Renovating a Writing Desk Bureau to Retain Patina


A friend of mine knowing that I’d always fancied a writing desk bureau snapped one up when he saw it on sale for a nominal fee, and gave it to me as a gift.

Fancying something and needing it isn’t always the same thing, and besides I didn’t really have anywhere to put it. However, I do have plans to do a makeover of our home office in the New Year, and in doing so I plan to modify the shelving in the alcove in our home office to accommodate the writing bureau.

However, it’s not just as simple as finding space for it to fit; the writing bureau needed some renovation or restoration; including regluing the wobbly legs. A challenge my friend knew I was well capable of because he knows that I relish this kind of DIY project.

Renovation or Restoration

Full restoration would require skills I don’t currently have, including using French polish and replacing the leather inlay; but skills I’m sure I could learn.

However, I didn’t want it to look like new (like the day it was made); I wanted to retain some of its patina, to show its age.

Also, there were features of the bureau that I didn’t like:-

  • The decorative trim along the top of the pigeon-holes stopped short of the full length of the bureau, leaving an unsightly gap at each end, and
  • The front stretcher (horizontal support on the legs) would prevent easy storage under the bureau.

Therefore I opted for renovation rather than restoration.

Type of Renovation

Optionally I could have strip it back to the bare wood and paint or stain it, but it would lose all its patina and in my mind just wouldn’t look right. Besides, I would never paint it because I love the natural look of wood.

Therefore, apart from some minor repairs and alterations, I decided to opt for just touching it up, and giving it a good clean and polish.

Task List of Minor Repairs and Alterations

Having given the bureau a close inspection I decided that the repairs and alterations to be made were:-

  1. Remove the front stretcher (to make storage under the bureau easier).
  2. Re-glue the wobbly legs.
  3. Fit pigeon-holes more firmly to bureau, which was only previously held in place by a couple of small wood screws in the base and a few panel pins on the top.
  4. Make a new top decorative trim to the pigeon-holes to go the full length of the bureau, and
  5. Repair a couple of minor holes in the leather inlay.

Having made my task list, I then removed all the drawers before carrying out the work as described in the brief step-by-step guide below.

Remove Front Stretcher

Removing the front stretcher may be a little controversial as the stretcher does add extra strength to the legs. However, apart from the fact that modern wood glues are very strong, once the writing bureau is in its final location I don’t intend moving it; so there isn’t going to be any lateral stresses placed on the legs anyway.

The main purpose to removing the stretcher is to facilitate easier storage beneath the bureau. Unlike many bureaus that have short legs and are therefore only a few inches off the ground, the legs on this bureau are almost a foot high; and to me that is a lot of wasted space.

With the stretcher in place it would be feasible to squeeze things in through the gap under the bureau, but it would be a little fiddly. Whereas, by removing the stretcher, boxes and other large items can just slide underneath.

To remove the front stretcher:-

  • Use a wooden or rubber mallet to gently separate the joints far enough to remove the stretcher.
  • Use a suitable saw to cut the dowel flush with the leg.
  • Sand smooth (using hand sandpaper).

I used a Japanese saw to cut the dowel as its ideal for this type of job. Unlike conventional saws, Japanese saws cut on the pull stroke which allows for a cleaner cut, with a smaller cutting width and more control over the cut.

Front stretcher between the legs that prohibits easy storage below the bureau.

Regluing the Wobbly Legs

Dismantling the legs completely and regluing from scratch isn’t necessary. Just gently separating the joints far enough to get glue into the gap and clamping is sufficient:-

  • Use a wooden or rubber mallet to gently separate the joints far enough to get glue into the gaps.
  • Generously apply wood glue into the gaps.
  • Clamp tight, using wood blocks between the clamps and legs to prevent damaging the wooden legs.
  • Wipe away any surplus glue with a damp cloth, and
  • Leave overnight for the glue to set.

Using wooden mallet to gently separate leg joints far enough to apply glue in the gaps.

Firmly Fit Pigeon-holes to Bureau

In my view the writing desk and pigeon-holes is a cheapskate design in that the pigeon-holes is perched on the edge of the writing desk top, which doesn’t go the full depth of the bureau, with a two inch void between the back of the pigeon-holes and the back of bureau, plus a ¼ inch gap between the top of the pigeon-holes and the underside of the desktop.

Therefore the base of the pigeon-holes is only supported by a thin ledge at the front, and a few panel pins at the top, which go through a quarter inch gap before being secured by a solid surface; the top gap being hidden by the decorative trim.

My preference would have been to push the pigeon-holes back that couple of inches and secure firmly to the back of bureau, which is doable but would require replacing the desk panel (that the front flap is hinged to) with a new wood panel that went the full depth of the bureau. It was tempting, but to match the new piece with the rest of the bureau would have meant learning the technique of French polishing.

