How to Give an Old Secretary a Fabulous DIY Furniture Makeover

A New Secretary Cabinet for the Craft Room

Secretary desks are so handy, I had been looking for an affordable one for a couple of months.  I love them because the hutch provides extra storage without using floor space, and cabinet door hides the treasures.  I thought the downstairs craft room was finished, but motherhood continues at any age.  My youngest returned to school and moved home so I gave up my pretty pink workspace in the basement. Sharing sucks, I sold my storage dresser and replaced it with this small vintage secretary. You have to love having both extra storage and floor space even if a furniture refinishing project is always a large job.

A art deco painted secretary receiving a furniture refinishing.

This desk is now holding all my office supplies.  It looks pretty plain from the outside, but oh that shelving and the fold out desk is fantastic and handy for storage.  I am excited to show you the inside.

Repair the Furniture before Painting

The first thing you need to do is repair any woodworking problems. This secretary was starting to come apart a little bit.  The veneer was in rough shape, but overall it was still a sturdy little piece of furniture.

The Before

Damaged secretary before it receives furniture repair and refinishing

jOver the last couple of weeks, I had some harsh techie problems, the short story is a new phone, and a new computer that had to go back after only four hours.  Resulting in the loss of the pictures for this portion of the makeover if you’re still interested in how I repaired the veneer I am placing the written description at the bottom of the post.

Painted Secretary Tutorial

I enjoy working with latex paints, I like the shine and smooth feel of the finish so I used latex paint for the furniture refinishing. To refinish the secretary, you will need:


White latex paint.  (Benjamin Moore – Linen White)

Turquoise latex paint (Benjamin Moore – Mexicali Turquoise)


Once you have the furniture repaired and fixed, clean it really well.  Then sand with 120, 220, and then 280 grade sandpapers.

If you have a thick layer of paint on your furniture refinishing project, you have to start by stripping the paint off first. Unlike the sideboard refinishing I shared recently, you do not need strip this but but hand to sand the stained finish off to the wood.

Once the wood is sanded, apply a coat of primer, then lightly hand sand with first 120        and then 220 grit sandpaper.  Wipe the dust off with a soft cloth.

Tape off the window and all the hardware.  Alternatively, you can remove all the hardware and reassemble the secretary, but I taped mine off really well instead.

Starting with the turquoise paint. Paint all the interior surfaces.  Let dry between coats.  I painted the inside and outside of all the drawers.  Primer and two coats of turquoise.  Sand until smooth with 220 and then 280 grid paper.

A painted secretary in white and turquoise. The drawers have received a veneer repair.

Before applying the next coat of paint, run your hand over all the surfaces and resand any rough spots with the 220 grit sandpaper.  The rough portions from early coats transfer through to the next coat and then you cannot sand them out.

On this piece, the fold-down desk had to have a white edge on the side or it would have shown from the back.   You can see on the fold out where I used the small paint brush to cut along the edge.  You can use painters tape if you like, but I prefer to use a small paintbrush and cut paint it instead.

A secretary desk fold out table as part of a furniture refinishing project.

The little divider organizer is obviously homemade.  The bottom is finished with different strips of wood.  I think whoever originally made it was brilliant, and I know its old as well.

Once you have the turquoise painting all done, then finish the outside of your secretary with the white paint.

Furniture Refinishing Final Touches

Fixing the Hardware

I always find the last little bits the hardest part of any restoration, by this point I want it done and usable. The hardware was quite rusted a dirty.  For the folding desk hardware, I cleaned it with CLR on a soft cloth before taping it off.

The drawer pulls were originally gold and nice, but the backside was really dirty.   I incorrectly assumed they were plastic, so I put them in hot sudsy water and cleaned them with a toothbrush,  the gold paint scrubbed right off leaving a gorgeous metal pull.  They were gorgeous, I was so happy I showed them to my son.  It was evening so I left them on a clean towel to dry overnight.  The next morning they were an orange rust mess,

Never have I seen that before,  please comment if you have ever experienced this.  I was really upset, I used CLR a toothbrush and a scrubbing pad and two hours later the rust was off.  I then painted them with metallic silver paint.  They are nice, but not like the shiny chrome I had laid out so happily on the towel.

Adding the Curtain

I have not yet applied to be an Amazon affiliate ( soon), but I do order from them.  This is a link to the white wire stretch curtain rod I used to hang the curtain.  It works really well and it means I can store picture props and thing in the cabinet.

The little screw eyes are sharp enough to penetrate the real wood, no need to predrill, just be patient and twist until the screw eyes bite, it takes a couple of minutes.     I then just measured the window and sewed some leftover lace twice the width and the exact length.

How To Flatten the Veneer for Painting

To flatten veneer and then add new bits of veneer for an original surface is way beyond my skill level.  Repairing bubbled veneer for painting is pretty easy to accomplish as you can use wood filler if necessary.

