Refinishing An Antique Schooldesk

2 months ago, a symphony colleague of mine got in touch with me to ask if I would be able to help her out with an antique, real-deal school chair that had been in her family for awhile. “I have a desk from the one-room school house that my great great grandmother taught in out in Nebraska. The legs are rusted and the wood needs to be stained perhaps and refinished. My grandmother stored this piece of furniture out in a shed and did not take care of it. I want to put it in my new house, but it needs a little bit of work.”

antique schooldesk tabletop

A neglected antique schooldesk top

Antique school desk, before refinishing

Why is her garage so much cleaner than mine?

Complete with metal legs, seat that swung open and closed, and inkwell, this desk is the real deal!

I know there are ways to restore some finishes with products like Restor-A-Finish and Rub and Buff…but this really didn’t look all that salvageable to me. Plus I really didn’t feel like taking a product on its maiden voyage with someone else’s furniture.

So…I decided to start from scratch. Strip it naked and put some new clothes on it. My colleague wanted it to look as close to the original finish as possible, so no paint would be involved, outside of repainting the metal.

Staining scares me. It has always intimidated me because there is far less room for slop than there is with paint. Plus with antiques, you just don’t know what will be lurking beneath the surface, especially if it has been thrown in a shed for a few generations.

So I set out on the alien task of taking this thing apart. I spotted some screws underneath where the metal contacts the wood and removed them.

antique school desk underneath

What lies beneath?

antique school desk underneath, screws holding in place

I thought this would be easy after removing that screw at the top that you can’t see. If you look closely, you will see that there are metal knobs inserted into grooves.

I didn’t really know what to expect. I guess I was sort of looking at this with a modern furniture perspective and was half expecting the metal bar to just slide out. So of course, nothing happened. The seat didn’t budge.

I googled around and found that the metal pieces had a line of knobs that were inserted into grooves into the wood. The grooves are long and contain holes spaced apart every few inches. In order to keep the desk together, the knobs insert into the holes and then have to slide in between the holes. The screws keep the wood parts from sliding once they’re in. In order to take it apart, the wood parts need to slide back over to where the metal knobs are aligned with the holes, then they just slip off. I realize that probably makes no sense, but it does once you see it.

I sort of half-heartedly wiggled the metal pieces; I hemmed and hawed. I am not an engineer, so I was terrified of breaking something. I knew I had to pull the metal out of the wood, I just didn’t know how to do it. So I broke down. I asked my husband, the handy engineering, problem-solving-with-a-vengeance computer nerd, to help me.

So you know that antiquated saying that says women need a man to do things? Forget that. Just get an engineer. Hubs flipped the thing over, eyed it from several angles, and figured it out. We got out a rubber mallet and a piece of scrap 2×4 and went to town banging away on the edge of the seat (well, he initially went to town, then after I saw that nothing broke, I finished the job) to move it over so that the knobs would line up with the holes. The 2×4 acted as a shield between the mallet and the seat. I initially started with some 3/4″ plywood as the shield, but I was too afraid to bang away. Once I banged the seat about an inch over, the metal knobs were aligned with the holes and I was able to wiggle the wood parts off.

These people knew how to make furniture to last. Even after successfully getting the seat off, I could probably have danced on the tabletop. This thing didn’t even wiggle, even without a seat.

Here’s a gallery of all the parts involved in just that little seat!

antique school desk underneath, swivel seat

A cute guy figuring out the swivel hardware

antique school desk underneath, swivel seat hinge

Closeup of the metal swivel hinge joint

antique school desk underneath, swivel seat hinge hardware

Hinge hardware

antique school desk underneath, swivel seat without hardware

After hinge hardware was removed

antique school desk underneath, swivel seat


antique school desk underneath, swivel seat hinge hardware

We got you, sucka! And the mallet that hit my fingers a few times.

So I finished taking the whole thing apart after about 2 nights.

antique school desk taken apart

The desk! And my toe.

So because You Are Not Supposed To Strip An Antique With A Power Sander And You MUST Strip It By Hand…I initially planned to – insert spotlights and microphone – sand it by hand. I really, really dislike chemicals – I have mineral spirits, thinner, and even bleach only for the rarest of cases. I really didn’t want to go the Klean Strip route, plus I really didn’t know how I felt about applying something so highly toxic to an antique. I have had good experiences with Citri-Strip on paint, but stain typically doesn’t even budge.

So I started scrubbing away on the underside of the tabletop with 60-grit sandpaper. After half an hour, uncovering about 1/4th of the surface area, and feeling like I had just lifted some serious weights, I decided to pay my favorite nearby mom-and-pop hardware store a visit.

Talking to Tracy, the owner, is always enlightening. Big box store employees typically answer any questions I have by reading the label of the product in question out loud to me. I especially love it when the lumber employees tell me either that a 1x piece of lumber is actually less than 1″ in depth. Or that yes, a 1x is supposed to be 5/8″ in depth. It’s just awesome. Anyway, Tracy is a “real” carpenter and about 99% of the time has the right answers and/or products, fresh popcorn for my kid, and fresh vegetables from his garden in the summers.

