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Vintage School Desks – A Guide to Traditional Paint Finishing

Listed under Adam Bermingham, Blog, hand-painted furniture Posted Dec 04 2012

In this article traditional painter for Ireland, Adam Bermingham will go through the process of re-finishing a Vintage School Desk, and many of these ideas can be applied to other pieces you may have at home.

vintage school desks You may have seen the Vintage School Desks available on my website.

I encourage my customers to choose exactly the finish they want. It will then suit their homes and in the long run, they will be happier with their purchase, which is what I want. For instance, last week I got this message on Facebook “Hi Adam, I would love one of your school desks. Can I have it in a brown wood natural finish with black legs. Just like they were when I used to sit in them.”

When I found a supply of old desks, I thought I would be painting them all for children’s bedrooms, so I was very pleased to have the opportunity to do one like this.

Deal with woodworm in wooden vintage school desk

The pictures show the condition of the desk when I got them.

vintage school desks vintage school desks

vintage school desks I don’t finish all of them at once, I wait until they sell and I get the specification from the customer.

The first thing that needs doing is to treat the woodworm. I’m not sure if the woodworm is live or not, but if you see tiny holes on any piece of furniture, treat it with a woodworm solution to be on the safe side.

With the brand I use, you saturate the piece and leave it overnight.

Minor Repair

vintage school desk Seen in picture here is a common problem with vintage and antique furniture. While removing the screws holding the ink-well covers in place, some of the flat heads broke in half, making the screw impossible to remove.

In this situation, the holes are covered by a plate, and although my course of action might not always be the best solution in all cases, I decided to use a drill.

In the next image you can see that next to each original hole I have drilled a small hole. After I did this, I went on to remove each broken screw with a small screwdriver and pliers. Both holes can then be filled ready to refit the inkwell covers using new, but sympathetic screws

hand painted furniture

Sanding & Filling

It’s then onto the preparation process.

hand painted furniture Sand first with 60 grit paper until you get to the stage where all dirt and grime has been removed and the piece is semi-smooth. It’s hard to describe what I mean, but the piece should look smooth and almost finished, but when you rub your hand over the surface you will know it needs more work.

At this stage I start the filling process.

For a piece like this, which may get a good bit of use (and abuse!) from children, I like to do a total grain fill. There are many ways to do this, including complicated mixtures, but for the purposes of this piece I simply thinned down a water based wood filler to the consistency of custard. You then wipe it on with a cloth in all directions to make sure the piece is totally covered, and leave for an hour or so.

Because this thin mixture will not fill any larger holes, you can then use un-watered-down filler at this stage.

Back to the Sander – when the filler is fully dry of course. Start at this stage with 80 grit paper to remove all the filler residue from the surface of the piece. Then it’s up through the grades of paper – as standard I use 120, 180 then 240. Finishing up with a 400 grit sanding sponge.

At this stage, thanks to the grain fill, you should have an ultra smooth, professional finish. Something like this…

hand painted furniture

Oil & Wax Finishing

vintage school desk Every D.I.Y enthusiast at home can finish a piece of furniture in this way and these Vintage School Desks are a perfect canvas for these traditional methods.

As explained in previous posts simply wipe over the whole piece with boiled linseed oil followed by 2 coats of clear finishing wax, leaving a minimum of 4 hours between coats and preferably over night. Then buff to classic satin sheen.

Below are the results and the customer was very pleased, telling her daughter in the workshop as she sat at the desk, “It’s exactly what it was like when I was your age.”

vintage school desks

vintage school desks

Joseph & Sons kitchen painting furniture painting West IrelandSpecialist painter and decorator, Adam Bermingham, is a member of the Traditional Painter UK network. He is the first port of call for hand painted furniture and kitchens Ireland.

Joseph & Son is Adam & Tom Bermingham, a father & son team with diverse backgrounds covering specialist painting and decorating, antiques and interior design.


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3 comments to “Vintage School Desks – A Guide to Traditional Paint Finishing”

  1. Nick Dunse

    Great post, I still have my old roll top oak desk from when I was a kid. With was a long time ago. Nice to see no paint! Much success my friend.

  2. Mark

    Can you imagine kids of today sitting still on one of these for six hours?

    Me neither.

    Stunning refurbishment!

  3. Adam

    Thank you Mark & Nick for the kind words.

    Watch this space I hope to be supplying these on a larger scale in 2014.

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