Therefore, I decided to opt for:-

  • Fitting a solid piece of 2 inch thick timber to the inside back of the bureau that the pigeon-holes could be firmly screwed to, and
  • Using a ¼ inch beading to fill the gap above the pigeon holes to create a snug fit.

Decorative trim removed from the pigeon-holes to reveal gap between top of pigeon-holes and the top of desk.

New Top Decorative Trim to the Pigeon-holes

The purpose of making a new top decorative trim is to make one that goes the full length of the bureau so that there isn’t an ugly gap at both ends.

The method for making the new top decorative trim is to use the old one as a template. The simplest way is to just mark around it with a pencil on a piece of suitable plywood and use a jig saw to cut along the pencil line to cut it to shape.

However, I did notice that at regular intervals along the decorative trim are part circles which would be difficult to follow with a jig saw, but which could be cut using a forstner drill bit of the correct size to match the part circle.

Therefore the steps I took to make the new decorative trim were:-

  • Remove the original trim from the pigeons-holes (which prised off easily as it was only attached with a few panel pins).
  • Clamp a sheet of 1/8th inch plywood to the workbench (same thickness as the original).
  • Hold the original trim in place on the edge of the plywood and mark-out the outline with a pencil.
  • While still holding the original trim in place push down on the forstner drill bit at each location of the part circles so that the pointed tip of the drill bit marks the plywood (to indicate where to drill).
  • Remove the original trim and use the forstner drill bit to drill the holes where indicated by the marks.
  • Carefully cut the rest of the shape out with a jig saw.
  • Gently sand the edges smooth with hand sandpaper.
  • Use wood stain or wood dye to colour the new trim to closely match the original.

Unsightly gap at each end of the pigeon-holes where the decorative trim doesn’t go the full width of the bureau (in image, pigeon-holes unscrewed from desk and pulled forward).

Reassembly of Pigeon-holes to Bureau

  • Tack and glue the new decorative trim to the ¼ inch beading.
  • Glue and nail the beading to the top of the pigeon-holes.
  • Push the assembled pigeon-holes against the wooden block at the back of the bureau, and fix in place with a couple of screws.

Gluing and tacking the decorative trim to the beading that will be acting as a spacer to fill the gap between the top of the pigeon-holes and the top of the bureau.

Repair to Leather Inlay

The leather inlay was in reasonable condition, except for a few marks and stains, and a couple of holes.

I don’t expect the inlay to be perfect, a little bit of patina is fine; but the holes in the leather inlay can only get worse over time. Therefore, I opted to use a ‘complete leather repair kit’ to repair the holes; a kit I’ve successfully used before to repair damage to a couple of leather sofas.

Filling the holes with the flexible compound is the easy part. The tricky part is trying to get the colour match afterwards, which is trial and error as you blend different colours (in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions) to get just the right shade.

Of course, with a two-tone colour of the inlay, that’s not possible unless you are artistic enough to paint in the dark-brown lines of the pattern with a fine paintbrush. I’m not that artistic so I settled for getting a near match of the lighter brown. The main thing is that it gives a good durable finish which will last for years, if not decades.

The basic steps for the leather repair were:-

Clean the holes with the cleaning fluid supplied with the kit.

  • Fill the holes with the flexible compound filler and leave overnight to set.
  • Sand the filler smooth with fine sandpaper supplied.
  • Mix the colours supplied with the kit until you get the right colour match.
  • Allow the paint to dry.
  • Apply a varnish over the repair to match the sheen of the rest of the leather.

The two holes in the leather inlay that need to be repaired.

How to Fix a Small Hole in Leather

Finishing Touches

Having done all the repairs and modifications, and not wishing to obliterate all the patina, the finishing touches are to just smarten it up so that it doesn’t look tatty. The main issue being that the bureau did have lots of scratches that did make it look quite tatty, so rather than just cleaning and polishing it I also applied a thin coat of translucent wood dye to blend the scratches into the wood finish.

The steps I took to finish the woodwork:-

  • Wash it down with white spirit to get rid of the surface dust and dirt.
  • Sparingly wipe a coat of dark oak wood dye with a soft cloth over all the woodwork (inside and out) to blend the scratches into the wood finish.
  • Wipe in a generous coat of dark antique beeswax and leave for 15 minutes.
  • Finally polish up the beeswax with a soft yellow duster to give a good sheen.

