Restored Side by Side Secretary Desk Furniture Makeover

Be inspired with this restored side-by-side secretary desk makeover! Learn the steps to makeover an antique furniture piece and restore it to its glory!

Hey there, furniture makeover enthusiasts! Are you ready to see the incredible transformation of a tired old side by side secretary desk into a stunning piece of furniture? 

You will be inspired as we take you through the step-by-step process of this amazing furniture restoration project. 

From sanding and restoring to adding reclaimed hardware, this makeover is sure to impress. So grab your tools, supplies, and an antique side-by-side secretary desk, and let’s get started!

One of our custom work clients recently inherited an antique side-by-side secretary desk. Well, maybe saying she inherited it is a stretch. She actually saved it from the trash heap! A relative’s home was being cleaned out after her passing and this piece was tossed aside. 

She saw this antique secretary desk, fell in love with it, and knew she could ask us to bring it back to life.

 secretary desk before restoration
screenshot from Instagram stories

History of Side-by-Side Secretary Desks

Let’s look at the history of these amazing antique pieces of furniture.

An antique secretary desk can be roughly dated to 1890-1920 when they were built and used. To get a more precise age for the piece, look for a maker’s mark, label, ink stamp, or some other marking on the piece.

This will help you to research and find the year of a side-by-side secretary desk. We couldn’t find any markings on this antique secretary desk but my client knew the history of this piece in her family so she made an educated guess at the early 1900s.

restored vintage side by side secretary desk

The secretary desk originated in France and usually had ornate details like scrollwork, inlays, and ornate hardware like an escutcheon plate for locked drawers and doors. These desks were also called writing desks.

What is the Difference between a Secretary and a Desk?

That brings me to the difference between a secretary and a desk. A secretary has a writing surface with storage areas above and in the case of a side-by-side secretary, beside the writing surface. A desk on the other hand has a writing surface and storage areas below.

These beautiful hand-crafted pieces are works of art and can be valued between $400- over $10,000! If you do a quick search on Etsy or eBay you will be amazed at the beautiful variety of design these antique pieces of furniture have to offer!

restored vintage side by side secretary desk

Secretary Desk Makeover

While this piece was beautiful, it wasn’t worth over $10K in its existing condition! Our client wasn’t concerned about the monetary value of this piece nearly as much as she wanted to preserve its beauty for her own family. She wanted this gorgeous antique secretary desk to be passed down as an heirloom.

We kept her wishes in mind as we restored this side-by-side secretary desk. 

secretary desk close up of wood carved detail
 close up of wood carved detail

Tools and Supplies

Here are some of the tools and supplies you might need for a refinishing furniture project. This is not an extensive list but it is a good starting point!

  • micro Microfiber Cleaning Cloths
  • Simple Green Cleaner
  • Orbital Sander
  • Detail Sander
  • Sanding Discs in 150 and 220 grit for both sanders
  • Hand Sanding Sponges
  • Shop vac
  • Brad Nailer & brads
  • Hardware cloth
  • Rustoleum Hammered Finish in Chestnut or desired color
  • Hemp Oil for furniture
  • Spare antique hardware parts or replacement pieces
secretary desk close up of shelf

Step One Prep the Antique Furniture Piece

The first step to furniture makeovers is to clean it thoroughly. I have a complete guide to furniture makeovers that will be helpful. 

  • Shop vac every square inch of the secretary desk. Look for any needed repairs as you vacuum.
  • Wipe down the side-by-side secretary with a warm soapy solution of Simple Green and water. Use a microfiber cloth to clean. Then use clean water and a clean microfiber cloth to wipe off any residue. Go over the piece again with the fresh soapy water and repeat as needed.
  • Allow the antique piece to dry thoroughly in the sunshine if possible.
secretary desk close up of hardware
secretary desk close up of handmade door closure

Step Two Sand the Antique Secretary Desk

This step could take some time so get an audiobook and earbuds and fire up the orbital sander! Restored antique furniture takes time so be patient with this process. You might need to strip the original finish off of the piece. I only needed to sand the piece thoroughly for this restored side-by-side secretary.

Here are some tips to guide you in sanding a restored furniture piece:

  • Begin with a 150-grit sanding disc loaded on an orbital sander. Sand the flat surfaces until the old finish is removed. Sand in the direction of the wood grain.
  • Use a detail sander with a pointed end to get into the corners and other areas the orbital sander can’t reach. Also use hand sanding pads, sponges, and sandpaper to get into all the nooks and crannies.
  • Repeat the sanding process with 220-grit sandpaper to create a smooth finish. This will also eliminate the swirls from the orbital sander.

Check out more sanding tips in my post Detail Sanding Oak Sideboard.

restored vintage side by side secretary desk close up of hardware and keyhole

thanks for being here!

I hope you are enjoying this project! Let me know if you have any questions. Or leave me a comment to tell me about your project and ideas!

thanks, Cindy 😀

Step Three Make Necessary Repairs

You would think this piece would have needed lots of repair work since the family considered tossing it into the trash. But in reality, it only needed minor repairs.

