Refinished oak desk - reveal

LinelleNovember 25, 2013

I've posted about this desk in Kitchens, Woodworking, and HDD. I probably shouldn't be cross-posting so much, so I'll do my reveal here.

Cheapo oak student desk, circa 1988, my daughter's through middle school and high school. Sharpie on the top surface. I've been using it as a makeup vanity in my office.

I figured I'd have nothing to lose using General Finishes gel stain. It could only look better, right? I had moderate success with the first coat, but the second one took off most of the first. It was awful. I was furious. I considered chucking the whole desk, but I need its function and don't want to buying new stuff right now.

I stripped and sanded down to bare wood. Not a pretty sight.

I tried lots of stuff on the backs of drawers and pieces of threshold. I ended up with General Finishes oil-based stain in Mahogany. It's a little on the red side, but I like it. I decided I'd already had one failure, so I wasn't going to risk another one mixing colors. Two coats of stain. Then GF High Performance water-based poly, 3 coats everywhere and an extra 3 on the top and drawer fronts. Black knobs from Lowe's. I treated myself to a new Milwaukee drill/driver. :)

When the stain went on, I had an immediate epiphany: I love oak. I had been bashing oak like many are fond of doing, but I realized it can be beautiful.

Even though I used a satin poly, it's a little glossier than I'd prefer, but it's okay. I really prefer an unpoly'ed look, but since it's a working desk, I think it needs more protection.


Bare wood drawers after stripping



My favorite drawer:

Love the grain:

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Pretty color and a rich, glowing finish. Very nice!

    Bookmark   November 25, 2013 at 6:44PM
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Absolutely beautiful!

    Bookmark   November 25, 2013 at 6:44PM
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Elraes Miller

well done...You did a great job of prep and finish.

    Bookmark   November 25, 2013 at 6:51PM
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How pretty is that! Great job - it looks brand new ;) Enjoy!!
(Remember to give it a few weeks to let the finish fully "cure" before you start using it.)

    Bookmark   November 25, 2013 at 7:39PM
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Beautiful ! Really..that is stunning ! And now I am going to look at the general finishes for my chairs. I love how you can still see the grain. You did a stellar job ! c

    Bookmark   November 25, 2013 at 8:09PM
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Wow! It looks like a new desk - no sign of it's 80's past.

    Bookmark   November 25, 2013 at 9:00PM
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Holly- Kay

Oh Linelle, that is gorgeous! I love the mahogany stain on oak. I love oak but I am sick of the old honey oak color. Just look how the gorgeous grain shows with a nicer stain color on it. I can't believe that it is the same desk!

    Bookmark   November 25, 2013 at 9:00PM
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I love the rich deep color , great job

    Bookmark   November 26, 2013 at 11:53AM
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Very nice! Looks like a brand new desk!

    Bookmark   November 26, 2013 at 12:10PM
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Wow, that's gorgeous! And a testament, that in most cases it's not really "oak" that's the problem, but rather the golden oak finish.

    Bookmark   November 26, 2013 at 12:25PM
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Thanks all for your kind words!

chiefy76: No kidding. The realization hit me like a brick. Despite the GF gel stain not working out for me, their Brown Mahogany color was the BEST! Alas, there are fewer colors from which to choose in their oil-based stain line. When I first tested the Mahogany, it was way too red. I bought some of their water-based stain in Brown Mahogany but it came out drab brown and I just don't care for the water-based application. And does it ever raise the grain, which the oil-based doesn't do.

Although I live in a metropolitan area, there is only one store within 50 miles that sells General Finishes, and the one product they don't carry in the store is oil-based stain. :( That may change as they are just gearing up with carrying the brand. So I had to order online from Rockler, and have it sent ground across the U.S. because oil-based stuff can't be shipped by air.

I had originally ordered 1/2 pint, which looks so ridiculously small that I figured I'd never be able to apply two coats, so I ordered another quart. You guessed it: I got two coats out of the 1/2 pint and there's easily enough for at least one more. That's how well the product covers. So, there are a lot of mahogany-stained pieces in my future. :)

I'm not crazy about the half-curves on the top and drawers. That seems very 80s to me. However, once the golden oak was gone and I put some knobs on, the curves have been somewhat neutralized in appearance.

    Bookmark   November 26, 2013 at 12:41PM
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I'm drooling! I want a desk like that for my "office" area in my oversized living room.

    Bookmark   November 26, 2013 at 7:24PM
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Wow! Your "cheapo student desk from the 80's" looks much higher end with that flawless finish. I can only imagine what you could do with a quality piece.

You are to be commended for sticking with the project until it met your expectations! Great learning piece.

Refinishing a piece of furniture is on my retirement bucket list, along with "piecing" a quilt top! I should say "trying" to do these things :).

    Bookmark   November 26, 2013 at 7:41PM
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Wow, very nice!

