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Renovating a Writing Desk Bureau to Retain Patina

When presented with a problem I like to find a simple, inexpensive, effective and often novel or innovative solution.


My Writing Bureau: A Gift From a Friend

A friend of mine, knowing that I’d always fancied a writing desk bureau, snapped one up when he saw it on sale for a nominal fee, and he gave it to me as a gift.

Fancying something and needing it isn’t always the same thing. I didn’t really have anywhere to put this desk. However, I do have plans to do a makeover of our home office in the New Year, and in doing so, I plan to modify the shelving in the alcove in our home office to accommodate the writing bureau.

However, it’s not just as simple as finding space for it to fit; the writing bureau needed some renovation or restoration, including regluing the wobbly legs. A challenge my friend knew I was well capable of because he knows that I relish this kind of DIY project.

Renovation or Restoration

Full restoration would require skills I don’t currently have, including using French polish and replacing the leather inlay. These are skills I’m sure I could learn.

However, I didn’t want it to look like new (like the day it was made); I wanted to retain some of its patina to show its age.

Also, there were features of the bureau that I didn’t like.

  • The decorative trim along the top of the pigeon-holes stopped short of the full length of the bureau, leaving an unsightly gap at each end.
  • The front stretcher (horizontal support on the legs) would prevent easy storage under the bureau.

Therefore, I opted for renovation rather than restoration.

Type of Renovation

Optionally, I could have strip it back to the bare wood and paint or stain it, but it would lose all its patina. In my mind, this just wouldn’t look right. Besides, I would never paint it because I love the natural look of wood.

Therefore, apart from some minor repairs and alterations, I decided to opt for just touching it up and giving it a good clean and polish.

Task List of Minor Repairs and Alterations

Having given the bureau a close inspection, I decided that the repairs and alterations to be made were:

  1. Remove the front stretcher (to make storage under the bureau easier).
  2. Re-glue the wobbly legs.
  3. Fit pigeon-holes more firmly to the bureau, which was only previously held in place by a couple of small wood screws in the base and a few panel pins on the top.
  4. Make a new top decorative trim to the pigeon-holes to go the full length of the bureau.
  5. Repair a couple of minor holes in the leather inlay.

Having made my task list, I then removed all the drawers before carrying out the work as described in the brief step-by-step guide below.

Remove Front Stretcher

Removing the front stretcher may be a little controversial as the stretcher does add extra strength to the legs. However, apart from the fact that modern wood glues are very strong, once the writing bureau is in its final location I don’t intend to move it; so there aren’t going to be any lateral stresses placed on the legs anyway.

The main purpose of removing the stretcher is to facilitate easier storage beneath the bureau. Unlike many bureaus that have short legs and are therefore only a few inches off the ground, the legs on this bureau are almost a foot high, and to me, that is a lot of wasted space.

With the stretcher in place, it would be feasible to squeeze things in through the gap under the bureau, but it would be a little fiddly. Whereas, by removing the stretcher, boxes and other large items can just slide underneath.

To remove the front stretcher:

  • Use a wooden or rubber mallet to gently separate the joints far enough to remove the stretcher.
  • Use a suitable saw to cut the dowel flush with the leg.
  • Sand smooth (using hand sandpaper).

I used a Japanese saw to cut the dowel as it's ideal for this type of job. Unlike conventional saws, Japanese saws cut on the pull stroke which allows for a cleaner cut, with a smaller cutting width and more control over the cut.

Regluing the Wobbly Legs

Dismantling the legs completely and regluing from scratch isn’t necessary. Just gently separating the joints far enough to get glue into the gap and clamping is sufficient.

  • Use a wooden or rubber mallet to gently separate the joints far enough to get glue into the gaps.
  • Generously apply wood glue into the gaps.
  • Clamp tight, using wood blocks between the clamps and legs to prevent damaging the wooden legs.
  • Wipe away any surplus glue with a damp cloth.
  • Leave overnight for the glue to set.

Firmly Fit Pigeon-Holes to Bureau

In my view, the writing desk and pigeon-holes is a cheapskate design in that the pigeon-holes is perched on the edge of the writing desk top, which doesn’t go the full depth of the bureau, with a two-inch void between the back of the pigeon-holes and the back of bureau, plus a ¼ inch gap between the top of the pigeon-holes and the underside of the desktop.

Therefore the base of the pigeon-holes is only supported by a thin ledge at the front, and a few panel pins at the top, which go through a quarter-inch gap before being secured by a solid surface; the top gap being hidden by the decorative trim.