  • We replaced the missing glass in the side-by-side door with hardware cloth. The original trim that held the glass was intact. I carefully removed it, cut the hardware cloth to size, and used a brad nail gun to reattach the trim that held it in place.
  • Hubby made a small hand-carved piece of wood to create a door lock. He attached it with a brass screw loose enough that it could be turned to open and close the door.
  • I found bits and pieces of reclaimed hardware like an escutcheon and a vintage glass knob. The rest is the original hardware.
restored vintage side by side secretary desk detail of glass knob and wood carved detail

Step Four Apply a Finish to the Antique Secretary Desk

Our client wanted this piece to have a natural aged look. She wanted the imperfections that time creates to show and she didn’t want a shiny finish. 

She also wanted the wood on this furniture makeover to be healthy and hydrated. It had been sitting in a room for years and years in a sunny window so this piece was especially dry.

After discussing it with her, she decided that hemp oil would be the best option. She was willing to apply it once a year or so to bring some healthy hydration back to this gorgeous antique piece of furniture.

I applied the first coat of hemp oil using a chip brush. Normally the process to apply hemp oil is to brush it on and then wipe off any excess after about 30 minutes. But this piece soaked it all in like a sponge!

I applied the second coat of hemp oil the next day. When our client picked up the piece the following week, I sent her home with hemp oil in a jar so she could apply it in the coming months.

It would also be a good idea to apply 1-2 coats of furniture wax (not pledge!) to add further protection.

restored vintage side by side secretary desk close up of interior of desk

Styling the Antique Secretary Desk

Let’s chat about how to style and decorate this desk. Most of us might not use a piece like this in our homes the same way that the original owners might have used it.

This side-by-side secretary would have been used to write correspondence, notes, and letters to friends and family. Also, this antique desk would have been used as the spot to organize bills and important papers and documents.

An antique secretary was what we call a ‘command center’ in today’s lingo!

restored vintage side by side secretary desk close up of hinge
restored vintage side by side secretary desk close up of interior of desk

In the digital age we live in, these old pieces can seem unnecessary so we can use them for decor. Let’s look at some ways to decorate this beautiful antique piece of furniture.

Display Ironstone or Other Vintage Dishes

I collect and decorate with ironstone in our kitchen as well as for home decor. The cabinet area would be a great place to display some of those pieces.

Store antique Quilts and Linens

Old quilts and table linens would look amazing in the cabinet area as well. Cloth Napkins could be stored in the drawers

Laptop and iPad Storage and Charging Center

The fold-down desk area would be the perfect place to store a laptop or iPad. A large hole could be drilled in the back of the piece to allow for charging cords to run through.

At Home Office Space

This vintage secretary desk could be used as a small at-home office as well. We don’t have as many paper documents since we store those digitally but the cubbies could still be used for pens and other small office supplies.

Hide Unsightly Items

If you prefer to have the cabinet door to hide unsightly items, consider using storage bins on the shelves to act as drawers. Or using gathered fabric in the door area instead of hardware cloth like we used.

Art Center

If you are an artist, this side-by-side would be the perfect place to paint! There is plenty of storage for watercolor supplies, watercolor pads, and paintbrushes.

restored vintage side by side secretary desk

Refinishing Furniture Ideas

I’ve gathered some of our other restored furniture pieces for you. Some are restored to their original wood finish while others have been painted. I hope you enjoy seeing the before and afters! Click the titles below to see the post!

Antique Secretary Desk Makeover

Giving new life to an old piece of furniture like a side-by-side secretary desk can bring both functionality and vintage style to your home. If you are looking for more inspiration, here is another Vintage Secretary Desk makeover project!

Whether you’re looking to add a touch of vintage charm or simply want to breathe fresh life into a tired piece, a restored furniture makeover is the perfect solution. With some creativity, elbow grease, and a little bit of time, you can transform your secretary desk into a beautiful and functional focal point in any room.

If you have any questions about this simple yet stunning furniture makeover project, feel free to ask in the comments section at the end of this post!

In the meantime, happy restoring!

Cindy Rust

Cindy has been decorating her home with thrift store finds for 40 years. She is an avid thrift store shopper who loves to makeover the items she finds into vintage-inspired home decor and furniture. When she isn’t thrift shopping or painting a piece of furniture, you can find her making homemade butter, working in her garden, or painting with watercolors.

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  1. Hi Cindy!
    This side by side secretary turned out beautiful! I love how you and Steve pay so much attention to detail. I will have to research Rub-n-Buff, I’ve never heard of that. I know your client must be thrilled!

    1. Cynthia Gayle says:

      Thanks my friend! The Rub n Buff is soooooo easy to use and it does a wonderful job on vintage hardware without the spray painted look! It seems pricey for the size but you only use a dab!

  2. Karen Wilcox says:

    Hello Cindy,
    What beautiful work! What color/brand of stain did you use? I have a number of oak pieces that I want to refinish and avoid the “orangey” look, and this is just what I want. Just wish I lived in your area so I could have you do it!

    1. Cynthia Gayle says:

      Hi Karen! Thanks for stopping by! I sanded this cabinet down to bare wood and then applied Miss Mustard Seed Hemp Oil over the whole piece. This post will show you how MMS white wax can curb the orange tones of some woods! Click this link Thanks for stopping by! And if you lived closer, I would certainly refinish your treasured pieces!!😊😊

  3. What a Stunner! You guys really brought it back to life! It makes my heart happy to know this beautiful piece was saved from the landfill and will be passed down for generations to come. 🙂

    1. Cindy Rust says:

      Thanks Donna! Our client was thrilled with the results. Her daughter has her eye on it too! This piece will be treasured in their family for a very long time and I’m so honored to be a small part of the story 😊