Restoring Antique Desk – Having Some Woodworking Tasks

restore antique desks

Restoring Antique Desk – slant top around 1890
You want to restore an antique desk? Here’s how I restored this antique slant top desk.

Perhaps you are restoring your own antiques and can find some good ideas by following this. If you have questions, I am only too happy to be of help.

Antique Desk Ca. 1890

A very sad and unhappy desk
Here we have in for restoration a Slant Top Writing Desk.
German
ca. 1890
Veneer – Walnut
Ground wood – Pine

It is an unusually small desk of its type. You don’t find them very often, even the big ones have become rare. They went out of fashion of course the moment people found a computer would not quite fit. Now with notebooks, I am a little lost as to why they haven’t come back in. Such a desk is a practical piece of furniture for a small house or flat with all that storage space.
Where do we start?
Lets have a look and see what needs doing

Outside:

The finish is patchy and very dirty.

  • Top has veneer missing and bubbles.
  • Top too much exposure to the sun – finish cannot be revived.
  • Sides – both have spits and loose veneer.
  • One side someone has squirted glue into the bubbles and it has rundown.
    Could be tricky….
  • Turned molding on left side missing.
  • Drawer fronts – mostly ok – few loose bits and a couple of bubbles.
    Escutcheons all there.
  • Holes where someone has added an extra handle.
  • Front Flap – mmmm…. Someone has had a go with a rather rough sanding machine and left ring marks. Luckily they left most of the veneer!
  • Large crack goes right through.
  • Other side of flap is rather different – has been taken to with an electric planer – all veneer taken off and deep plane marks left. Will have to be planed smooth and re-veneered.
  • Feet missingInside:
  • Two little drawers missing.
  • Finish on small drawers has been irreversibly damaged by sunlight.
  • Various ink stains and other stains.
  • Paper Labels to be removed.
  • Middle drawer runners have been removed.
  • One small drawer half side missing.
  • One small drawer needs re-gluing.
  • 3 big drawers all need side runners renewed
  • 1 Big drawer needs re-gluing.
  • Runners inside just need establishing.

Some of the tools I used for this project:

  1. Circular Saw ( A must Needed )
  2. Hand saws, a router and two router bits
  3. Chainsaw – I recommend the best quality gas chainsaw.
  4. Combination square and tape measure
  5. A power drill
  6. A hammer and some screwdrivers

The Small Drawers

Make two new drawers.
diy restoring antique desk
Have taken all the fittings and locks off. Decided to start with the small drawers. Must be careful to make them the same as the others. Found some old wood in my stockpile the right width, cut to size and from then on its all by hand.

The front of one missing was there, so made sides back and bottom. The other is made and veneer put on. Decided to put another veneer on – was not happy with first choice.

Have re-glued bubbles in others and where needed sides re-glued.

Removed old polish with alcohol. Old polish was totally destroyed by sun. – Yellow and flaky. Sanded and stained a little to bring life back in to the veneer.

Then they can all be polished.

Big Drawers

Sorting the runners out.
restoring antique desks
Have removed all locks and escutcheons.

The runners on the big drawers have become very uneven over the years, making the drawers very difficult to open and close.

Rather than taking the drawers to pieces I run the router along the bottoms, taking off the bare minimum and then cut new strips to size and glue them on. I can plane them back to get a nice even fit.

The drawer fronts I have cleaned with alcohol – leaving most of the polish on them as we want to keep the patina. Depending on how the flap comes out I can tone the polish to get an even color overall.

restoring antique desk

Next we start on the carcass
Fill cracks, clean, polish.
The cracks in the sides need filling otherwise they will get bigger as the wood dries out, not forgetting the damage to the veneer.

First we clean the dust and debris out of the cracks. Find various left over pieces of veneer of varying thickness which can be used to fill the crack.


Make a fresh batch of animal glue and cut the strips of veneer to the right length. I will be putting them in horizontally all the way down so that the shrinkage is less. My little Japanese Hammer which I use with my chisels is also very useful for hammering the wood into the cracks.

A messy job with the glue and a long one as the small pieces of veneer have to be pushed up against one another.
restore antique desk
Job completed – must be left to dry overnight before I can go over with the chisel to even them up.

The bubbles must be cut through with a scalpel in most cases so that I can inject some animal glue into far recesses. I can spread the glue around with a veneer hammer and then rub it a little to get some warmth in – cover with tinfoil or plastic and weight down.

