Victoria and I spend a lot of time in thrift stores. There’s nothing quite like that rare delight of finding the perfect kitchen chair or end table for only a few dollars. Far more often, though, I find myself wading through piles of legless tabletops and stained armchairs, wondering if I have the time, elbow grease, and expertise needed to transform a long-unloved piece of furniture into something beautiful and useful.
A few summers ago, I was wandering through a thrift shop in Platteville, Wisconsin, where my family keeps a hobby farm. In the rural Midwest, folks tend to hang on to their belongings for a long time, resulting in a local thrift shop filled with decades-old treasures. I happened upon this desk:
It was covered in chipped faux-bois veneer and the drawers didn’t close just right. However, I had borrowed the pickup truck, I had a spot to stow the desk until I could get around to working on it, and it was only $3. Perhaps most importantly, it was summer, so I had time to kill and an apartment to fill when Victoria and I moved to Philadelphia a few months later.
With my wise father and Google as dual advisors, Victoria and I set to work painting and restoring The Desk. Because its veneer is plastic, getting a few even, thorough coats of paint took some ingenuity, but a project similar to this one is easily doable in a few hours over a couple of days.
- Rubber gloves
- Trisodium phosphate/TSP substitute
- 180-grit sandpaper
- Tack cloth
- White spray primer (such as Rust-Oleum Painter’s Touch Ultra Cover Primer)
- Satin-finish spray paint of your choice (We used Rust-Oleum Painter’s Touch Ultra Cover in Oregano, although this line carries quite a few nice, Paper-Source-style colors.)
If you’re a furniture-refurbishing wizard, you already know: clean, sand, clean, prime, clean, paint. However, if, like me, you run with the Design*Sponge-ogling common folk and the list of materials above was enough to make you decide against this project, don’t turn away just yet. This project is simple and yields great results.
- You’ll first want to clean the piece thoroughly with TSP. Because TSP is such a powerful cleaning agent, it is recommended that you wear rubber gloves and work in a well-ventilated space. We used the great outdoors. (It is also recommended that you don’t walk into a home improvement store asking for “trisodium phosphate” like we did. No one seems to refer to TSP by its full chemical name, and our clerk looked at us like we were Walter and Jesse back for a re-up.)
- Using fine sandpaper, rough up every surface you intend to paint. With a plastic veneer, this step might be the most painstaking of the entire project, but it pays to sand well. The better you sand a surface, the more likely the spray paint is to stick.
- After sanding, clean the piece once more with TSP, then run a tack cloth over the whole thing to remove any grit or dust. If you intend to prime later, wipe the piece down with a tack cloth once more just prior to priming. It really pays off.
- If you want the legs or drawer pulls of your piece to remain untouched by spray paint, remove them or cover with painter’s tape. Then spray an even coat of primer over every surface you intend to paint. Attaining the “even coat” was a process, so it helped me to practice on a sheet of newspaper first. Let dry for a few hours or overnight.
- Once the primer has dried, run a tack cloth over the piece again. Spray a thin, even coat of paint, taking care not to linger too long in any given spot. With each coat, it is better to apply too little paint than too much. Let dry for a few hours or overnight.
- If you have overapplied paint anywhere, you can sand down the pools or bubbles that may have formed and then clean any dust away with a tack cloth. Then apply a second coat of paint, attending to the bottom of any overhangs and the edges of drawers.
- Once dry, make sure the richness of the color is consistent and that the satin shine is even across the piece. If you feel you need a third coat of paint, feel free to apply. (This may require a second can of paint, depending on the size of your piece.)
To add a nice finishing touch to this desk, we asked my dad to polish the tips of the legs with Brasso and some fancy buffer tool that I don’t pretend to know how to use. The most exciting part of this project was finding drawer pulls that suited the style of the desk; we discovered Menards had a nice selection.
The chair isn’t a perfect fit for the desk, but it was $5 at Uhuru, a thrift shop around the corner from our apartment. Victoria and I found the birch tree needlepoint at the Platteville Thrift Shop on a later trip, and spray painted the frame a glossy black. The antique desk lamp has a cast iron base and is on loan from my dear old ma.
A refurbishing project like this one may seem labor-intensive, but the payoff is great. Here’s to more lonely thrift store cast-offs receiving similar treatment!