How to Restore an Old Wooden School Desk
Do you have an old school desk in need of restoration? School furniture is built to survive much use and abuse. It's not uncommon to find old school desks that are largely intact, save for accumulated dirt and grime. With a bit of work, these old desks can become charming furniture for a private study, basement workshop, or child's bedroom.
Step 1: Remove and Restore Metal Hardware
Carefully remove all screws, nuts, bolts, hinges, and other metal hardware on the desk. Many of these parts will be rusted; you may also find stripped screws and damaged hinges. Make note of any missing pieces.
Head to the hardware store and replace your old screws, nuts, and bolts. You'll want to use either brass or stainless steel parts, whichever fits better with the desk's aesthetics.
Old hinges, clasps, and knobs may be impossible to replace. These items will add to the charm of the desk, even if they're in less-than-perfect shape. Use WD40, rags, and 000 steel wool to scrub away any corrosion.
Step 2: Disassemble and Clean the Desk
Most desks are held together by a combination of hardware and glue. Since you removed the hardware in Step 1, all that's left are glued joints. Check the integrity of each joint. When you find a loose joint, gently work the pieces apart, breaking away the brittle glue. Do not break joints that appear solid.
Pick up some varnish remover or paint remover at your local hardware store. There are many such products on the market, and they are all very toxic. Apply the remover in a well-ventilated area (outside is best), wait a suitable length of time, and scrape away the dissolved varnish. This is a dirty job, so prepare accordingly.
Chip away old glue while you wait for the wood to dry. Once the wood is no longer damp from the varnish remover, commence sanding. You can often get away with just very fine sandpaper, but in some cases you'll need to use fine paper beforehand.
Test fit the broken joints. Apply wood glue, then clamp the joint and wait for the glue to dry.
Step 3: Refinish the Desk
Shellac and polyurethane are two good options for your new finish. Shellac will give a more "authentic" finish, but polyurethane is more durable. Either will protect and beautify your desk for many years.
Apply the finish before you reassemble the desk. That way, every wooden surface will be sealed and protected from moisture. Follow the manufacturer's directions regarding number of coats, application method, and sanding. Plan to wipe on at least three thin coats, sanding before the last coat. If you are using shellac, don't forget to buy some denatured alcohol for cleanup.
Step 4: Reassembly
Once the new finish is dry, you can begin reassembly. Years of wear may have loosened some of the screw holes. For a fast fix, just break off some toothpicks in the hole before you insert the screw. To do it the "right" way, drill out a hole just larger than the old screw hole. Glue in a length of dowel with the same diameter as the hole, and cut the dowel flush to the surface. Then drill a new pilot hole for the screw.
When reassembly is done, you're ready to enjoy your new old school desk!