Friday, October 26, 2012

Refinishing My Grandmother's, then My Uncle's, Larkin Desk

Okay, on to a special antique and a big job refinishing it. My grandmother (mother and uncle's mother) was a lifelong gardener, society lady who volunteered to bake goodies to take to the local hospital each week, church going lady, fabulous cook who baked her granddaughters many apple pies, and antique collector. We called her Nana. Nana could've been the mother on Leave it to Beaver. She lived in a time when women were more traditional and for me, she epitomized that lifestyle. I have posted a picture of her beautiful home when Mr. Fix-it was able to visit it last year. I mention the home because it was a rather large home on a river located along the Maine/Canadian border. The house was in of itself very special but inside of the house there were many treasures. Not only was my grandmother a gardener, but also a painter, and home decorator. She had many views about life and she was surely the kind of woman who let you know them. When she and my grandfather decided to downsize; first by selling their wonderful home of countless years and moving into a condo, then by moving into a travel trailer and splitting their time between Maine and Florida; a Larkin desk and a China cabinet came into the possession of my Uncle. 

My Uncle was diagnosed with liver cancer last year and by the time I visited him in March he was quite ill. Sadly he passed away within one month of my visiting him. Prior to passing he was adamant I take home this Larkin desk. I was like his daughter. I was in fact, his Goddaughter, and had spent a lot of time with him throughout my life. He was a redhead (like me in my earlier years), and we had a good relationship. While in Florida I was quite ill myself but did manage to bring this desk back with me along with a few other things. This was the most special and precious possession he gave me. It has taken me until now to finally tackle refinishing this piece and facing old memories.
Like my grandmother, mother and sister, I too love antiques. I have a few here in my home and I think most, if not all of them have been refinished by me. My good friend Vonna said I'd destroy the value of this Larkin desk if I refinished it but I tell you, seventy years of use had taken its toll on this Larkin desk and it needed to be refinished. Unfortunately, I made a mistake and deleted a few of the photographs that showed all of the damage from the years of use but I've posted a few for you to see how many years of use can wear down an antique. The finish has worn down in spots, been discolored to the point of turning white in others, and overall had darkened with age. The two side support boards had also warped and needed to be put back into place. 

Larkin desks are made of oak and I believe are from the golden oak era of days gone by. I; being a product of those days; still love the look and feel of golden oak. Never in a hundred years would I paint oak-it's blasphemy! Though I know many are doing it now because it is the style. Well, not for my home or for my desk.
I had hoped I could simply clean the finish with turpentine and all would be well. At first it seemed like it was working, but alas, the finish was not really in good shape and the color was all off. I decided I had to strip it, re-stain it, and seal it. I am the type of person who likes shiny furniture, actually, just about anything shiny makes me happy. I feel like furniture that does not have a finish on it and is only stained is not done yet. I think, judging by how the finish was preserved inside of the desk that at one time this piece of furniture had a good shiny protective coating on it. It does again too as you'll soon see.
The mirror in this piece is the original mirror. It has silvered terribly but I have no plans to update or change it.
And here is the finished piece in a spot of honor in my living room. I am so happy with it! The journey was not fun but now that it is done I am thrilled. I have to tell you I don't mind staining furniture but stripping it is another matter entirely. I used a gel stripper to take off the black lacquer; which was probably mostly old wax and dirt. The turpentine did not work for me. The stripper also lightened up the finish a bit. I wanted to keep the same golden oak finish it probably had so I did not strip off all of the stained finish-only the top coat of gunk. It took me two days to do this messy and nasty job. And let me tell you stripper will also strip your skin-latex gloves were no match for it in my case.
Stripping; while I hate to do it, is a relatively straightforward matter. This piece of furniture had larger issues than just the finish. This Larkin desk utilized only two screws in the whole thing. Those two screws allow the desk part of the furniture to open and close. The two sides are the backbone of the piece. These are attached to the shelves by a mortise and tendon joint at each of the four shelves. And I assume they were all glued in at one time. Well, this Larkin desk is old and has been exposed to a some changes in its life. These changes made the side boards pull away from the shelves. One of the sides actually bowed away from the shelves. I had to take a hammer, with a board on the furniture, and beat the sides back to the shelves--all the while keeping the glue in place. I then clamped it all together. I am not a woodworker and did not like doing this part at all. I had to buy special clamps and had to get Jimmy to help me as the oak simply did not want to go back into place. While hammering the boards into place I tried real hard not to split anything but one side was more bowed than the other and was actually already cracked--though not all the way through. Well, once I got done hammering it was cracked all the way through. So I then had to clamp it together and glue it as well. You can barely tell where it was split but I know it is split.
Another problem with it was part of the relief was broken off. I had to glue that back into place as well. The shelves and all other parts were just fine. The key to lock it was lost many years ago. I took off the brass plate to refinish it but will reinstall it as soon as I can get a good locksmith to come over and give me a key for the working lock. Isn't the oak grain beautiful? I just can't understand how anyone would ever want to paint oak. Once I stained it with a golden oak to even out the color, I sealed it with Deft. Deft was an excellent polyurethane coating. It dried to the touch in less than 30 minutes and could be recoated in two hours. I just love Deft. My friend Geri had given me some when she moved. I had never used it before so I was a bit surprised at just how easy it was to use and how nicely it finished the piece off.
There is one part of the desk I did not mess with. Can you spot it? The cigarette burn? It was probably too deep to get out but even if I could get it out I wanted to leave it. You see, my Nana was a lovely lady who smoked. She was notorious for dropping her lit cigarettes or for forgetting where she put them. I remember one time riding with her to the hospital and she dropped her lit cigarette down her pants leg. It was not a funny time. I just kept thinking why doesn't she quit? She never did as far as I know. I know my mother misses her even now, 26 years after my grandmother died. I hope neither my mother or grandmother will mind that I shared this on my blog. While refinishing this piece I thought of my Nana and how lovely this desk looked in her home. I also thought of my Uncle so that is why I am sharing it all. 

in the garden....


