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Vintage School Desk Upcycle – DIY Furniture Makeover (Plus Video)

If you’ve checked out our blog before then you know that we love a few things. We love making things. We love repurposing things. And lastly, we love auctions.

This great trifecta was the catalyst behind this vintage school desk upcycle.

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The Story Behind the Vintage School Desk Upcycle

One day, I was gently waking up from a nap. My kids were supposed to be home soon and I caught a quick snooze before the chaos of homework, dinner, baths, bedtime, and the works. But something happened that put our evening plans on hold.

There were cars parked up and down the loop of our development. I couldn’t believe it! There was an auction right in our own little neighborhood and I had no idea it was going to happen.

I called Ned and told him the news. He told me to collect the kids, go to the auction, and get a number. He said he’d be there as soon as he could. Our kids have been going to auctions since they were babies so it really wasn’t a strange event for them. We packed snacks, coloring books, and a blanket and walked up the road.

I bid on a few items before Ned arrived, and we bid on a few after. There was quite a lot of beautiful furniture that sold for very fair prices. If we had been more prepared, we may have purchased more. We did, however, walk away with two camping chairs, a solid wood oval mirror, a wooden Ethan Allen cabinet, a wooden end table/cabinet, and of course the vintage school desk. We took it all for around $45 dollars.

I was able to snag the chair desk for $5. I was impressed by the quality of this piece. It’s solid wood and very sturdy. I  knew right away that I wanted to do something fun with it.

Though we’re not master upcyclers, we enjoy watching other people repurpose furniture and wanted to try our hand at doing a furniture makeover.

So there’s the story of how we took a $5 desk and upcycled it into a modern piece of furniture. I’ve included a step-by-step so you can do it too!

List of Supplies for the School Desk Upcycle

You don’t need a ton of supplies to do this furniture makeover. It’s more time-consuming than anything. But, there are a few things that you will need for this school desk upcycle project.

  1. A wooden school desk
  2. Electric sander 
  3. Coarse sandpaper for your electric sander
  4. Medium sandpaper (for your electric sander or sand by hand)
  5. Fine sandpaper (for light sanding)
  6. Safety glasses
  7. Dust mask (for sanding)
  8. Chalk paint (in color of your choice)
  9. Painter’s tape 
  10. Foam brushes or chalk paint brushes
  11. Polycrylic or furniture wax
  12. Wood finish (in the shade of your choice)
  13. Plastic gloves for applying finishes
  14. Something to apply the stain and poly (we used a sponge)
  15. Lead test (if worried about finish)

Step One: Sand the School Desk With an Electric Sander

Here’s a picture of what the desk looked like when we first bought it. The school desk that we bought at the auction is made of oak and had a finish on it that was beginning to wear off.

To begin the school desk upcycle project, start by sanding down the entire school desk with an electric sander and coarse sandpaper. Remember to use a dust mask and safety glasses to avoid breathing in dust or getting it in your eyes. I also prefer to sand outside if possible.

Sanding is one of the most time-consuming parts of this project. For a beautiful finish at the end, be ready to put in a little hard work and to invest some time. I have heard that chalk paint can be more forgiving and may not require as much sanding. Since we didn’t choose to paint the entire piece, we did sand the whole thing smooth and removed all the former finish.

NOTE: If you have reason so suspect that your furniture may contain lead, I strongly suggest you test before sanding it down. You can pick up a lead test from Amazon, Home Depot, or Lowe’s. Paint is the number one culprit for lead, but some other finishes also contain lead. 

Step Two: Sand the School Desk By Hand

Here’s what the desk looks like after the first step.

After using your electric sander, it’s time to do some more sanding. I can feel your excitement at this task!! Just kidding. You’ll get through this soon enough. Just keep at it!

Sand the school desk until the wood is smooth. Pay special attention to the seat and desktop portion because these will not be painted. The non-painted part needs to be finish free so it can take the stain well.

Step Three: Tape the School Desk

If you’re planning on painting the whole school desk one color, you won’t need to worry about taping anything off. I really wanted to create a two-tone look, so I taped around the seat and desktop.

Step Four: Paint the School Desk

When I was choosing colors for this project I wasn’t quite sure what direction I wanted to take it. I called my sister-in-law who is more experienced at refinishing furniture and asked for her advice.  She suggested I paint part of the desk black and stain the seat and desktop a dark walnut stain. I wasn’t sure what I thought about this at first, but now I am really glad I took her suggestion. I think it’s a really cool combo.

There are a lot of different chalk paints available but since this was my first time using chalk paint, I just went with the kind available at Wal-Mart.

