Wednesday 21 January 2015

Restoring an old writing bureau for a new workbench

For those of you who follow my website, I have mentioned on several occasions the restrictions that I have when it comes to making models in the space that I have available. In an article I wrote for the sprue cutters union here , I mentioned that I wanted to find an old style writing bureau with the intention of re-purposing it for making models. Fortunately for me with the advent of modern technology, the need for a dedicated desk for writing has diminished greatly. This means that there are a large amount of these old writing desks out there for sale. I settled on a slightly damaged and well worn desk from a building reclamation yard local to me. I paid the princely sum of £40 for it and brought it home much to the chagrin of my wife who is extremely house proud! The following shots are of the desk in the condition that I bought it in:

What originally drew me to this desk is the fact that it is all wood construction with no hint of chip board or MDF. After a little research on the internet I came to the conclusion that it was manufactured in the 1940's or 50's. At some point in its life it was painted in a stained varnish that has obviously seen better days. It was however complete and in working order save for one missing foot which I could re-make quite easily from some some of the "stock" wood that I keep in my attic. The first task of this little project of mine was to dust off my electric sander and remove the horrible varnish to get to bare wood. I was pleasantly surprised at just how beautiful and light the wood was underneath the years of grime and paint. While sanding I noticed that the top draw dovetail joints had been badly repaired using superglue. The dovetails were knocked apart, cleaned up and re-glued using wood glue. This was really the only major surprise I found with the desk. The following photos are the desk in its rubbed down un-treated state:

With the desk fully sanded down, I had to decide on the new finish I was going to go for. The current "fashion" for these desks is to paint them in a white or pastel colour, sand back to the wood around the edges and then varnish over to seal the paint. I believe its referred to as "shabby chic". In all honestly this isn't really for me and I prefer to see a natural wood finish. I decided upon waxing the wood as this would enhance the lovely grain, protect the wood and nourish it as it was decidedly dry and tired from years of abuse. My wonderful wife who was also beginning to warm to this piece of furniture came across some fantastic ceramic knobs for the grand price of £7 from a UK based store called TK Max. The original knobs were removed and the existing holes were filled by gluing dowel rods into the holes. The new knobs were then fitted to the centre of each draw. Next on the list of jobs was to manufacture a new foot and attach it to the desk:

Turning my attention to the interior of the desk I decided upon the same treatment of sanding thoroughly and waxing. The old leatherette had long passed its used by date and would need replacing, fortunately I work with a guy who is a medieval re-en actor who happens to make his own costumes. A quick negotiation which involved buying him lunch and I had a piece of real leather to replace the leatherette on the desk

At the moment I am happily using the desk as it is, the only remaining project for me is to re-manufacture the internal storage area in the desk itself. At the end of the day it was designed as a writing desk and not of course for what I intend on using it for. I have noticed that the storage area is set forward in the desk with around a further eight inches of unused space which can be re-claimed as work area. This will take some time to make and I will update this page once it has been made and fitted. After all the hard work I have put into the desk I have also cut an old plastic desk pad to cover and protect the finish from paint spills, glue etc.

The desk itself is fantastic for my needs. I am very family orientated and would hate to spend time on my models in another room while my family is in the living room. This desk allows me to happily work on my models whilst still spending time with my wife and daughter. It also keeps my wife very happy as once I have finished I can simply close the desk and all she has to see is a lovely piece of old furniture that does not look out of place or hint to its new purpose. In total this desk has cost me £56 to date. I couldn't hope to buy one in this condition for that price, so the work that I put into it has been more than worth it:

Well its been less than a week since I wrote the first part of this post and I have already built the new interior! I remembered that I had an oak tool makers chest that was owned by my wife's late grandfather. I had salvaged it from his garage when he had moved house a number of years ago. He was about to throw it away and I grabbed it before he threw it in the skip. A quick rummage around the attic and I was armed with 7 dove tail jointed drawers that were perfect for the desk. A quick conversation with my wife regarding the configuration of them (full design credit to her) and I began construction of the desks interior:

I have to be honest and say that with the amount of storage that I have now, I have had to label the drawers on the desk to save me opening every one just to find something! I have also added a multi-use power point to the desk that will accept most plugs from around the world as well as having two USB ports to increase the "usability" of this as a model desk.It was another simple installation that didn't cost a great deal but the end results proved to be extremely successful. The power point was ordered off, yes you've guessed it; Ebay at a cost of £5.99. The internal cabling was made using two old computer power leads which have the additional convenience of being able to separate when not in use so that the plug part of the cable can be stowed away and out of sight.

This is hands down one of the best projects I have taken on in a very long time and is definitely one of my proudest ones. 


After a few very happy months of model making on the desk, I have made another modification to improve my experience with this wonderful piece of furniture further. I originally used two LED lamps that were USB driven from the ports on the power point contained within the desk. The only problem that I had was that the lights were not really powerful enough for my requirements. I found the solution again on the internet, or to be more specific; Ebay!! I purchased an LED strip and LED driver from a supplier in Hong Kong for the very reasonable price of £6 all in. The one thing that you should look for if you decide to go the LED route is the "Lumins" figure quoted for the LED. This is effectively the level of brightness produced by each LED in the strip. The higher the Lumin figure, the brighter it is.

I originally fitted it to the underside of the desk and wired it into the supply to the desk. I was astonished with the level of brightness generated by this strip when I first switched it on. The photo below will demonstrate that:

The only problem that I then had was that the light was directed to the rear of the desk and not the work area itself. After a little thought I decided upon a solution to this problem. I took an old small wheel and castor, took the wheel and castor bracket away, leaving the base plate and washer/bearing. I then made a small aluminium strip to replace the castor bracket and re-assembled the new rotating bracket. The LED strip housing which is also made from aluminium was then drilled and pop riveted to the new bracket that I had made. Once fitted to the desk it now provides me with an adjustable and extremely bright work lamp that can be rotated back inside the desk when not in use. Photos of this are shown below:

If you have done or decide to convert one of these desks, then I would love to here from you or see the finished pictures. To date the total cost of this desk is now running at £68.

Yet another update!

I decided to add another strip light to the rear of the desk to provide additional light. At the same time I used the opportunity to add a remote control to the lighting system to avoid adding additional switches (plus its cool). I also decided to modify the large magnifying glass that I have to allow it to be moved in and out of my desk in a similar way to the movable lamp on the desk already. total cost of the additional upgrades comes to £6, making a total cost for the desk of £74.

I have one or two more ideas up my sleeve for this desk and I'll update this thread again as the desk evolves with my model making needs.

This, I am sure that you will agree is an amazing price for what I now have. As always your comments are always welcome.

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