Restoring a Duncan Phyfe-Style Writing Desk

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When a refurbishing project crosses my path, I listen to what the client’s requests are. After taking inspection of the project, there comes to mind a host of questions before ever working on the item. Repairing the item based on sight or conversing with obvious questions to the owner is just the beginning of providing a solution. There are additional concerns that will help the project restoration. Understanding the connection of the piece to the client, such as what the item means to them; what the environment will be in its placement and surroundings; and attaining a clearer perception of the history, as well as the heritage of the piece; can also be important.

This desk was passed down from a deceased family member and sat in a basement until it was needed for a work from home time period. The initial idea was to clean it up and decide to either paint it with a flare of current upcycling style, or restore the natural look of the wood, as the client was not yet sure as to where the desk would be used. I offered to look into its value first, based on its history, before making a final decision.

Determining the difference between antique furniture and reproductions comes down to wood, upholstery, construction, joinery, odor and branding. True antiques are typically branded, whereas reproductions are not, due to assembly type production as opposed to being individually handcrafted.

Reproductions may be constructed of a single type of wood, whereas antiques were often constructed using multiple types of wood due to scarcity and expense. Reproductions tend to have consistent signs of wear, while authentic antiques will have varying degrees of wear due to years of use. However, this unit was mostly surface worn from sitting in a damp environment.

After cleaning it up along with some initial sanding, I found the desk had no markings, stampings, or brandings. The construction consisted of Mahogany and mixed wood species. The drawers had dovetail construction, and the entire assembly, although very dry, seemed to be sturdy and quite solid. Two of the console-styled legs were loose with single heavy bolt attachments.

The desktop had three framed insets from previous leather upholstery material, which were no longer present, and a small corner surface area was warped, seemingly raised from dampness or water. Nothing that a bit of sanding time wouldn’t take care of.

As I restored the desk, I did some due diligence by comparing photos online to my project. It was difficult to place the creator and design style initially. I finally came across a very close style resemblance to the 18th century furniture maker, Duncan Phyfe. My project did not have any vintage style carvings along the edges typical to antique history designs. Additionally, notice the lip design below under the first drawers, as well as the drawer’s curvature, and the console legs on both the vintage Duncan Phyfe (L) and the Phyfe-style design, (R). Comparatively, the maple leaf drawer pulls were pretty close in design. You might ask, what’s the difference between vintage Phyfe and Phyfe-style furniture? When it comes to monetary value, the difference is based upon what someone paid for an antique, vintage, or reproduction piece. Be sure to investigate before shelling out more than you may need to.

The sanding was made easier with the use of a Festool Rotex RO 90 Multi-Purpose Sander by switching between the round and triangular pads. I went thru 120-400 grits during the sanding process. Edges and detailed areas were sanded by hand. The trim and console legs were the toughest areas to remove the old finish and top coat. There seemed to also be a lot of polish residue, leaving surfaces with a caked on appearance. Now onto a pre-stain conditioner.

At this point, the desk owner had a choice: a finished aesthetic of different wood shades due to original construction using several woods or a more even color achieved by using a General Finishes Pre-Stain first to help blend her choice of stain application. The lightest area to consider blending was the inset desktop and the two drop lip drawer areas.

This old desk was dry and thirsty, so I ended up applying three coats of General Finishes Pre-Stain Conditioner, followed by two coats of General Finishes Antique Brown Wood Stain. The result could not have come out any better for color blending all of the wood grain together.

I applied four topcoats of General Finishes Arm-R-Seal Semi-Gloss and sanded with Norton P1500-P1200 Micro Fine Grit Sanding Sponges in between coats, to build the finish.

Taking the desk outside, I applied two additional final coats. Let us spray….

The old maple leaf-shaped drawer pulls were replaced with new pulls. The existing drawer pull screw holes were a larger diameter than the new pull screws, which would have too much gap for the handle to possibly loosen and shift over time through use. I filled all of the previous screw holes with wood dowels followed by gluing and re-drilling for the new handles with smaller diameter screws. The desk drawers consisted of three flat exterior drawers and five curved surface drawers. The bottom right drawer extrinsically looked like two separate drawers, but was actually one deep drawer with two handle pulls. Finding drawer pulls that had curved posts to match the curved drawer exterior profile was difficult. The solution I used, was to grind the flat pull post backs to match the curved drawer surface. I drilled countersink holes to the interior drawer backs, so that the screw heads would lay flat to the surface.

Each drawer was internally sanded, pre-stain conditioned, stained and given a topcoat. One of the bottom drawer compartments needed new drawer stops. I made my own by taking two L-shaped brass brackets and ground them down just below the compartment glide height for the drawer to slide over, and stop in the correct position to match the other drawer closures. Additionally, to make all of the drawers slide much easier, I applied a clear wax Carnauba bar over the glide areas on both the compartments and the drawer bottom edges.

Let’s take a glance back in time before the refurb and compare! I love it when a plan comes together!

Clear adhesive bumper pads were added for a custom glass top for the final touch, and I delivered the desk to the owner. 

If you have projects to refurb, be sure to check out all of the finishing options and accessories from your local Woodcraft store and online at Our expert staff can certainly assist you in Helping You Make Wood Work as we create together.

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