Guide to Antique Furniture Restoration
August 3, 2017
Repairing a Family China Cabinet
November 15, 2017

Refinishing a Child’s Roll-Top Secretary Desk

We recently completed a project for a client in which we refinished a child-sized secretary desk to match twin beds that we had previously refinished. One of the challenges of this project was that the child’s roll-top secretary had been made of oak, while the beds were made of maple. This meant we had a number of extra factors to account for in the refinishing process, from the color of the wood to the prominence of the wood grain.

Fortunately, it’s easier to match oak to maple. Maple can be finicky to finish, because the stain can sometimes go on blotchy and uneven. If we had first done the desk, then the beds second, our task would have been much more complicated.

When we did the bed project, we started on the bed rails and later refinished the headboard. We had chosen a slightly reddish glaze on the rails, which were almost brown, because the headboard had a patina which made it look almost rusty. This helped give the beds a warmer tone than they had before.

It also meant that, when we went to work on the desk, we would have to match the stain from memory to what we had used on the beds. We wanted to bring some of those reds back in to the desk; so, after staining it, we used a burnt umber glaze. The glaze, which is a thicker stain, helped add richness and warmth to the wood.

Matching different woods can be tricky, and the effect is never perfect. For instance, the underlying color tones in the wood affect the result. If the wood has a lot of red, like mahogany, or new walnut, which has a lot of blues in it, they can be difficult (or even impossible) to match. Red undertones, in particular, are difficult to mask in wood; and they require adding a green or a blue to the stain color to tone down the red.

The grain of the wood can also make it more difficult. Woods with a lot of grain, such as oak, lend a different character to the final piece. The concentration of the grains, or their form in the wood, can make a piece seem darker; and some woods are chosen specifically for their dark grains, or lack thereof.

When consulting with a client about matching pieces with different woods, we can give them a good idea of what is possible. For instance, we’re currently working on a china cabinet where our client brought in a leaf, but the leaf has more grain than the rest of the piece. Finding a way to balance them out takes skill and experience. It never matches perfectly, so it’s best to set your expectations accordingly.

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