I showed him the desk and explained the project and that sanding by hand was getting pretty old and giving me biceps. I told him I knew that You Are Not Supposed To Use A Power Sander and asked what he would do. He sort of sniffed and muttered something about extremists. “I always used Klean-Strip. I never had luck with Citri-Strip, so I don’t sell it,” he told me. “Cover the ground with cardboard, get ventilation, wear goggles, gloves, and a mask, and don’t get any of it on your skin or clothes.” He showed me a nasty red mark on his arm. “Because this is what happens.”

I was not thrilled about using a product requiring a DIY hazmat suit. I asked if something so toxic would pose any harm to antique wood. “Not any more than sanding would,” he said. “But if it were me, this desk probably isn’t worth THAT much, and she’s not planning on selling it to a collector. I’d just use a power sander and sand out any swirl marks by hand,” he told me. I nearly fainted. Would an angry mob of woodworkers come after me? Would they swarm into my garage the second the power sander turned on with pitchforks and torches?

Tracy just shrugged. “There will always be extremists,” he said.

I went home, feeling considerably lighter now that I had permission from someone who really knew what he was doing to use a sander. I got out my beloved Bosch RO sander, still covered in white paint from when I dumped half a gallon in it. I seriously peeked over my shoulder, placed it on the surface, and turned it on. And sanded the finish off. And laughed at my neuroses as I imagined a mob of angry middle-aged men yelling at me on the internet.

The next day my next door neighbor, who built his way through college, came over to see me when he heard my sander running. I asked what he would do in my situation. “What you’re doing,” he replied. Well, knock me over, but that was 2 people who gave me permission to use my sander over my lack of sanding muscle. Because really – ain’t nobody got time for that.

So I stripped the finish off. And that is really all I have to say about that because the rest of the process was really rather uneventful.

sanding antique school desk pencil groove

Getting the pencil groove

antique school desk seat sanded

Here’s the seat once it was stripped. Isn’t it pretty?

antique desk table top pieces

Perfectly fitted desk pieces, which I glued and clamped back together. Look at the wood grain up close! It looked like someone at some point had maybe sanded up and down rather than with the grain?

antique school desk seat

Paint? Gum?

If you are a real carpenter with some constructive feedback, I’m all ears. If you are a real carpenter outraged at this crime against woodkind, think of me as a troglodyte, and convinced I ruined this desk, I have all the respect in the world for what you guys do, but, well, you’ll get over it . I used clear printing labels for my wedding invitations and printed out most of my guests’ addresses on them. The wedding police will get over it.

And the next dilemma:

antique desk dark splotch

Probably water stains?

Once I stripped the finish off the tabletop, I saw the dark splotches. Big, black, and an eyesore. I mean, I saw them when my friend dropped the desk off, I had just assumed they’d come off once I sanded. My other friend Google told me basically that it was stains from water that had seeped through the wood. My neighbor told me to try mineral spirits, but that it would still be difficult to remove. I saw solutions from household bleach to wood bleach to hydrogen peroxide to vinegar to mineral spirits. So I decided on the path of least resistance and got out the bleach since I had some in the garage. I took the cheapest no-name paint brush I had, a tiny little 1″ or so, dipped it in, and dabbed a very tiny amount full strength on the splotches. I did 3 treatments, allowing several hours to dry, then wiped it off with vinegar to neutralize the bleach (so Google told me), which did lighten the splotches.

Here’s a list of what I did next:

1) Scrubbed the loose dirt off the metal with a metal brush and then washed with soap and water from a high pressure spray gun. Air dried outside.

antique school desk metal date

I’m guessing the date it was built? 1907? How cool is that?

antique school desk metal detailing

Before cleaning. Gorgeous detailing

2) Primed with Rustoleum’s Rusty Metal primer. Let dry.

3) Spray painted with Rustoleum’s 2x Coat in black with several thin coats. I lay them down on a tarp to cover one side, then when that was dry, leaned them against a work table with a tarp behind them so I could flip and paint the other side.

4) Applied Minwax’s oil-based wood conditioner to the wood. Wiped off after 10-15 minutes.

5) With a clean rag, applied 2 coats of Minwax’s gel stain in Aged Oak. Wiped off excess.

6) Applied 2 coats of Minwax’s polyurethane in semi-gloss (from the can). Initially tried a sponge brush, but didn’t like that it gave me little control over the amount. I tried a clean cloth on the second layer and that felt a lot better.

antique school desk after


antique school desk splotches

Sadly, I could not get the splotch out and the stain just accentuated it, but fortunately the owner was all right with its “character marks”.

Side view of the antique desk

Side view of the antique desk

Close up of the school desk legs

Close up of the legs

My friend later told me that her father, upon seeing the restored desk, said his mother would be very happy to see her desk today, which, to me, was the highest compliment I could’ve hoped for.

