Tuesday Transformation: Upcycled Secretary Desk

Here at The Chairmaker and Friends, we’ve had too many projects to count, but this one has stood out enough to share. Who doesn’t love a great before and after?

If you aren’t familiar with a secretary desk, picture a very tall bookcase or armoire with a flat panel, which folds out toward the user. The panel not only adds a writing surface, but also reveals its housed storage – usually nooks and small shelves for envelopes, pencils, and other essentials. Then there is the little sibling of the secretary desk, the slant top desk, which we were lucky enough to find one of (these hot commodities can be so hard to find). These versions lose some of the height, but still have the writing surface, lower bookcase, and of course, the charm.

While we aren’t typically using them these days to catch up on written correspondence or to store our quill pens, these appealing pieces of furniture have been seen as nightstands, foyer clutter-catchers, or even housing televisions. Secretary desks can truly be a staple item or statement piece for women, adding flair and functionality to our homes. That’s why we saw this little slant top desk and decided to give it some new life.

Without having before or in-progress photos of this slant top desk, it’s hard to believe how much work actually went into making this rescue a real treasure. After several hours of sanding, applying wood filler, and of course, sanding again, the desk still needed several coats of paint to cover the original off-kilter paint job and eccentric glazing. Hoping for a pop of color that could work in any home, we chose Annie Sloane’s Napoleonic Blue for the exterior. To enhance that pop of color, why not create a bold contrast on the inside? We went with a sunny English Yellow, also one of Annie Sloane’s chalk paints.

We liked the combination so far, but just had to see it all put back together. Time to put the doors back on and reattach the writing surface! Unfortunately, the old hardware and previously done “repairs” to the desk just didn’t allow everything to go back together as before. We were in for a lot of sanding, reshaping, and rebuilding, but eventually found ourselves with a functional slant top secretary desk – fully painted inside and out.

The time sunk into this desk so far, in reality, should have given us a beautiful product. This is never the case with perfectionists – we spent a few more weeks staring at it, trying to decide what would make it perfect. The color contrast was just slightly overwhelming – even after adding a white wax to soften the bold blue of the exterior. Eventually, we found a fake pear (pictured below) as inspiration, and settled on a brown glaze to top the yellow; specifically, Van Dyke Brown by Paint Couture. This softened the disparity between the sunny yellow and the deep blue. We even mimicked the pear, by adding antique style flecks into the wax for extra depth.


Lesson learned: there is rarely a true mistake in painting furniture. While we use layers to add depth and texture to any item, sometimes we also use them to soften a too-bright color or just to rethink the overall look of a piece of furniture.   After all, it’s a lot more fun to paint and re-paint (and maybe re-paint again!) than it is to live with dull and lackluster furniture. We may have questioned this desk along the way, but I think we have our next front window display piece!