Stripping and Refinishing a Desk

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Like a lot of our older furniture, our modular office desk is structurally in good shape. Our desk is about 10 years old and was part of the Bedford Collection from Pottery Barn. It came with a mahogany-colored stain. With our newly renovated home, this red-hued stain did not fit in with our coastal decor.  It was simply too dark and reddish. I have had a lot of success refinishing our older wood tables and so the thought came to me to also try stripping and refinishing a desk. The top of the desk is made of solid wood (or so I thought). More to come on this topic! So, I was pretty positive that stripping and sanding the desktop would work. The bottom drawer components are made of some wood or veneer but it also had parts that were MDF, or faux wood. For these, paint was really my only option. Given this situation, I decided to go for a two-toned approach.

I decided on stripping and refinishing the desk to get it to a more natural wood-tone finish. For the drawer components, I chose Hale Navy by Benjamin Moore as the paint color. Here’s what you’ll need if you would like to refinish a desk this way. Also, I have included the approach I took to achieve this look. This project had some snags along the way, but I will let you know how I handled those, too.


What You’ll Need for Refinishing a Desk

  • Citristrip Stripping Gel  (approximately 2 1/2 gallon containers)
  • Plastic scraper
  • Saran Wrap
  • Old Paintbrush
  • Bucket for sludge scraps
  • Odorless Mineral Spirits
  • Orbital Sander
  • 120 gril sandpaper
  • Weathered Oak Stain by Minwax
  • Gray Elm Stain by Minwax
  • Polycrylic Matte Varnish
  • Hale Navy Advance Paint by Benjamin Moore
  • 6″ roller brush (I like the Purdy brand)

Step 1

After prepping the desk by removing the hardware, the first step was to begin stripping the old stain off the desk top to start the refinishing process. This piece was removable so this was easy to take outside to a well-ventilated area. Before beginning to apply, the Citristrip really needs a good shake. Then,  you just pour a small amount of the solution onto the surface and rub it in with an old paintbrush.

If you notice in this photo, the solution looks clear. This is a what NOT to do!! I didn’t shake it up enough. When you apply the Citristrip, it should go on a more orange color. Also, make sure you don’t rub it in too much with the paintbrush, just use it to spread it around. Focusing on a smaller area helps with this too. Once you have a nice thick layer on, you can cover it in Saran Wrap. Repeat this process, working in small sections. until the entire surface is covered in the Citristrip and Saran Wrap.

Step 2

You will need to let the Citristrip work completely before doing anything further. I have read for some this worked best if you begin scraping after about 30 minutes. However, for me, I really needed about an hour. It is important that the solution is still wet-looking when you remove the Saran Wrap and start to scrape it off. If you see white, then it has gotten too dry. It was an extremely hot day, so this was a problem for me. I needed to leave the solution on longer for it to properly work, but leaving it on longer also made it dry out due to the heat. So, this was a huge challenge with this project. I did the best I could with the situation. But, honestly, if I did it again, I would not do this in the hottest part of the summer.

To scrape, I just used a plastic scraper. I did notice it took some muscle to get the varnish to come off. As I scraped, I put the sludgy goo that came off into an old protein canister so I could seal it up to put it in the trash. I didn’t even get much to come off the first time because I didn’t let it sit on the surface for long enough. The second time was much more successful. Apparently, some people only have to do this process once, but I had some mistakes and so I did have to repeat the entire process twice. I probably could have even done it a third time, but I got fatigued with the heat and so I decided to move on to the sander from there. Below, you can see where I ended with the Citristrip.

Step 3

Next, I washed the desk’s entire surface with odorless mineral spirits. This really helped to smooth out the finish. I just took a rag and rubbed it on the entire surface and rubbed it off. If you are able to get all the old finish off, you could potentially stop here. But as you can see above, I was no where close to getting all the old off. So, I had to move on to sanding.

step 4

The next step for me was to sand off the remaining old finish and get a smooth surface. I used 120 grit sandpaper on my orbital sander. I sanded with a grain of the wood and worked in small sections until the natural finish was revealed. Unfortunately, I discovered that this desktop was not 100% wood. The top was a veneer and underneath was a particle board. Actually, I discovered this because I sanded down a little too far in a couple of spots to where the particle board was revealed slightly. Overall, it didn’t affect the look too much as it kind of just looked like a natural imperfection. I would have loved to have avoided it, but the result wasn’t so bad I gave up. This was a good lesson that sometimes things don’t go perfectly, but it’s not worth giving up. The end result can still be beautiful!