And because I don’t have a picture of the finished desk in a setting other than my garage, here is a picture of it in my friend’s home in its own little nook in progress, complete with her grandmother’s other belongings.

antique school desk refinished

The antique school desk, restored in its new home


32 thoughts on “Refinishing An Antique Schooldesk

  1. My son and I were working on a house in Chicago. I noticed workers smashing furniture and throwing it into a dumpster in the alley. There was a Chicago Board of Education storage building that was being cleared out. School desks like yours and heavy “SIKES” chairs were being smashed and trashed. We managed to get two desks that were about to be destroyed. All the chairs were destroyed. I asked why the furniture wasn’t being sold to antique dealers, considering the perpetual budget crisis the school system is in . Nobody cared. I left my desk in the good condition it was in, with the patina created by hundreds of schoolchildren, over the years

  2. That date is the date it was patented, it could have been built years later. In any case it is likely 100 years old and now beautiful again, thanks to your efforts.

  3. i have some of the metal frames but wondered how to attach any wood to those metal bumps?
    or just re-pupose those metal pieces???

    • I’m afraid that is WAY beyond my skill set, which isn’t very large to begin with. Guessing either Woodcraft or Rockler would have the tools to do what you’re looking to do.

  4. Thank you so much for this post. My desk wood pieces have separated and I would not have had any idea how to remove the others. You have saved me a LOT of time. My desk is a double (for two students to set side by side). It also came from Nebraska. I sat in one of these at a one room school, for first and second grade. That was 55 years ago😃. Best education anyone can ask for. My mother taught in these ranching country schools, all grades K-8 by herself. Sometimes we rode horses to school when the snow was deep. Thanks again

  5. I’m working on a desk like this right now! It is apart, but now it needs to be refinished. I was looking for a post just like this to help me on my way.

  6. Pingback: Antique School Desk Makeover - My Repurposed Life™

  7. I have a school desk even older, seat made on it and a smaller desk in front of it, how would I find out the year it was made and its value? Eddie, 423 208 2827

  8. Great looking desk. I was interested in reading your ‘how-to’s’ because I’m in the middle of refinishing two of the antique desks from my one room school house. (I even figured out the notch thing on my own for getting the wooden pieces off the top and back of the seat). They are even still attached together in a row. And I have a third one, already refinished. Just love the old and rustic decorating!

  9. You really can find anything on the internet! I recently salvaged one of three desks from the loft of my parent’s barn in Illinois. The desk came from the one room school house my mother attended starting around 1928. My daughter just started her second year of teaching and I thought of it as a gift to her. Her boyfriend just asked permission to propose. The proposal will be in our backyard as the final stop of what she believes is a Harry Potter scavenger hunt. I hope to have the desk refinished in two weeks so it can be in our backyard for our daughter to sit on during the proposal. Thanks to you all I was able to determine how the desk came apart! Thank you! Thank you!

  10. Great work. Would you mind giving the dimensions of the desktop, seat and seat back?
    Length, width and thickness.

    • Thanks for commenting and reading. I don’t remember what the dimensions were, and as I did this for a friend, I no longer have the desk in my home. Sorry I can’t help you.

  11. I bought an old bench similar to yours, minus the attached desk. It has been in pieces in my basement for years. I started to strip it as it had been panted pink and green. The paint did not come out of the wood grain, so I lost interest. I now plan to sand it and see if that does a better job. My daughter-in-law photographs children and I thought it will make a great prop. Thanks for the inspiration.

  12. Great work!

    The only thing that matters with antiques, is to know beforehand, whether or not the piece has significant market value. If it does, then you do your careful research about restoration without destroying value. But if it isn’t worth much (as I suspect is likely the case of a factory-produced desk) you can have at it.

    Personal story: My father always had a banjo clock in a drawer–and said it was valuable. When he died, my brother and I flipped for who went 1st for the 6 or 8 most valuable things in his estate. I won the flip and chose the grandfather clock. My brother went next with the banjo. About 5 years later he finally bothers to look into the clock. Takes it to a real expert, who says, “I can see the face was repainted. It’s worth about $1500.” What if it hadn’t been? “$250,000.”

    • Oh, I believe it! And ouch!
      Thanks for the reading and for the feedback. I think that is why I am not planning on ever restoring an actual antique for preservation purposes – that’s just too much pressure. She wanted this more for sentimental purposes, so I was finally able to shrug off the imaginary angry old men in my head.

  13. I think you did an excellent job, regardless of using modern techniques, chemicals, etc…
    While there are extremists out there, I’d always think back to how my grandparents (depression era folks) would go about fixing and tinkering things. They didn’t worry too much about restoring broken items back to factory new, but rather get it working again. Function, then form, then looks. I think you accomplished all 3. And, it has to be fun to see how a great piece of furniture used to be built. Solid as a rock.

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