This one is called Waverly Chalk paint by Plaid and I got it in the color “Ink.” I have since been told that there are a lot more high-quality chalk paints available. I chose one that is fairly inexpensive, but I was recommended Dixie Belle chalk paint for its quality and durability. It’s available locally here, but you can also get it on Amazon.

If you choose the Waverly chalk paint I recommend watering it down a little before painting it on. You don’t need to add a lot to it. Just enough to make it a little easier to paint on. Once you’re done with this step, use your foam brush or chalk paintbrush to apply the paint. I used a foam brush because it was cheaper, but they had a tendency to fall apart which was annoying. If I knew I would be repurposing a lot of furniture I would invest in something more durable.

Here is a picture of the chalk painting in progress. I really loved the transformation of the school desk at this point. It was really fun seeing the changes!

Step Five: Lightly Sand Painted Areas and Paint Again

It will take about 24 hours for your chalk paint to dry. Once it has dried, you can lightly sand it with fine sandpaper and paint again. Repeat as many times as necessary to get the look you want. This does slow down the process a bit, but it’s worth it to make sure you completely cover the wood underneath.

Here’s what the wooden school desk looked like after applying three coats of chalk paint. (It hadn’t fully dried when I took the picture).

After the paint dries you can scuff it up a little to give it that farmhouse look. We chose not to do that with this piece, but I think it would definitely add some charm.

Step Six: Retape the School Desk

In this step, you’re going to tape off the desk again. This time it will be the opposite way as before. Now you’re ready to add the stain to the seat and desktop, so add tape to the chair to protect the painted areas.

Try not to do what we did, and add the tape as an afterthought 🙂

Step Seven: Add Your Stain of Choice to the School Desk

Once you’ve taped off the chair again, it’s time to add your stain of choice. We chose a dark walnut stain that we already owned, but you can use whatever you think will look amazing. You could even choose to keep the wood natural and just apply a coat of poly to seal it.

Ned applied about one coat (maybe a little more) to this desk before we achieved the look we were going for. If you wanted the stain to be a little darker you could always apply additional coats. We like to use plastic gloves for stains and finishes so they don’t get on our hands.

This is what the chair looks like at this point in the process. I was geeking out a little about how pleased I was with the look. (Thanks again to my sister-in-law for the combination suggestion).

At this point, you’re SO close to being done, but there’s one more thing to do before you’re finished.

Step Eight: Apply a Sealing Coat to the School Desk

The final step is to add your sealing coat to both the chalk paint and the stained areas. We chose to use Polycrylic for this step. It’s a clear coat water-based protective finish that can be applied to both painted and stained areas. Another option for the chalk painted areas is to use a wax finish.

We applied the Polycrilic three times before we were satisfied with the look. I suggest doing it somewhere with really good lighting because it’s difficult to see where you’ve applied the coats in dim light. (I know because I missed some spots after applying it in the warm lighting of our garage).

Remember to lightly sand with your fine sandpaper between coats. Don’t worry about sanding a lot, just do it enough to take care of any imperfections created by your brush strokes.

And that’s it! You’ve successfully completed a school desk upcycle and saved a high-quality piece of furniture from ending up in the trash.

A Little History of this Vintage School Desk

If you’re into history, I thought I would include this little section about our school desk. I did a little research about the particular desk that we upcycled and found a few facts. I didn’t know previously, but this style of desk (one that has a desktop attached to a chair) is called a tablet arm desk.

The solid wood desk that we repurposed was probably built between 1900 and 1950. According to Fiona Miller of the blog the classroom, “As time went on, the idea of saving wood became in fashion. In the 1960s and 1970s, many desks were made fully out of metal, but these were mostly used for high school students.”

It’s hard to say for sure when this desk was manufactured, but I imagine it in an elementary school in the 1950s. If you’re an antique person please let me know if you have any more information about this desk. (Also please don’t be mad at me for giving it a makeover 🙂 )

The Benefits of Upcycling — Why You Should Repurpose and Reuse

We talk about repurposing things on our blog from time to time. You may be wondering what upcycling is and why people even do it.

So what’s the big deal with upcycling anyway?

The term “upcycle” was first coined in 1994, believe it or not. It was published in an article in SalvoNEWS. The article quoted Reiner Pilz, a German engineer saying, “‘Recycling? I call it downcycling. They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling, where old products are given more value, not less.'”

Upcycling something usually means you take an item that would otherwise have been thrown away or destroyed and you give it new life. As with the school chair that we repurposed, you often make it more modern to match the current trends or to match your own personal tastes.

There are quite a few benefits to repurposing or upcycling something. Here are some that we would like to highlight.

