Build | Fixing Furniture

How to Paint an Old Wooden Desk Like a Professional – Just 3 Easy Steps!

Years ago, I painted an old dresser white with turquoise knobs. It looked really cute, but it was apparent that it was painted – the surface wasn’t anywhere near the quality of the furniture you would buy from the store.

There are so many tutorials online about painting furniture, and so many say that you can skip sanding or priming. Here’s my advice – don’t skip sanding, don’t skip priming, and use high-quality paint.

Lately, I had been in the market for a new desk in my craft room. I was determined to find a good deal on an old wooden piece and then figure out how to paint the desk as a professional would.

You see, my current desk was an old kitchen table. Ash was in the process of updating my craft room with beautiful built-in bookshelves and a window seat, so it was time for my kitchen table-desk to get the boot.

I didn’t want to pay $200 for a new, modern-looking desk, so I scoured a few flea markets and thrift stores. Finally, at a Habitat for Humanity thrift store. I found a brown wooden desk that I could work with. It was originally $40, but with a 50% coupon – I paid $20.

Being that my craft room would have mostly white furniture, I decided to try my hand at learning how to paint a desk like a professional.

Painting an Old Wooden Desk White

How to Paint a Desk White

Below is a picture from before I started painting the wooden desk.

It’s not a great picture. It had only been in the garage for about two hours, and Ash had the desk covered with tools and wood from another garage storage project. (I should have taken a better picture, but I am always so excited to start the projects that I forget.)

Easy Tutorial on Painting an Old Wooden Desk WhitePreparing the Wooden Desk

Before painting the desk, the first thing I did was remove the drawers and knobs. Then I cleaned the desk really well – wiping off dust and anything else that had collected on the surface.

The next step of the desk makeover was sanding it down. To sand, I used a random orbital sander with 80-grit paper. This got the desk down to the bare wood quickly. However, even though the desk was smooth to the touch, I probably should have gone over it with 220 grit paper afterward for a more fine finish.

Here is the desk after the sanding and before painting. Notice I put the feet of the desk on pieces of wood to raise it up, so I could easily sand, prime, and paint the desk’s legs.

Sanding a Wooden Desk before RefinishingPriming the Wooden Desk

After I was finished sanding, I wiped the desk down again to get all of the sawdust off. You can use a cheesecloth for this or even paper towels. Next, I was ready for the primer.

Priming Materials

I had a 2-gallon bucket of indoor/outdoor primer leftover from painting the shed last summer, so I was all ready to go.

I used a large roller brush for the desktop. Then I used a small roller brush and a 1-inch brush for corners and tight areas.

In addition, I used a 1-inch foam brush for the rungs.

How to Refinish an Old Wooden Desk

If you are wondering what the most challenging part of painting a desk – it was painting the rungs. The rungs on this desk were in such close proximity to each other.

As soon as I would paint one side of the rung, the paint would build up on the bordering sides.

I would then smooth this, and once again, the bordering sides would have some build-up, continuing the cycle.

Thus, I had to very meticulously spend time painting the desk rungs, being careful not to use too much paint, and being conscientious about going around and around to smooth everything.

If your furniture has a design like this, be sure to leave lots of time (and have plenty of patience).

Also, since the foam brush was put on such a light coat of primer, I knew I would have to do at least two coats on the rungs of the desk I was painting.

Easy Steps to Refinishing an Old Wooden Desk

After two coats of primer on most of the surfaces (I did 3 on the top of the desk as well as the rungs), I was happy with the results and continued on to painting.

Painting A Wooden Desk White

After priming, I was ready to start painting. I was already happy with how the white primer was looking and was excited to finish up the project.


For this, I used high-quality enamel paint (urethane acrylic satin).

This type of paint differs from regular paint in that the paint pigments are floating in a urethane solution so it dries to form a very hard, protective surface – much like how polyurethane dries.

It is expensive (about $50 a gallon), but it’s recommended for furniture that gets a lot of use. (Also, I only used about 1/3 of the can painting the desk, so I had a decent amount left for future projects.)


To apply this special paint on the desk, I used a foam roller brush.

It is recommended to use a foam brush with this type of paint to give it a smooth finish.

If you use a regular nap roller (like the ones you use when painting walls), it will soak up and waste a lot of the paint, and it leaves a textured finish.

In addition to the foam roller brush, I also used a 1-inch foam brush for the rungs and tight areas.

I applied a thick topcoat on all of the surfaces of the desk, taking my time with the rungs.

After it dried, I put a second coat on the top of the desk only. This provided extra protection on this surface since it would get a lot of wear and tear.

