How to Refinish a Wood Desk

My love for DIY started with furniture refinishing. It is difficult to beat the beauty and craftsmanship of antique and vintage wood furniture. Restoring something old and worn to its full potential is a great idea.

We recently installed painted, built-in cabinets in our husband’s office. I wanted a wood desk to match the Agreeable Gray built-ins. The oak desk needed some TLC, but its size and shape were ideal for the space.

How to Refinish Wood Desks (or other wood furniture)

These are the basics, but you can read on for more details!

  1. Space protection
  2. Take out the old finish
  3. If necessary, fill the damage
  4. Stain (if desired)
  5. Seal

Eliminate the Old Finish

There are many ways to remove the old finish. The most popular is a sanding and chemical stripper. I prefer to sand smooth surfaces. For curved surfaces and surfaces with intricate carvings, I like to use sanding. Sometimes, I do both.

I started by sanding the top, but I stopped because it was removing the wood’s natural character. I decided to remove the old finish chemically. When working with chemicals, it is essential to take the necessary precautions.

Protect surfaces using plastic.

To remove the old finish:

  1. Use CitristripLet the piece dry in Citristrip for 30 minutes.
  2. Use a scraper to remove the old finish.
  3. Scrape in the direction that the grain is.

To remove all the Citristrip residue, wash the brush with a mild soapy solution. It would be best if you dried your desk quickly, as excess water can cause damage to the wood.

To remove any remaining finish, use a furniture refinisher or steel wool a glass or metal container, pour a little furniture refinisher. Use medium-grade steel wool to scrub any areas of the desk with an old finish. The furniture refinisher will dissolve any old finishes and remove some Citristrip residue.

Citristrip is safer and more eco-friendly than many other paint and chemical strippers… However, I have found that it can remove most paints and polys. Old varnish will require furniture refinisher. Citristrip can also be used to remove the wood stain without additional chemical strippers or mineral spirits.

Sand the Piece

This is your chance give the old piece a new, smoother finish. This will remove any old finish or dirt and can smoothen out scratches. A palm sander is better than an orbital sander for this task.

Be careful not to sand too hard if you have veneer on your piece. You don’t want the top layer to be removed! You should only file through some stains to preserve the piece’s character. Some of the older colors I like to keep in the wood make it unique.

This is how I sanded this desk to prepare for refinishing.

  1. To remove any finish left behind, use 150 grit paper to wipe off cracks and areas where it has pooled.
  2. To give the whole piece a light sanding using fine-grit sandpaper (200 or higher), use a palm sander
  3. Get rid of all the dust

Prepare the wood (optional).

This is your opportunity to repair any wood damage or fill holes. Use a stainable filler to fill the holes and sand it smooth. As needed, you can glue or repair any loose joints.

If you wish, this is your opportunity to stain your wood. I love the natural oak tones, but it can often turn orange when sealed. So I created my secret method to keep the wood looking.

This is crucial! It protects your desk against oils, spills, sweat, and other contaminants. While not all wooden furniture should be sealed, a desk does. (See here to learn more about when and how to seal furniture).

I chose a water-based polyurethane sealing agent in this instance.

  1. Use a sponge brush to apply a coat of sealer and allow it to dry.
  2. Lightly sand the first coat using 220 or 300 grit Sandpaper
  3. Repeat the process 1-2 times. I did 2 coats on my legs and 3 on my desktop. Sand after the second coat.

Find out more DIY furniture projects

This DIY project is very easy. This project requires a few supplies but not any power tools. It also takes up very little space. Because I loved the original, I didn’t add any hardware to it.

It is easiest to refresh antique furniture by simply painting it. Sometimes it is helpful to learn how to refinish wood desks to preserve the beauty and grain of solid wood furniture. I am excited to share the complete reveal of my husband’s office.

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