How to upcycle a vintage bureau

Upcycling this old writing desk by making a few repairs and painting in a bold colour combination has transformed it into a striking piece. Helaine Clare shows how to tackle the project

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While genuine antiques deserve to be treasured, less valuable pieces that would otherwise end up in a skip provide the perfect opportunity for an upcycling project. This vintage writing desk is a fine example: picked up at a local auction for very little, some sleek coats of contrasting paint have given this period piece a new lease of life.


Related articles: How to upcycle furniture | How to create vintage paint effects | How to choose paint



What you will need:


  • Goggles
  • Work gloves
  • Dust mask
  • Pliers
  • Steel wool
  • Screwdriver
  • Screws, pins and hammer
  • Boron wood treatment
  • Brush
  • Candle stub
  • Surform file
  • Sugar soap and plastic scourer
  • ESP (Easy surface primer) paint
  • Masking tape
  • Paint
  • Vinegar (for cleaning handles)
  • Cloths


1. Fixing a damaged hinge: Any repairs required will need carrying out before painting. The hinge on the drop-down table is bent and some screws are missing. Don’t try to fix it in situ – remove it completely and straighten it with pliers while secured in a vice. Remove rust with steel wool and use brass screws to reinstate the hinge after the bureau is painted.

2. Curing ill-fitting drawers: Check nothing has become jammed down the back, and before removing drawers from the housing write the number of each one inside. Try putting them back in a different order as they may have been put back wrongly. Inspect the runners. This one is held with pins and some are missing – secure with more pins.


3. Stop drawers sticking: If drawers are sticking rub a candle stub along each side of the drawer where it slides against the runners. If furniture has been stored in a shed the wood may be swollen, so wait a few weeks and sticking drawers may cure themselves. When opening long drawers use both handles to avoid distorting the drawer.

4. More tricks of the trade: If drawers are still refusing to glide, smooth the bottom of the drawer with a surform file. Over the years the edges become rough and worn with use; finish with glasspaper. Check that no protruding nail or screw heads are impeding free movement. Brush away sawdust and lubricate with the candle stub.


Upcycling the piece

5. Clean away dirt and polish: Dissolve some sugar soap in warm water and scrub the wood to get rid of dirt and some types of varnish. Rinse with a clean cloth and clean water. Mop up the surplus water to prevent it soaking into the wood. Dry with a clean cloth. Wetting the wood raises the grain so, when dry, smooth with fine glasspaper.

6. Treat against woodworm: Freshly made exit holes indicate active woodworm activity. For peace of mind apply boron wood treatment. Apply liberally by brush, paying attention to the plywood used to make the bottom of drawers and the backs of furniture, the underside of feet and attractive nooks and crannies.

7. Prime the wood and paint: Prime the wood with ESP (easy surface primer) paint using a cloth or a brush. You should wait at least two hours, then apply paint to the body of the bureau. For a modern slant on this period piece I chose black and a vibrant pink. A strip of masking tape along the border gives the requisite sharper edge.

8. Buff up brass handles: If it’s not possible to remove the handles before painting, mask behind them before cleaning or polishing. Light tarnish can be removed with vinegar. Apply and wash off after an hour or so. Dry with a clean cloth and buff to a sheen. Rub in beeswax polish to protect the metal and maintain the finish.

Top tips:

  • For those of you who like the look of old furniture but fear it will infest your home with woodworm, there’s no need for concern. Now we keep our houses warmer, drier and much better ventilated, woodworm cannot survive if the moisture content of timber is low.
  • Take care with wooden furniture that has been stored in an outhouse or shed – it should acclimatise gradually to indoor living. Sudden changes of temperature and humidity may cause the wood to twist or warp, drawers to shrink, joints to loosen and planks to split. In the same vein, never put a piece of wooden furniture near an open fire or radiator, and at the start and end of the heating season, adjust the thermostat little by little.