Also, this probably goes without saying, but if it’s a windy day, paint your furniture in the garage if you can, so particles don’t blow and stick to your piece.

Here’s how the painted desk turned out:

The White Painted Desk

The surface of the painted desk had a nice protective enamel that made it easy to wipe, and it looked professional painted.

However, the painted desk still looked like there were ridges in the wood; it wasn’t a sleek, smooth finish like the brand-new furniture you buy directly from the store.

Don’t get me wrong, I was still very happy with the way the wooden desk turned out. However, in hindsight, when I sanded the desk down to the bare wood (even though the wood felt smooth to the touch), I probably should have gone over it with 220 grit paper for a more fine surface.

The 80-grit paper quickly got the old finish off, but the 220 would have given it a smoother seal.

I still loved the way the paint looked – it was a welcome addition to our bright, airy craft room, and I learned exactly how to paint a desk.

​​Here’s a side-by-side view of the before and after pictures of how to paint a desk. Not bad, right?!

How to Refinish an Old Wooden Desk into a Modern PieceTime & Cost of Painting a Wooden Desk

The time span of painting the desk was the course of a week – including dry time and airing out time. The paint fumes were not strong, but a little extra time never hurts.

​The total cost came to $70. The desk was $20, and the paint was $50. We had previously purchased the primer and the painting materials, so that wasn’t a cost for us.

​And, there was primer and paint leftover for the next project 🙂 If you are wondering how to paint a desk like a professional, these tips and tricks should definitely set you on your way, keeping you loving your professional-looking piece for longer.


  1. Stopping by from Sunday’s Best. I love how the desk turned out. I have an old dresser that I’m hoping to finish this summer. Thanks for the tips and the inspiration. I’m looking forward to seeing more of your posts.

    1. Thanks Rhonda! Hope you’re having a great week:)

  2. Helen at Pleasures of the NW says:

    It looks amazing! Thanks for sharing on the Pleasures of the NW’s DIY party!

    1. Thanks Helen! It’s holding up great:)

  3. That is a great transformation. Really cute desk.

  4. The desk turned out great. Nice tutorial.
    Stopping by A Pinch of Joy.

    1. Thanks Bev! It’s holding up well too:)

  5. Great tutorial! Thanks for the tip about the paint… it’s good to know when you shouldn’t skip steps for a professional look.

  6. Kathleen Rupp says:

    That desk looks so nice! I totally agree that prep is a must for a great finish!!! I am curious where you got that type of paint? Online or a painting store like Budeke’s? I have never used that, but it sounds great when you need that extra coating for protection!

  7. Love the finished desk! Amazing job. Thank you for sharing your projects with us this week at Brag About It!

    1. Thanks so much, Laurie! 🙂

  8. It turned out great! What brand of paint did you use? I never knew about that type of paint but would love to try it for a nightstand I need to redo.

  9. Your desk looks great… I always have trouble remembering to get those before pictures too… and have to remind myself to do… or I am scrambling trying to find some way to show what it used to look like! 🙂

    1. YES!! Me too! I’m always too excited to dive right into the project 🙂 Have a great week!

  10. I’m totally with you on sanding and priming first. i attempted to paint my old dresser for my girls’ room when re-doing our master this spring. I tried out the deglosser method, and it looked great – at first. Not even a month later the paint started to peel off the dresser, and now it’s so much worse. (Notice a tutorial never made it to the blog? Yeaaaaahhhh) Someday I’ll get around to fixing it for them! Your table looks fantastic! Thanks so much for sharing at the #happynowlinkup!

    1. Oh I hear you, Leslie! We just got rid of any old dresser (thrift store find that was falling apart) that I tried to paint with regular paint – what a mess! I guess we learn from the fails? Thanks so much for your compliments – have a lovely week 🙂

  11. Jann Olson says:

    Thanks for sharing your great painting tips with SYC.

    1. You’re welcome:) have a great week!

  12. Great job on the desk it looks fantastic and I would gladly have it in my home

    1. Thanks Amber! I’ve been so happy with it too:)

  13. It is amazing what a coat of white paint does for furniture. Your desk looks 50 years newer. I had not heard of the polyurethane paint. Pinning to a couple of my boards. Thanks for the information.

    1. Thanks Leanna! The paint is really nice – it gives a nice finish:) Thanks for the pin too!

  14. This turned out awesome! I love enamel paints too 🙂 You can bet I’m always painting in the garage because it always seems to be so stinkin’ windy 😀 Thanks for sharing at Funtastic Friday!

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