To flatten the veneer I used a utility knife,  an iron, parchment paper, glue, wood filler and 150 and 220 sandpaper.

Applying heat to the veneer flattens the wood and with any luck, the original glue will reattach.  The parchment paper protects your iron from any glue residue.  Place the tip of the hot iron on the veneer bubble and press.  When you lift your iron to check you may see that surrounding veneer has discoloured.  Mine returned to normal quickly as it cooled.

Once ironed flat apply weight with a clamp or something really heavy (I used granite samples) to hold it in place and give it a couple of hours to re-adhere.  I left mine overnight.  If you’re lucky that is all you need to do.  I wasn’t lucky.

The veneer was quite a bit flatter than it started but it wasn’t adhering.  With a utility knife I scraped out the old glue,  the veneer cracked on me during the process but I had to get new glue under it.  I applied new glue and reapplied the weight, waiting for three or four hours.

This time it was much better, the glue dried and the veneer was flat.  I sanded the surfaces smooth, filled in any cracks with wood filler and let the dry before sanding and painting.

I look forward to hearing your comments, have you ever had something rust like that?  Have you ever repaired veneer?  Do you like the two colours I picked for the secretary restoration?  I would love to hear from you.

A once damaged old secretary thats now hand painted furniture desk with a pretty calendar and accessories.

Other Furniture Refinishing Projects

A greige restoration hardware finish on a DIY coffee table makeover. The table top is greige and the sides are bright white.

Veneer Coffee Table Refinish with Stain

Table tops don’t always look the best with a painted top. This coffee table refinish with stain was done on a veneer coffee table but I found a way to restain that worked so well I redid three pieces.

Fixed and painted white DIY Entertainment center makeover, in white with storage baskets.`

How to Repair and Paint an Entertainment Center.

This veneer covered entertainment center was very expensive and should have lasted longer with minimal use. Not able to replace it I gave an easy furniture refinishing project and called it good.


  1. It is a privilege for me to read your article. The secretary is looking great after remodeling. You’re working skill wondered me. I have a secretary which used my father. It became old but i will repaint it in a week. Your work has given me an interest to paint the secretary.

    1. LeannaForsythe says:

      It’s wonderful to have a family heirloom. Congratulations and it’s so worth the effort.

  2. It looks beautiful Leanna and there still a whole bunch of storage even though you had to give up your pretty pink work space. What we’ll do for our kids and they are so worth it. Such a pity abut the hardware, I wonder why that happened? Maybe it was a very porous metal? Either way your vintage secretary looks stunning

  3. Talk about timing! I am hoping to be able to repaint my kitchen table today. I used to have one of those really dark red presswood kitchen tables and painted it a bluish color which I loved but I think white would fit my kitchen more so you timing is perfect. I am now feeling like I need to gulp the last of my coffee and get to it so mine looks as nice as yours! Wish me luck.

  4. Leanna I’m so glad you were able to save this lovely piece. I too have been having my fair share of troubles with the veneer. I love how you used that pretty blue inside. It was so unexpected and gave a new dimension to the whole piece.

  5. Hello Leanna, that’s really weird that the handles rusted so fast! I wonder if it had to do with using CLR somehow… Maybe it was some kind of pot metal or iron? Iron rusts really really fast. The only way to keep it from rusting is to paint or put sealer on it right away, but I’m sure you know that. Strange how things happen. I guess you could go get some chrome or another spray paint to change their color to something you’d like better.

    I had a little secretary I bought in Phoenix, AZ, while coming back {oddly enough… since we live in Texas now. Lol!} from Texas 20 years ago. It was for our daughter’s bedroom to sit between two twin beds. I never did paint it but the shape is pretty much the same as yours. Was a great piece for many years until she no longer wanted it.

    Happy Sunday,
    Barb 🙂

    1. LeannaForsythe says:

      Hi Barb: Those handles sure are puzzling. Now that you mention it, I bet they were pot metal, I was just so excited to see the chrome finish, lesson learned with leaving them to dry overnight. (I usually do projects like that, leaving it to the next day for another coat).

      I wanted it to be white for the craft room and without the damaged veneer I would have left it for someone who wanted to keep it original. I am already attached to this little piece of furniture for my craft room, and its already proving to be very handy.

      Whenever we travel is does not matter where Hubs needs to check out the prices at Costco, so I always go check out at least one antique or thrift store lol. If we have the truck furniture is on my shopping list too lol.

      Thanks for the input on the handles. Enjoy the rest of the weekend. Leanna

  6. All of your hard work paid off. The secretary looks wonderful. Plus to have the storage is always a plus.

    1. LeannaForsythe says:

      Hi Debra. I have always decorated for every season, and switched out the house colours and made things. But now I do more of it, so of course I have more stuff, those little shelves are going to be especially handy.

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