Home » DIY Driftwood Finish Secretary Desk

DIY Driftwood Finish Secretary Desk

I have been OBSESSED with achieving a DIY driftwood finish on raw wood pieces.

There is something so simple and serene about the lightened raw wood finish on literally any piece of furniture. I’ve seen and Pinned tutorials, and I got my first DIY driftwood trial out of the way with an old window shutter I found in a barn and up-cycled into a shelf.

I’m working in a house with a “Boho-Glam Coastal Farmhouse” vibe and it’s just as awesome as it sounds! This house provides the perfect opportunity to play around with a DIY driftwood finish.

The only hard-and-fast rule for this technique is that is has to be a real wood piece. No MDF or particle board, folks! It can be any type of wood. Different types will take the treatment differently, as you will see with my antique secretary desk. Parts of the desk are pine, parts are (I think) cherry. Maybe mahogany, but I think that was just used as veneer. Regardless, I wanted the pale wood look so all those red tones had to go!

Starting with a busted-up piece is always a comfort for me.

If it’s already busted stuff, there’s no harm in me experimenting on it, right? And let me tell you. This antique secretary desk had seen better days.
A lot of them.
Veneer was chipped and there were scratches of varying depth all over, some decorative element in the front was long gone, the whole thing was a dusty mess.

And that one unfinished front leg! How the heck had no one wanted to fix that?! Oiy. I’ve never seen something so sad as a club-foot Queen Anne.
I had to have this desk. And for $39.99 at GoodWill, even Mark agreed when I sent him a pic. So into the Jeep and home with me it goes and I get to work immediately.


Goggles (I just had my glasses on)
Mask – a few of them. Sanding is dusty work!

Drill or screwdriver to take off/put on hardware, back of furniture, etc.
TSP or Dawn + old toothbrush for soaking/cleaning hardware (I also used Brasso, but stopped when things were clean but still aged-looking. I like the patina of time for this piece.)
Bleach – Clorox no splash formula. Just what I had in the laundry room.
Kitchen sponge – Scotch-Brite with the scouring pad side is what I had on hand.
Spray bottle for the bleach
Liming Wax – I use Briwax
Mineral Spirits + cheap chip brush if you plan to thin the liming wax and paint it on like I do.
Lint-free rags – I like to shred up Mark’s old white tees.
Palm sander (The most important tool)
Different grit strengths for sander*

Step 1: Deconstruct + Buy any replacement parts, new hardware, etc.

Drawers out, hardware off, in my case backing off, top off, cubby hole unit out. . .this poor gal was in pieces for weeks. Part of the issue is I start this project in late October, and the bleaching process really needs to happen on a warm sunny day. More on that below!

It kind of makes me sad to get a new back for this desk. The original back had this really cool label proclaiming “From Novelty Wood Works Co. Furniture Manufacturers of Union City, Penn’A., U.S.A.”
A little Google searching and I found a woodworking forum where someone dug up the info “Novelty Wood Works Co. of Union City, PA opened in 1897 and stopped production in 1912. The remaining trustees filed for bankruptcy on July 2, 1931.”
Someone else mentioned the slant-front desk was likely made early 1900s. This makes my little club-foot desk a little over 100 years old! What a life!

Step 2. . . and 2.5: Sand. A Lot.

*So. I am not a patient person. If you know me, you probably just snorted and thought to yourself “no shit”. Especially if you’ve ever been in the car, or on the phone with me while I am driving.

The sandpaper thing was KILLING me. I started off nice with 150 grit, got impatient and started attacking with 100 grit. . .then got REALLY impatient and blasted away with 50 grit. Carefully. And as soon as I had blasted through the veneer I went back up to 100 grit to even it out, then 150 to smooth it out. Then 220 grit for a final once-over because I like my wood to be soft as a baby’s butt.

For the sake of your sanity, I would say have a range of grits on hand. Start at a respectable 100 or 150 and see how it goes for you. If you’re more advanced in your sanding practice and technique then you do you. And feel free to share what that looks like in the comments! I’m always down to learn.

Just. . .get down to that wood.

If you’re thinking to yourself “Dear heaven, there has to be another way” well. . .you are correct. However. This one is results-guaranteed and any stripping process will be time-consuming so how much time you want to spend on experimentation is up to you.

