Refinishing a Wood Desk to Maintain Its Original Mid-Century Charm

I love a good furniture flip! Hunting down and refinishing vintage pieces is one of the best ways to infuse your home with mid-century style.

But it kills me when I see the character stripped away from a time capsule piece of furniture.

1950s and ‘60s furniture is becoming rarer all the time, and I think it’s worth preserving.

So when I found this adorable wood desk and chair set, I tried to maintain the original look while restoring it to last. Here’s what I did.

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How to Refinish a Wood Desk

Let’s bring your latest thrift store find back to life. Check out this video for an overview of my wood desk makeover, and see the details below.


  • Safety gear (mask, goggles, gloves)
  • Rags for cleaning desk, and applying and removing finishes
  • Sandpaper and/or power sander
  • Stainable wood filler and marker as needed
  • Wood stain and stir stick
  • Foam brushes or cloth to apply stain
  • Beeswax wood polish

1. Sand Desk and Chair

Make sure your furniture is clean and ready for sanding, and don’t sand if you think it might contain lead.

Use 220-grit sandpaper to sand off any old polish and get an even surface ready to accept stain.

I started by gingerly sanding with a couple inches of sandpaper, because I didn’t want to hurt this cute little desk. But it didn’t take long to switch to the power sander. So much more effective.

Vintage wood desk and chair after sanding

You might also want to cover any ugly, unwanted holes with stainable wood filler.

2. Apply Wood Stain

Safety Note: Wood stain is flammable and smelly. Use it outside with safety gear like masks, gloves and goggles. Don’t leave stain or stain-soaked rags out in the sun. Check your stain for specific instructions.

Wipe off the desk and make sure all sanding dust is cleared away. Then thoroughly stir your wood stain.

I used Minwax Golden Pecan to go a tad darker than the original color and cover up some imperfections.

If you’re nervous about your stain color, test it out in an inconspicuous area first.

When you’re ready, apply the stain with a foam brush or cloth in the direction of the grain.

Staining a wood desk and chair with Minwax golden pecan

Let the stain soak in for about 5-15 minutes (or as directed for your stain). The longer the stain absorbs, the darker it will be, but don’t let it dry with pools of stain.

3. Wipe Off Excess Stain

Take a fresh cloth and wipe down the desk and chair, removing excess stain and blending the color throughout.

Then decide if you’re happy with the color. If you want to go darker, you can add a second coat after a 4-hour waiting period (or according to the directions for your stain).

Wood Filler Troubleshooting

I was mostly happy with my desk and chair after one coat, except for the desktop and wood filler areas.

Desk with one coat of stain and noticeable wood filler marks

My wood filler didn’t absorb the stain as well as the rest of the desk, so we did a couple things.

First, Eric flipped around the back piece of the desk, hiding most of the trouble areas—a creative little shortcut that worked in this case!

But there were still some spots on the sides. So I broke out a wood marker and applied, blotted and reapplied it until it darkened the wood filler spots throughout.

The wood filler isn’t perfect, but it adds to the charm.

Then I gave the top of the desk one more coat of stain to better match the rest of the desk. At this point, I was happy with the stain and ready for the next step.

Wood desktop after second coat of stain

4. Apply Wood Polish

Now we wait. I would give it a couple days to let the stain dry and off-gas before applying the final polish.

Beeswax wood polish adds a nice sheen to take your furniture from dull to spectacular.

When you’re ready, grab the goggles and a fresh pair of gloves. Wipe off the desk and chair and make sure it’s dust-free.

Howard Feed-N-Wax beeswax wood polish and conditioner

Then rub the polish evenly over your wood furniture with a soft cloth.

This is my favorite step because the beeswax looks so pretty going onto the wood, and it really brings the desk to life. Plus, I didn’t have to wear a ventilator for this part.

5. Wipe Off Excess Polish

Let the beeswax polish soak in for at least 20 minutes, and then wipe it off with a soft cloth. Then grab another soft cloth to continue polishing the wood.

Finally, stand back and admire your mid-century furniture rescue!

Mid-century desk restored with wood stain and beeswax polish

After a bit of careful sanding, staining and polishing (plus a cat), this Craigslist find is the perfect writing corner with lots of original character.

You might also like these furniture makeover projects.

2 thoughts on “Refinishing a Wood Desk to Maintain Its Original Mid-Century Charm”

  1. You did an awesome job of refinishing the vintage desk and chair! And gave very thorough instructions on the “how to”. I especially liked the video..if only it really was that quick to do..right?! It adds a bit of mid century charm to that corner of the room..a great addition to your house. The lamp and kitty make it complete!! Another great completed project!!

    • Haha, I love watching high-speed DIY videos! It would be great if all projects could be done that fast. I love how the desk turned out, and it makes the room feel so much cozier. And I was glad to find that little kitty at Goodwill to complete the look. 🙂


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