Step 5

Once all the old stain was removed, I began painting the base units of the desk. Using a 6″ roller, I literally rolled on the Hale Navy Advance Paint by Benjamin Moore, right onto the old surface. I didn’t sand, prime, etc. This paint was great to work with and I would highly recommend it. (Benjamin Moore did not sponsor this post for me to say that, LOL!) I did use a brush to trim it out after the first coat of paint was rolled on. This was covered well after 2 coats. I love this color as it has a slight gray undertone and works really well with our Mindful Gray by Sherwin Williams wall color. I chose not to put a protective finish on this, but I may go back and do this just to prevent scratching, etc. All in all, this was the easiest part of this project and I was so happy about that!!

refinishing a desk: how to refinish a desk, how to paint a desk, redo a desk
step 6

Once I could see the color of the base units, I began the desktop finishing process. It was easier for me to visualize exactly what color I wanted the top to be once I could see it on top of the base units. I loved the natural look and I wanted to preserve this as much as possible. However, in order to achieve a more finished look, I opted to stain it. I ended up using Minwax Weathered Oak mixed with the Minwax Gray Elm. This was about a 50/50 mixture. I did the Weathered Oak first and then did the Gray Elm on top. You can also mix these in a bowl and stain it that way.

refinishing a desk: how to refinish a desk, how to paint a desk, redo a desk
step 7

The last step in stripping and refinishing this desk project was to seal everything. I love the Minwax Polycrylic Matte varnish. It seals everything up without too much of a gloss or yellow finish. I literally painted this on with a wide brush. After letting it dry, I repeated this about 3 times. I am so happy with the way this gave our desk a nice finished look.

refinishing a desk: how to refinish a desk, how to paint a desk, redo a desk

I am so in love with the new look of our old modular desk. This was my first project and I decided on stripping and refinishing. I believe this would have been easier if the heat outside had not been so intense. Even though this was one of my more challenging projects, it was also extremely rewarding to see the finished product. Hopefully, this step by step guide will help you if you are looking for some inspiration for stripping and refinishing an old desk! I will be following up this article with full details and where to shop all the decor in our office really soon so stay tuned!

refinishing a desk: how to refinish a desk, how to paint a desk, redo a desk
refinishing a desk: how to refinish a desk, how to paint a desk, redo a desk
refinishing a desk: how to refinish a desk, how to paint a desk, redo a desk

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  1. I love how this turned out! How is the paint holding up? I am wondering since you did not sand or prime. I am about to do a desk like this myself, and I have never rolled or not primed or not sanded. I would love to make this as easy as possible! It looks just gorgeous!

  2. It’s holding up great! I’m happy we did the wood top and painted the sides. If I did it again, I would wait a full 24 hours to place items on and I would have applied a protective top coat, like the Minwax Polycrylic. But overall, the shelf and the desk that we painted in here are holding up beautifully!
    Hope this helps!

  3. I have the Bedford corner desk it is 15 years old and needs some love! I love the light colored top but I am afraid I would sand too far down. My desk is black. I was also wondering if you adjusted the drawers so they pulled out further? I have always hated that they only pull out not quite halfway.


  4. The drawers are super annoying!! But I didn’t make any adjustments there. I would recommend stripping it first and then sanding it. You are correct that it is a very thin veneer, so you can’t sand down too far. Stripping it will take most of it off if you do it several times. It’s definitely a lot of work but worth it! Good luck!!

  5. thanks for the inspiration! I too have a bedford pottery barn desk in dark brown; your post and experience especially with the desktop has given me the confidence to redo mine!

  6. You don’t know how much I love hearing this! I love the new look of our desk :).
    Good luck!

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