The Top

Lift veneer up remove bubbles and replace missing piece
Veneer on top is very thin and fragile.
restoring antique desk diy
Must lift up quite a big chunk, so I can clean the ground wood and get the bubbles out. To do this I lay a damp cloth over and use an iron on lowest setting to melt the old animal glue. Using a knife to lift the veneer up, letting the air in so it doesn’t re-glue itself.

This is slow going as the veneer in places is very fragile and will tear easily. Slow is also necessary as the veneer can also stretch which makes laying it back very tricky.

Can only reglue bit by bit so I can get it relatively flat. Have put two new slices of veneer in to replace what was missing. Luckily I had some old veneer from an old drawer there that I could use. Have put this in leaving the polish on – saves a lot of coloring work afterwards.

Must wait a few days for the animal glue to harden before I can clean the old polish off and sand down a bit. Here one must be careful as the friction causes heat, which in turn loosens the animal glue and then the bubbles are back again.

So having removed old polish and sanded lightly I can stain and re polish. Has turned out well and the new pieces of veneer are barely noticeable.

The flap, the small drawers and the turnings
Light at the end of the tunnel?

The Flap:

First the crack. Again I have put the wood in horizontally using old thick veneer. Cut off the excess the next day.

Managed to get the back of the flap fairly flat – needed quite a bit of a plane and sand.

Found some new straight grained walnut veneer in my stock. Not very wide so used four pieces book matched. Cut to size and laid on one at a time using my veneer press. Animal glue is used for this as well. Have to work fast on such a big piece but works well and I can place the next piece slightly overlapped to allow for shrinkage.

Here again we must leave for some days for the glue to harden before we can sand. Meanwhile I can add veneer to the sides and replace missing pieces on the top side where the lock fits.

Sand the veneer very fine and then we start with the polishing process. First the grain has to be filled. Have painted on a couple of coats of fairly dark french polish, so the pores take on an old look. Sand off the excess polish and then start the process of filling the grain using powder. This is a long process but the more the pores are filled the better the end result. As we don’t want a perfect mirror finish we can leave a little open grain. Then the proper polishing starts. Using a little oil I can put as many coats on as I like. I have put a bit of spirit color in the polish to get a similar finish to the rest of the desk.

Now the flap must stay put for a week or so before I can turn it over and start on the outside.

In the meantime I have polished the drawer fronts and they are now ready for the little porcelain knobs to be put back on. Found we were missing one so must order. Luckily they are still available.

One side turning was missing. Found various old turnings from backs of chairs etc in my storage. Cut these through the middle and using parts of the original, now have two the same. Have glued together colored and polished. They are now on the desk and look very much like the original.

The front side on the flap must be cleaned and sanded. The veneer in places was sanded through with whatever machine was used. If I put new pieces in, I shall have to cut away quite a lot of the veneer that is there – due to the thickness. learn :  how to sand the wood perfectly .

Have decided to leave as is and get my water colors out. I can mix the colors and paint on the grain where needed putting a coat of polish over. Have to do this in layers. Must make sure that the front of the desk is all the same color. The moldings for the flap need cleaning and a bit of a polish before being put back on again.

I have put in a shelf for the middle drawer adding a freeze to the front as it would originally have had. This is now colored in and polished.

The Home Run

FINISHED – yeah!

diy antique desk

Am still fiddling with the front of the flap, but its getting there. Drawers are all finished and just need the escutcheons putting on.

Ended up doing the middle piece of the flap three times before I was happy!!

All locks and escutcheons back on.

Had to put bigger hinges on the flap in the end as the old ones just were not stable enough. Added a strip at bottom of flap so it would lie flat when open and not pull the screws out with the weight. Its the bits like this that take so much time.

Re-aligned the side runners inside the desk so the drawers now run smoothly.

One can still see the sanding marks at the front where it was attacked with a heavy machine. The veneer was already very thin so I couldn’t sand very much- where the veneer was gone I used water color to paint in the grain. Anyway, all with pleasing results I think.

So there we have it – ready for delivery ……. and then its on to the next project!

Finished

End result pretty good considering!
Restoration Questions and Comments
Feel free to ask advice -shall give where I can.

Sometimes I get pulled in to do talks on antique furniture or restoration. I enjoy doing this (once I am there!) as every time is different; the subjects are different and the questions are different. Its just the fun of sharing information with interested people.

If you have ideas as to how I can improve my lens, I would really appreciate it.

Questions? Ask -costs nothing -and I shall help where I can….

Thelma Anderson

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Jerold - October 15, 2016 Reply

This post is really cool. I have bookmarked it.

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can write high quality articles for you. Let me know.

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