The steps I took to finish the leather inlay:-

  • Generously rub in Leder-Balsam with a yellow duster, and wipe dry. This I have found effective in cleaning the leather; but it should be spot tested first as on some leathers it can remove the leather dye.
  • I then generously applied Saddle and Leather Conditioning Soap, and left it for half an hour soak in.
  • Then once dry, I finally gave the conditioning soap a quick polish with a yellow duster to give the leather inlay a nice sheen.

Before: writing desk after repairs and alterations, but before final finishes.

Renovations Complete and Writing Desk Ready for Use

How Useful Are Writing Desk Bureaus These Days

© 2019 Arthur Russ

Arthur Russ (author) from England on September 13, 2019:

Thanks RTalloni, yes good friends are a treasure.

Wow, Doris, doing work for a museum is certainly a good way to learn useful skills. I’ve seen the technique you describe with a fine artists brush being used on several occasion, as part of the restoration of old artefacts, in the popular BBC TV Series ‘The Repair Shop’; and the results are always impressive.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on September 12, 2019:

Thanks for the kind words, Arthur. I'm just an amateur artist and craftsperson, but I did work for a museum for a couple of years when I was young and learned a few of their tricks. On this, I just used a very fine artists brush and dark paint and copied the strokes that originally were used to antique the desk.

RTalloni on September 12, 2019:

Such a beautiful result for all your work. Thanks much for sharing so many details on the repair and finishing. Great information to encourage and guide anyone wanting to do a similar project. What a treasure you now have thanks to your friend's thoughtful and generous gift!

Arthur Russ (author) from England on September 11, 2019:

Further to your reference about repairing leather; I’ve just added a video at the bottom of the article, from the Company I get my Leather Repair kits from, demonstrating how to repair a small hole in leather and achieve a good colour match to get a seamless repair.

Arthur Russ (author) from England on September 11, 2019:

Wow, I’d love to learn Japanese carpentry; and the restoration you did on the cheery-finish executive desks is something to be proud of.

When I first used the leather repair kit to repair several quite large holes on a couple of 2nd hand red leather sofas, which we bought from a reclamation yard, I was very impressed on how simple the leather repair kits are to use, and how effective the repairs are. And if you can get the exact colour match (as I did with the sofas, the repairs are invisible). The Company I use for the leather repair kits are very helpful, if you can send them a sample of the leather they will make an exact colour match for you; otherwise their instructions for blending the paints to get a good colour match is easy to follow.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on September 10, 2019:

What a wonderful gift from your friend. I'll bet you enjoyed renovating it as much as you do using it. You write a great intricate description of your labors. The mention of the Japanese saw would set my husband to drooling. He has one and uses it a lot. He learned Japanese carpentry when he was stationed in Japan.

I wouldn't have known how to restore the leather without some research, but I did restore some wood back to its original look. Twenty years ago, my boss acquired a couple of beautiful cherry-finish executive desks for me and a female coworker. Problem was, huge-bellied men with destructive belt buckles had rubbed the antiqued finish off the fronts of both desks. I rubbed the front edges with a matching cherry oil finish and then took an artists brush and drew in the antiquing lines to match the rest of the finish. I'm proud to say that those desks were admired by all, and I've never worked behind a desk so grand, before or after.

Arthur Russ (author) from England on September 10, 2019:

When we moved home (years ago) we had to leave some furniture behind because it wouldn't fit into our new home; but fortunately none of it was old, so it wasn't such a wrench that it would have been has it been something special like an old writing desk.

Although the wardrobes we left behind were a wedding present (sentimental value) so it wasn't an easy choice, but our new home had fitted wardrobes so we didn't have much option.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on September 10, 2019:

There are always these tiny repairs we need to know and I learned some ideas from your article. I used to have an old writing desk but gave it away when we moved. I wish I have kept it.

Arthur Russ (author) from England on September 10, 2019:

Cool. My wife also inherited one, which we’ve now put into our conservatory. That one was in much better condition and only needed some minor restoration to the leather inlay, and a good clean and polish; which I’ve now done.

Liz Westwood from UK on September 10, 2019:

I was interested to see that my daughter has picked one of these up from an antique shop and

has it in her lounge. In this modern age it is more of a decorative nature and used for storage rather than a writing desk. It looks in reasonable condition, but I shall have to show her your helpful and detailed article in case she feels the need to renovate it.

Arthur Russ (author) from England on September 09, 2019:

Thanks, I fully agree. Although we love the old furniture, and the natural look and feel of wood, accommodating it in the limited space available in our small home is challenging. My next project will be renovating a set of solid oak upholstered dining chairs that we were given.

kimbesa from USA on September 09, 2019:

That's lovely! I love the old furniture, even though most of us have to be careful of how we use our limited space. Thanks for sharing your expertise!

Watch the video: Antique Secretary Desk Makeover

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