Circa 1911 American Seating Company School Desks Restore and Repurpose

Some time ago we went to our first estate auction. We picked up a few odds and ends for me to tinker with. Frames, chairs, glassware and so on, but what we were really excited about where these desks. There were three of them and we were hoping to get just one. A little tip about estate auctions in Pennsylvania. There are no taxes if the auction is held on the property.

The theme of the day was lot bidding. They were trying to get rid of everything fast. First they would sell as a lot. If no one was interested in bidding on the entire lot they changed the auction style a little. You are bidding as “first pick” on the lot. If you won the high bid as $1.00 you could take as many of lot items as you wanted for $1.00 each.

After milling about in the yard area for a few hours, we eventually we got to the barn where most of the furniture was. Everything we were interested in was going for a lot more then I was willing to pay. I missed out on some treadle sewing machines that were in horrible condition. They sold for $60 each, full of rust and the wood was falling off. They must have been dealers with clients already lined up. So when we got to the desks I seriously doubted I’d get one. By this time we were “first pick” bidding. Imagine my surprise when I won at $10. The auctioneer asked me how many I wanted I looked at my wife, she showed me a number and I said, “All three”. I heard an audible gasp. Either I got a good deal or a few people just really wanted one too. My intention was just to get one I didn’t know what I was going to do with it at the time but we quickly decided that it could be a night table in my youngest son’s bedroom.

Refinishing these took a bit of time just because I had other projects in the works. I remove the handful of screws and disassembled it pretty quickly. I took the frames and scrubbed them down with soap and water using a strong bristled brush. To remove any rust I put a frame in my bench clamp and used various hand drill wire wheel attachments to get into all of the crevices. Each frame was primed and painted. I used Rust-Oleum Painter’s Touch 2X. In this process I scraped off a lot of 50 year old gum. I also found disparaging remarks against Miss Susan Wolffe scraped into the old paint. The wire wheel restored her virtue with a glossy coat of paint.

Stripping the wood was a chore. It looked like there were several coats of polyurethane over shellac that was over a varnish. The finish was flaking, chipped, cracked, yellowed and just ugly. After using a few types of stripping paste I finally got it all off. I think I went through 3 containers. When the wood was completely dry I sanded any residue off with 80 grit paper with my Ryobi ONE+ 18-Volt 5 in. Cordless Random Orbit Sander. Then I moved to 120 grit, then 220 grit.

At this point I was ready to finish the wood. With two of them I stained them simply following the directions on the can. I sealed them with wipe on poly, also following the directions. I used four coats al together. It takes a few more coats of wipe on poly to the job done, but it is much easier to use and a lot harder to make mistakes.

The one we we’re keeping I tried something different with the wood. I used Miss Mustard Seed’s Milk Paint. The color is called typewriter. Instead of sealing it with a poly I used Miss Mustard Seed’s Hemp Oil. It turned out pretty good. I lightly distressed it. I figure it will get more fully distressed as my kid uses it.

I just listed the other two for sale and displayed them as night stands. They could also be interesting end tables. This wasn’t an upcycled and not much of a repurpose. I just enjoyed saving these desks and giving them new life.


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