My preference would have been to push the pigeon-holes back that couple of inches and secure firmly to the back of bureau, which is doable but would require replacing the desk panel (that the front flap is hinged to) with a new wood panel that went the full depth of the bureau. It was tempting, but to match the new piece with the rest of the bureau would have meant learning the technique of French polishing.

Therefore, I decided to opt for:

  • Fitting a solid piece of two-inch-thick timber to the inside back of the bureau that the pigeon-holes could be firmly screwed to.
  • Using a ¼ inch beading to fill the gap above the pigeon holes to create a snug fit.

New Top Decorative Trim to the Pigeon-Holes

The purpose of making a new top decorative trim is to make one that goes the full length of the bureau so that there isn’t an ugly gap at both ends.

The method for making the new top decorative trim is to use the old one as a template. The simplest way is to just mark around it with a pencil on a piece of suitable plywood and use a jig saw to cut along the pencil line to cut it to shape.

However, I did notice that at regular intervals along the decorative trim are part circles which would be difficult to follow with a jig saw, but which could be cut using a forstner drill bit of the correct size to match the part circle.

Therefore, the steps I took to make the new decorative trim were:

  • Remove the original trim from the pigeons-holes (which prised off easily as it was only attached with a few panel pins).
  • Clamp a sheet of 1/8th inch plywood to the workbench (same thickness as the original).
  • Hold the original trim in place on the edge of the plywood and mark out the outline with a pencil.
  • While still holding the original trim in place, push down on the forstner drill bit at each location of the part circles so that the pointed tip of the drill bit marks the plywood (to indicate where to drill).
  • Remove the original trim and use the forstner drill bit to drill the holes where indicated by the marks.
  • Carefully cut the rest of the shape out with a jig saw.
  • Gently sand the edges smooth with hand sandpaper.
  • Use wood stain or wood dye to colour the new trim to closely match the original.

Reassembly of Pigeon-Holes to Bureau

  • Tack and glue the new decorative trim to the ¼-inch beading.
  • Glue and nail the beading to the top of the pigeon-holes.
  • Push the assembled pigeon-holes against the wooden block at the back of the bureau, and fix in place with a couple of screws.

Repair to Leather Inlay

The leather inlay was in reasonable condition, except for a few marks and stains and a couple of holes.

I don’t expect the inlay to be perfect. A little bit of patina is fine, but the holes in the leather inlay can only get worse over time. Therefore, I opted to use a ‘complete leather repair kit’ to repair the holes, a kit I’ve successfully used before to repair damage to a couple of leather sofas.

Filling the holes with the flexible compound is the easy part. The tricky part is trying to get the colour match afterwards, which is trial and error as you blend different colours (in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions) to get just the right shade.

Of course, with a two-tone colour of the inlay, that’s not possible unless you are artistic enough to paint in the dark-brown lines of the pattern with a fine paintbrush. I’m not that artistic, so I settled for getting a near match of the lighter brown. The main thing is that it gives a good durable finish which will last for years, if not decades.

The basic steps for the leather repair were:

Clean the holes with the cleaning fluid supplied with the kit.

  • Fill the holes with the flexible compound filler and leave overnight to set.
  • Sand the filler smooth with fine sandpaper supplied.
  • Mix the colours supplied with the kit until you get the right colour match.
  • Allow the paint to dry.
  • Apply a varnish over the repair to match the sheen of the rest of the leather.

How to Fix a Small Hole in Leather

Finishing Touches

Having done all the repairs and modifications, and not wishing to obliterate all the patina, the finishing touches are to just smarten it up so that it doesn’t look tatty. The main issue being that the bureau did have lots of scratches that did make it look quite tatty, so rather than just cleaning and polishing it, I also applied a thin coat of translucent wood dye to blend the scratches into the wood finish.

Here are the steps I took to finish the woodwork.

  • Wash it down with white spirit to get rid of the surface dust and dirt.
  • Sparingly wipe a coat of dark oak wood dye with a soft cloth over all the woodwork (inside and out) to blend the scratches into the wood finish.
  • Wipe in a generous coat of dark antique beeswax and leave for 15 minutes.
  • Finally, polish up the beeswax with a soft yellow duster to give a good sheen.

Here are the steps I took to finish the leather inlay.

  • Generously rub in Leder-Balsam with a yellow duster, and wipe dry. This I have found effective in cleaning the leather, but it should be spot tested first as on some leathers it can remove the leather dye.
  • I then generously applied Saddle and Leather Conditioning Soap and left it for half an hour soak in.
  • Then once dry, I finally gave the conditioning soap a quick polish with a yellow duster to give the leather inlay a nice sheen.