I love Amy’s post over on The Coastal Oak. There are lots of informative links in her post too!
She tried all the ways and ended up sanding. This gave me courage and motivation–and her tip about the greenish glue layer really helped me pull back from the savage onslaught of 50-grit sanding in time. . . most of the time. I actually thought the front part veneer when. . .it wasn’t! Oops. You can see me doing a little correction sanding in my “Step 2.5” pic.

Can I also say this is a noisy step? I’m gonna suggest some noise-cancelling headphones and an Audible book to pass the hours.

When everything is sanded to your satisfaction, wipe it down with a damp lint-free cloth. Make sure all the sanding dust is off and the wood is dry.

Step 3: Bleach

Now for the fun part! Plan ahead with the weather forecast, you want a warm or even hot and SUNNY day. The heat will keep the wood grain relaxed so it absorbs the bleach faster. The sun accelerates the process.

I really like Natalie’s post on her blog My Vintage Porch. She had some handy tips and seeing how her piece turned out is really motivational! She also got down to the bare wood with a sander, just FYI! I use her timeline of applying bleach every 30 minutes for a couple hours.

Make sure you’ve got some rubber gloves on! Then spray the bleach on the sponge and wipe in strokes with the grain of the wood.

You want enough bleach that it’s getting the wood wet-looking, but don’t go pressing and squeezing it everywhere. I feel like a controlled application keeps the wood bleaching more evenly. You can kind of see in my Step 3 picture I did NOT do this initially on the desk top. It definitely ended up more splotchy than the rest of the desk with the sponge application.

Step 4: Liming Wax

Another fun step! If you like the look of your wood after bleaching, stop there. Because this desk has two different types of wood, liming wax really helps them look a bit more uniform. I’m also obsessed with the super pale tones of a DIY driftwood finish and the liming wax is what will get you there.

You can kind of see in my Step 4 photo, I’ve got my trusty rubber gloves and rags for this process! I also have a little plastic bowl, spoon for mixing, and cheap chip brush. Scoop the liming wax into the bowl, dribble some mineral spirits, and mix until you get a good paint-like, even consistency.

Work in sections. I started on one side, moved to the other, then worked from the top of the desk, down to the writing area, down to the front. You want to paint it on quickly and then go back with a clean dry rag and buff, buff, buff, along the same path you just painted the wax. If you lay it on too thick, buff with mineral spirits on a rag. The goal here isn’t to paint the piece! Just to take out any remaining yellow tones. You want the wood to still look like wood!

The liming wax smells. The mineral spirits do too. Be sure you’re in a well ventilated area! A mask for this process is a good idea too. Phew!

Next Steps: Wrapping it up

That’s it for transforming the wood! Let that liming wax hang out for at least 24 hours.

A top coat isn’t mandatory, but since this desk is a commissioned piece for a teen girl’s bedroom and will actually be getting used, I top it with a clear matte polycrylic (I had Annie Sloan’s on hand). Unfortunately some of the yellow tones kind of resurface with a topcoat, especially on the inside writing area. But ultimately I still love how this piece came out – I even create some imperfection on the slant-top with hand sanding through my top coat. It’s an antique! I like that it still looks like it’s had a long life.

For this desk, my next steps are applying an era-appropriate wallpaper to the (new) back piece. I also line the desk drawer with it. So pretty!

Other Parts of this Process

I use Gorilla wood glue to reinforce the two pieces of wood that support the drawer. I decide to try out the “liquid sandpaper” deglosser that failed me as a stripper on another project to make the cubby hole section paintable. (This works, thank the Gods). The cubby hole section gets the gold treatment with a mix of two Folk Art paints: Mayan Gold and Gold. Since the hardware on the inside of this desk is brass I want a gold paint that plays nice with that brass.

When the desk is ready, I reassemble, starting with the gold cubby hole section getting nailed back into place. Then the (new) wallpapered backing gets drilled in and the top piece of the desk is popped back on. There’s a little decorative topper that gets drilled on next. Then Mark helps me get the slant-front back on (a tricky balancing act that requires 4 hands and some swearing) and the drawer (with original CLEANED hardware) is pushed back in.

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