Could you expand more on the steps you took with the gel finish? I'm sure that was so frustrating! I was going to try a project with the GF gel and brown mahogany was one of the colors. I was going to try another project with stain, and I'm really liking how the mahogany color turned out on your desk. You said it's a little red. Is it more red IRL than what's showing in the photos? It looks a really rich warm brown. I love it. Great job!

Also thanks for taking the time to post GOOD pictures. It's frustrating when someone posts a dark/blurry/grainy photo of something.

This post was edited by sheesharee on Wed, Nov 27, 13 at 0:49

    Bookmark   November 27, 2013 at 12:46AM
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I love how you added the knobs. That desk will be around for your grandchildren someday. :)

    Bookmark   November 27, 2013 at 9:43AM
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I love how you added the knobs. That desk will be around for your grandchildren someday. :)

    Bookmark   November 27, 2013 at 9:44AM
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Wow! I know it was a frustrating and labor-intensive process, but the result is so worth it. Simply gorgeous!

    Bookmark   November 27, 2013 at 10:13AM
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sheesharee, my first attempt was with GF gel stain in Brown Mahogany. It is a fantastic color, less red than how my desk turned out. Unfortunately the gel stain was a disaster for me. I applied it with a sock and the first coat seemed pretty good. There were some sock marks I missed. Using a sock on a gloved hand is a novel idea, but socks have a lot pattern and, in retrospect, if I were to ever give gel stain another try, I would apply with either tshirt material or a foam brush.

Anyway, I needed a second coat for evening out. Everyone who's used gel stain says it gets better with subsequent coats. That was not the case for me. The work flow I use is to start with the drawers. As I applied the second coat with a sock, portions of the first coat lifted off completely, in strange patterns. If the first coat had gone on this way, I would have suspected the surface was not properly prepped, but I have no idea what went wrong. Clearly it was a total Charlie Foxtrot. I was livid and swiped mineral spirits across the top, but that certainly didn't help.

Then came the stripping/sanding. :)

So, I used GF oil-based stain, recommended by a very nice man I spoke to on the General Finishes 800 number. That line doesn't have all the same colors as their gel stain, so I had to get Mahogany (without the Brown part). Testing on drawer insides and backs, it looked rather red but I decided to go for it. The first coat seemed redder. By the time I applied the second coat, I was liking the red, and it deepened quite a bit. The photos show the color accurately. I was battling a low sun and reflection in my garage and my iPhone camera wanting to make its own adjustments.

I had considered modifying the stain myself with a bit of raw umber artist oil paint. However, I decided one major screw-up was enough and I would learn to love the redder color (and I have).

I wanted square knobs but didn't want to spend a lot on them. Lowe's has a much better selection than HD and I thought maybe with the desk's curved edges that round knobs would be better.

Refinishing wood is really fun. I have no special skills. It's utterly amazing how a little this or that can transform a piece.

    Bookmark   November 27, 2013 at 10:33AM
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Thanks for the clarifications.

Looking at GF site, I see they have an oil base stain Antique Cherry. I'm assuming the guy directed you to the Mahogany color in the oil because it's the closest in color to the Brown Mahogany gel?

I'm glad to hear he red deepend after the first coat. Good info to know.

Did you go buy the directions (not sure what they are actually) on both cans?

    Bookmark   November 27, 2013 at 11:37AM
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Really, really beautiful. I think it's awesome that you saw the project through!

    Bookmark   November 27, 2013 at 12:33PM
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sheesharee, no I made my own decision about what colors to use based on the online samples, which I think are pretty close to real life.

As for directions, I read up about it at the GF website and also used their recommendation to sand no finer than 120 on oak before staining to keep the grain open and more receptive to the stain. The guy I spoke to at GF confirmed it. He did apologize for the gel stain mess and I didn't really push him for answers, since gel stain was now in my rearview mirror. Once he learned my desk was down to bare wood, he said oil stain was his preferred method.

    Bookmark   November 27, 2013 at 4:54PM
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Linelle-are you sure that's the same desk? I remember when you started this project. All your experimenting with stains & hard work paid off. The grain & color are just beautiful.

    Bookmark   November 27, 2013 at 5:54PM
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Romy, oh I'm sure. :) I'm eager to bring it back into the office but I'm giving the poly two full weeks to cure. I know that my cats will be all over it.

I did all my stain and poly application with HD foam brushes. Very smooth, no drips, no bubbles, easy cleanup.

The middle drawer of the 3-drawer stack has 5 or 6 totally separate and unrelated pieces on the face. It's ridiculous, but I find myself more tolerant of this piece than I would be if I'd just bought something.

    Bookmark   November 27, 2013 at 6:34PM
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It turned out great! Makes me want to go buy some oak!

    Bookmark   November 29, 2013 at 2:46AM
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Your desk turned out great! I am glad that you posted your difficulties with gel stain because I am deciding on the type of stain to use to revitalize my desk. Everyone raves about the gel stains, but serious woodworkers use them sparingly if at all. I have a pine desk, curio and shaker style table originally purchased at an unfinished furniture store and finished with spray shellac. They were great in my country kitchen but I have moved, three times, since then. I have tried two types of stain - love the oil wiping stain and am frustrated with the gel.