Upcycling is Good For the Environment

This one is probably the easiest to identify. Instead of sending something to the dump or even to a recycling center, you give it a distinct purpose. I don’t know what would have happened to the school desk if we hadn’t bought it, but it had the potential of being sent to the garbage. For $5, it obviously wasn’t in high demand.

There are loads of other materials readily available all around us. Glass jars from food purchased at the grocery store. Leftover cardboard for kids crafts. Old furniture that’s been sitting in the garage or that you picked up for cheap at a yard sale. There are so many opportunities.

If you’re a maker who also cares about the environment, check out our blog post: 5 Ways to be an Environmentally Friendly Crafter, Maker, and Artist.

Upcycling Usually Doesn’t Cost Much

Assuming that you already have general making materials like an electric sander and a dust mask, this project really didn’t cost much. The biggest cost was the paint which was under $10. I used most of the little container of paint for this project so it’s not something I can really use again. The cost of the Polycrilic and walnut stain was minimal because we didn’t use very much for this project and still have a lot left over for future projects.

So, including the cost of the chair and materials… you’re looking at a project that costs less than $20 to make.

Upcycling Gives You the Freedom to Experiment

I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I buy new materials to make a project I feel like I have to do it right.  There’s some inherent pressure to make something great since I spent the money. I don’t want to waste my investment.

Using materials that would have been thrown away gives you the freedom to try something new. There’s really no parameters when you’re using an old piece of cardboard. The kids can draw all over it if they want. They can play in a cardboard box until it falls apart. If you want to turn a used glass bottle into a vase for your table, there’s no real big loss if it takes you several bottles to get the look you want.

If you use discarded materials you also have the opportunity to learn with very little investment. Let’s say you want to learn how to sew. Instead of buying expensive new materials, you can start learning on an old bedsheet. Even if you don’t end up making anything you want to keep, you’ve used something that didn’t cost anything extra and probably would have been thrown away.

The Vidoe of the DIY Vintage School Desk Upcycle

If you prefer to learn how to make things in a video form, we have you covered! Here’s our video tutorial on how to upcycle a vintage school desk! Plus you’ll get to learn a little about us and the way we do things at the Making Life.

Upcycling and Furniture Flips

In the future, we’d enjoy doing more of these upcycling projects. The vintage school desk upcycle will hopefully be the first of many projects to come. In the meantime, we’d love to hear about some of your upcycling projects or furniture flips. Have you turned trash to treasure? Have you been able to keep something from ending up in the landfill? We want to hear all about it in the comments below.











  • Miranda

    I have one just like this I’m getting ready to redo. Mine have this laminate like coating on desk part. Any idea or suggestions how to remove it?

    • Ned and Hannah

      That’s a good question. Laminate is a bit harder to work with. We haven’t done it, but I think it requires heating up the laminate so you can scrape it off. My guess is the heat loosens the glue that holds the laminate.

      If you want to email us a picture we might be able to offer some advice. Our email is themakinglife@gmail.com if you want to send a picture!

  • Alicia Hursley

    My husband and I are all about side hustles, and our junk removal side hustle gave us the opportunity to clean out an old school. We found a ton of these old desks and decided to save a couple of them rather them throw them in our dumpster rental. We decided to follow your project and upcycled those old desks. Our kids absolutely love them and they’ve helped make homework time go a little smoother haha Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Ned and Hannah


      That is so so cool! We love side hustles and what an excellent opportunity to find soon-to-be treasures. It makes me really happy that you were able to use our tutorial to help you refinish the desks you found. If you have a public social media account we’d love to see it!

      Ned and Hannah

  • Bobby Lite

    Thanks for the awesome breakdown. I’ve considered using chalk paint on a wood end table but I’m curious, have you had any chipping or scratching with the paint on the desks? How has it held up? We tried chalk paint (a different brand) a few years back on a couple of wood desktops that we purchased from Ikea and it didn’t hold up too well. Granted, the desks got a lot of use and I think any paint is likely to chip or scratch in high-use areas like that. I love the look, though, and have wanted to give it another shot so I would love to hear how your chairs are looking now after a couple of years of use. Thanks in advance!

    • Ned and Hannah

      Great great question! Thank you for asking!

      I would say that ours has held up really well over time, but I’ve also primarily used it for decoration. The parts that would get the most use if this were used as a functional desk were stained instead of painted. With that said, I do not notice any chipping, cracking, or any other problems where I used chalk paint.

      I used the Waverly chalk paint, but if you’re looking for something that’s higher quality a lot of people recommended using Dixie Belle chalk which I think will likely be more durable.

      I hope this helps!

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