Note: The trim piece that goes on the bottom shelf was not refinished with the whole piece so it is still missing. I recently found it and will be adding it soon. Also, the skeleton key for the original steel lock is missing. I have had a local locksmith come and remove the lock so he can search for a key to custom fit into the lock. These two things remain to be done before this Larkin desk is back to nearly 100%.

Larkin desks are easily found in the antique trade but are somewhat out of favor with the new trends and styles of painted furniture. I will tell you though that while looking for information on Larkin desks I found there is a w-i-d-e variety of Larkin desks for sale on the Internet. Many of them were missing the back board, or had parts replaced (like the original lock), or were in some way changed or damaged. If you are in the market for a genuine Larkin desk be picky with what you buy as there are good pieces out there as well. As for me I love my desk and it is priceless to me because of the memories. 

Words and Photos Property of In the Garden Blog Team, In the Garden


  1. Tina girl you did a remarkable job with this beautiful desk !
    Never ever would I have painted it either .. even the thought of it sends shivers down my spine.
    I so appreciate REAL wood .. when we lived in Holland we bought substantial pieces because their oak is magnificent.
    We went to many antique fairs .. I think you would have loved them! Saw amazing pieces and loved all of the experiences so much!
    I know you were never worried about selling this piece so keeping it in its terrible original condition was not ever going to be an option.
    You did such a wonderful job .. I love it!
    er ? .. if you ever leave it in you will ? .. maybe it should come back to Canada ? LOL
    Joy wink wink

  2. What a wonderful treasure filled with so many memories. My mom has the desk that came from her parents home. I do believe it was her grandfather on her dads side. He was a doctor and it make sense that he had a desk. It is similar in style but with no mirror or spindles on the top shelves. I love that old desk and yes, my mom uses it every day! I have finished a few old pieces myself and dont care about that value. I never plan to part with them and when that downsize time comes, it shall go to a family member. You did a great job on your Larkin Desk....

  3. Love the desk! You did an awesome job with it. Stripping furniture is no fun but is worth it to give the piece the look and protection it needs with a new coat. I like shiny furniture too. Plus, a good finish protects the wood so it can be enjoyed for more generations. You are not putting this in a museum or holding it simply as an investment to resell. You are loving and living with this piece. It needed refinished. Left as it was would allow it to deteriorate with use. Hope you get the lock working as you want. Enjoy it and the nice memories it holds.

  4. That is one fantastic desk. The grain of the wood is too important to cover up, just like the memories that make us who we are. Your story about your Nana's incident with the cigarette down the pant leg made me laugh. It reminded me so much of my dad and his smoking habit. There are some pieces of furniture in our home that he made, and though they might look out of place or old-fashioned, I wouldn't part with them for all the tea in China.

  5. Love antiques and this is beautiful as it is unique!!

  6. What a special piece of furniture, nice that you have it and have lovingly restored it. When I have done antique refinishing I used a product called Formby's Antique Refinisher to remove the finish without stripping the color. I don't know Deft, glad it worked out well for you.
    I redid an antique steamer trunk, the canvas on it had rotted and was coming off one thread at a time...what a challenge that was!!

  7. That is a beauty! I love, love that dark, tanned colour. Great job.

    Greetings from London.

  8. Great job. Love it. So many memories.

  9. Tina, I missed this post and had to come back to see it--you did a fabulous job refinishing this piece! I love antiques, especially the golden oak furniture like this, too. I have several pieces that came from my mother-in-law who refinished them herself. But the piece I'm most attached to is an old library table that belonged to my grandparents, which I later discovered originally belonged to my great-grandparents. I refinished it many years ago, and I know what a job this is. It was my first attempt at refinishing something, and I'm still not satisfied with the results--I keep thinking I'll re-do it again one of these days. Not only did you do a great job, but you've preserved some very special memories for your family for years to come.

  10. Beautiful work. I just came into possession of the exact desk. The desk chain and hardware has been replaced by leather straps. Would it be possible to post close up photos of the chain and hardware please?

  11. Yes, I can do that. Send me either your email or text number to my email at: and I'll get them to you today.

  12. Great job, the desk looks great. I like that you left the cigarette burn. I have a Larkin desk that I have been cleaning and noticed various small imperfections acquired over the 70+ years of its existence. I anguished over what to do and decided the imperfections will stay and it is cleaning up nice with the small dents, etc. This was my great grand mothers desk. I like that it is not just an old desk but was somebody's desk that I remember.

  13. Thanks Roger and I agree, the history is important to anything and especially to furniture.