Fans of mahogany stain may like Old Masters Rich Mahogany stain from Benjamin Moore. It is a beautiful color. I used the oil based wiping stain, but they also have a gel stain and other stains in that color. I also see plenty of Rich Mahogany pieces in my future. (It looks different on different woods, but all blend beautifully. I have some blotching on pine so I have to solve that problem. That is due to the wood and my inexperience, not the stain).

My neighbor likes the color also, he is admiring my progress on my furniture and thinking of using that color on a piece of his. The neighborhood is getting a kick out of me stripping in the driveway....

My neighbor built a quick pine printer shelf and used the Minwax all in one stuff in brown colonial walnut (not sure of the exact name of the color). He was done staining in a day, but I will stick with the Old Masters stuff.

I read and heard good things about the minwax wiping poly. My neighbor gave me a new, unopened can of semigloss regular minwax poly. I tried it as a wiping poly on my practice piece (an old dresser) It looks great after a few coats sanded in between with 0000 steel wool (you could try that if your piece is too shiny for your taste). I am thinking of trying Waterlox instead of the poly on my better pieces.

I tired the Old Masters gel stain in Spanish Oak - a true black. the stuff in the can looks like liquorice custard, if there is such a thing - thick and pure true black. It could be an interesting pore filer - the first coat on oak looked like a zebra print. The finished project would have had the same result in enamel paint, but it would have dried faster. Other colors would probably have different results.

Like you, I am jumping around the different forums. Hope people aren't getting sick of me and my furniture.

    Bookmark   October 4, 2014 at 2:26PM
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That turned out really nice. If you want to knock back the shine a bit, after it cures, you can buff it out with 0000 steel wool, then give it a coat of paste wax.

I think oak gets a bad rap, too. A lot of the dislike of it simply has to do with the "golden" finishes that were so popular in the '80's, a lot like brass in the "80's. It can be a difficult wood to refinish, though. It's difficult to sand, and doesn't always take stain well.

If anyone is looking for a medium brown stain with a bit of red in it, Minwax's English Chestnut is a nice choice. It looks a lot more red when it's wet, but dries down to a nice warm brown.

    Bookmark   October 5, 2014 at 12:41AM
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Your experience mimics what we found--gel stains are not all they are cracked up to be. Best practice is to strip, sand, stain, poly. We are oak people through and through. We prefer no stain and a bit of poly. I think oak was used well in the '80s. Sadly we are a culture that is driven by change and so that meant bashing oak and moving on. C'est la vie!!

    Bookmark   October 5, 2014 at 6:43AM
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You did a really nice job, linelle, it looks like new!

    Bookmark   October 5, 2014 at 6:54AM
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Annie Deighnaugh

So well done! It went from ready for the trash heap to ready for the show room. Beautiful job, and what a difference the knobs make.

    Bookmark   October 5, 2014 at 8:47AM
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Beautiful job! I've done my share of stripping/refinishing so I know how much work went into that. If you notice, most people who rave about gelstains have used the java color. Which is so dark that multiple coats will cover up everything. Those using a lighter color have to really apply it carefully, to get an even color. I just don't see how they do it with a sock, to me it takes a much more delicate application to get an even look. Your desk looks fantastic, well done!

    Bookmark   October 5, 2014 at 9:22AM
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Linelle, I love the darker richer colors and the knobs really update the desk. After seeing so many white kitchens, despite loving a white kitchen, I am staring to love the look of stained wood again. I still love my cherry veneer office desk. I wish I had a bigger kitchen to go with a Cherry island, along with the white kitchen cabinets that I want. I keep having one crisis in my life after another that delays my projects. I feel you did a beautiful job in making your desk pretty and updated. Oak is coming back in style in the richer colors or natural.

    Bookmark   October 5, 2014 at 12:29PM
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Nice job, Linelle. It looks like a whole new desk :)

    Bookmark   October 5, 2014 at 1:19PM
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Great job AND inspiring! IâÂÂm in the middle of redoing my interior wood doors and if they come out half as nice as your desk IâÂÂll be happy.

    Bookmark   October 5, 2014 at 2:31PM
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It turned out so beautiful!!! I like darker stains on oak. The knobs you added are a perfect touch.

    Bookmark   October 5, 2014 at 4:09PM
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What a great job! Thanks for posting the details of your process - including the parts that brought disappointing results. So helpful to know.

We have a big, heavy oak desk tucked away in our attic that was in DS's room through his school years. I hadn't considered refinishing it till I saw yours.

    Bookmark   October 5, 2014 at 9:05PM
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You really did a great job at restoring the desk. And I love the stain and knobs you chose. Makes me want to refinish my old desk.

    Bookmark   October 5, 2014 at 9:27PM
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