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The Right Way to Refinish a Rolltop Desk


Roll-top desks are such classy statement pieces in any home.  It’s so rare to find one in excellent condition.  They are notorious for being difficult to paint because you can easily gunk up the tambour (rolling portion) with paint causing it not to roll at all.  If you are lucky enough to come across one, here are some tips for a successful transformation.

You Will Need:

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I stumbled upon this desk on a Facebook page that a friend was selling.  This desk was perfect to redo because the top portion comes off and the tambour just slides out making it so much easier to refinish.  The desk was structurally in great shape but the surface needed some love.

Rolltop Before

I knew I was going to sell this piece so I decided to do the surface a dark stain using my gel stain method and would paint the rest white.  I realized that the plastic sleeve on both sides that the tambour slides into was already dark brown so I tried to spray paint it white to match what would be white.  Let me save a little spray paint and a lot of frustration by telling you that was a horrible idea.

Spray Paint Rolltop

The spray paint started peeling away when I moved the tambour up and down.  It looked horrible so I spent over an hour scraping the spray paint out with a putty knife.  I decided to faux stain the interior of the top to better match the plastic sleeves as there was no easy way to change their color.

Spray painting the tambour is also a horrible idea.  Ask me how I know…

I took off the hardware and filled obvious holes, scratches, and dents on the desk with wood filler.


After 48 hours of drying, I sanded the entire desk with a rough sandpaper pad (60) with my mouse sander.  Have I mentioned lately how much I love my sander?!? Below is a picture of the two of us!   (Also, wear a respirator or mask when sanding the wood filler because those tiny particles can get in your lungs…No bueno!)


Sand the tambour by laying it out flat on the ground and sand as you would the rest of the desk.


After sanding it was time to prime.  Once again I used Zinsser 123 water-based primer.  I just found out they made a spray paint version which I will have to try out on my next project.  Get a nice thick coat of primer on your piece of furniture.  You’ll notice that I didn’t get any primer on the groove the tambour slides into.

Prime 1

After priming the rest of the desk, I laid the tambour over a round kitchen garbage can that was on its side.  I wanted to open up the creases so I could get primer in each crease between the wood slats.  I was able to do this with a thin coat of primer.

Prime Tambour

Get just enough primer to fill in the dark portion in between the wood slats.  Use your brush to wipe off any excess and wipe your brush on some paper if you have too much paint on your brush.  You have time to wipe off the excess before it dries.  What you don’t want is a thick layer of wet, drippy paint on the tambour or the paint will crack once it dries.  The Zinsser 123 Primer is perfect for this application because it is thin but clings well to the grooves while covering well.

prime 2

At this point, fill any remaining holes, dents, or scratches on the rest of the desk.  You should now be able to see them easier with the piece primed.  Sand those parts after they are dry.

Halfway into this process, I realized that this desk didn’t have any of the cute ‘card catalog’ style drawers that you so often see on these desks.  I decided to add some using some unfinished jewelry boxes I found online here.

Jewelry Boxes 1Jewelry Boxes 2

I bought two for each side and glued them together with carpenter’s glue and clamped them overnight to dry.  I also pulled off the wooden knobs, filled the holes, and then made holes for some cute pulls.  Make your holes before you paint because you don’t want to risk screwing up the final finish.  I then glued the drawers onto the inside of the desk using wax paper to ensure the glue didn’t seep onto the desktop.

Base Coat 1

I started painting the desk with the yellowish base coat on the places I would faux stain and used white on the rest.  It took a couple of coats of white paint because the desk was so dark.

I used the same process on this desk as I did with the end tables in my post How To Gel Stain Wood  Here is a pic of the first coat of gel stain.  You want to leave some sections only partly covered in the first coat to make the second coat a little more translucent and “wood-grain-like” in those parts.

Gel Stain

Back to the tambour…While I let each coat of gel stain dry for at least 24 hours, I laid the tambour flat on the concrete and added a thin coat of white.  Again brush off any excess.  It was still a little streaky at this point but you will touch that up towards the end

After the second and final gel stain coat, I added a coat of wipe-on polyurethane to the stained parts.  The nice thing about latex paint and polyurethane is that you know that in 10 years the finish will look the same and be just as durable.   Both finishes provide a clean, wipe-able surface that will not hold dirt easily.

I have a friend that did her entire kitchen cabinets in chalk paint and wax.  They looked fantastic but after only 6 months they looked awful because the porosity of the chalk paint held on to every speck of dirt and dust in her kitchen.  She ended up redoing them in latex shortly after.  (Getting off my soapbox now…)

After touching up the tambour one last time, I put the desk together including the main drawers, the top, and the tiny drawers.  I also added new hardware to the whole desk including ‘card catalog’ style drawer pulls to the top drawers.  Didn’t they turn out cute?


Desk Transformation

Rolltop Desk with Stained Top

Notice the concrete floors in the background.  We had a massive flood which I shared in my post Beauty From Chaos: How to Find Peace in Any Situation.

Rolltop Desk with Closed Top

This desk was quite an undertaking but worth it to bring out the full potential of such a fabulous vintage piece.  Thanks for stopping by and be sure to check out my other furniture transformations!

Writing Desk Makeover

Coffee Table Reveal and a Word About Transparency

Made Over, Inside and Out – China Cabinet Transformation

How to Add a DIY Floating Desk To Any Closet

‘Til Next Time,




  1. I have a similar desk in my garage, I have been intimidated by the intricate details of the top, now you show how it can be done. