside the desk is similar to the wall color in the room, Nelson Blue (CW-635), also by Benjamin Moore.

I used Pebeo Gilding Wax in Empire Gold (see link below) on the drawer hardware, on the drop-down arm mechanism, and on the little knobs in the cubby.

This final upcycled piece is very versatile and functional. I could have placed it in the dining room, in one of the bedrooms, or in the upstairs hallway. I decided to place it in our den and have been using it as my office desk! I really love the fact that this vintage piece of furniture, that was probably unwanted and stored in someone's basement for years, now has a new lease of life, and serving a new purpose!

You may have noticed some lovely shelves above the secretary desk. I will write a separate post about the ‘shelves’ project, as well as some styling tips.

Issues Encountered:

  • I realized early on that the removable cubby section would need a lot of work, sanding rough edges, primer and several coats of paint.

  • Distressing a piece is great if you want to hide a lot of dings and damage. I am not a fan of heavy distressing, so a lot of wood filler had to be used to repair some of the heavier dings.

  • The back of the desk had a couple of thin, water-damaged, and peeling sheets of stained plywood that had to be removed completely.

  • The drop-down hardware mechanism was sprayed with dark paint and had to be completely removed, cleaned, primed and coated with brass-colored gilding wax.

  • One of the wooden support arms that holds the drop-down desk leaf was badly warped. This had to be straightened out and restored so as not to look skewed when the top is closed.

  • Replacing the original drawer backplate and handles presented problems because the original hardware is curved. The screw holes for the new drawer hardware had to be drilled at an angle in order to sit flush against the drawers. It took a long time to find the drawer pulls and I ordered a few sets from various stores (and returned most) before choosing the ones you see in the photo.

Lessons for the future:

  • Check very carefully for structural damage when buying vintage furniture, especially if you are upcycling for personal use.

  • Paint it yourself, if possible.

  • If painting a piece in a white or very light color, consider using shellac-based primer instead of water-based primer, especially on mahogany pieces. Test on a leg first and if any pink comes through with water-based primer, then use shellac-based primer.

  • Check out painting video tutorials! My favorite tutor is Denise at Salvaged Inspirations. She has a great deal of experience in painting vintage furniture, and her pieces turn out so beautifully. She has a specific video on how to paint furniture white that I should have viewed before embarking on this project!

Products Used:

  • Benjamin Moore Wedgewood Gray (HC-146) in pearl or satin finish inside the desk and the little drawer fronts and door of the cubby.

  • Benjamin Moore Capital White (CW-10) on the outside (including the back).

  • Pebeo Gilding Wax in Empire Gold on the little drawer knobs in the cubby, the metal arm mechanism, and drawer hardware. A little wax goes a long way!

  • The drawer pulls seen in the photo were purchased from Amazon a while ago. They are 2.5 inches long (from top of back-plate to bottom of pull) and 2 inches wide. The company that manufactured my pulls has since changed their design, so I strongly recommend getting a test set of any drawer hardware before committing to drilling new holes.

  • I use these small paint brushes for my projects. They are really excellent for getting into tight spaces, and are incredibly durable. I don't use a paint sprayer, mostly because of the clean-up!

  • You can find similar vintage drop-front desks on Ebay!


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