The best part about spring is being able to get outside and work on projects. The weather is warming up and I can finally start unearthing my garage floor which has vanished beneath a mountain of vintage goods awaiting reconditioning. Recently I tackled my first official project of the year, a vintage industrial desk that I showed you a few weeks back in this post.
This $10 find was a little on the shabby side, with a hob-cobbled laminate top, etched paint and surface rust. When I find something like this I’m tempted to paint it and try to make it look new again, but I really think a lot of the charm of this piece is in its battle scars. My goal here was to save the original look of the piece while polishing it up to a room-ready standard. I’m pleased with the transformation and I’ll take you through the steps of how I got here.
Although I wanted to preserve as much as possible, one thing I didn’t want to save was that terrible Formica top. Not knowing what I would use for a new top was a hold-up in the process. I contemplated salvaged barn wood or maybe even just a cut down dining table top, but what I really wanted was a black resin top. This table is actually a 1940s laboratory table and would have once had a black work surface. I had zero hopes of finding one but, to my total shock, I found a brand new one in the exact size I needed at a local surplus sale. Snag!
So, the cleanup began. I removed the old top and gave the whole desk a vigorous washing. I used warm water with a little Dawn dishwashing liquid. Dawn breaks down grease and dirt, so it’s great for cleaning years of filth off of steel furniture.
The next step was to remediate surface rust. There was no serious rust and I actually wanted to leave some of the rusty bits for character—I just didn’t want any that could rub off on clothes. There are a lot of aggressive chemicals for removing rust, but many of them will destroy paint. I chose to use Whink rust stain remover. Combined with some heavy scrubbing with a brush, it took off the top layer of rust, leaving only the deep, age worn welts. It also removed rust stains from the surrounding painted areas.
Now comes the biggest transformation. The good news about anything painted is, if you still have paint you’ve still got something to work with. This paint was dull, etched and worn, but a one-two punch with automotive rubbing compound and wax brought it back to life.
First I used Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound. If there’s one brand I trust with anything painted, it’s Meguiar’s. Their products are top notch and they never disappoint. I applied the ultimate compound with a terry cloth rag, rubbing vigorously in overlapping circles. A little paint color will come off on the rag, but as long as you aren’t going through to bare metal, it’s fine. Afterward I buffed the entire surface again with a clean rag.
Finally, I went over the entire piece with Meguiar’s Carnuba Wax. Whether I have to buff it out or not, I use car wax on almost everything metal to keep it shiny and protected. I let the wax dry and then buffed it to a high shine with a clean terry rag. The wax will seal the rusty areas and keep them from developing more rust, but it’s a good idea to periodically apply more wax to keep it good and sealed. If you are preserving significant amounts of rust, you might consider applying polyurethane over the rust to permanently seal it.
I could have spent days sanding and painting this, but in the end I’m much happier with the preserved time-worn look—and it only took a few hours to complete. It is easy to let your mind run wild with possibilities, but sometimes the best answer is to simply work with what you’ve got.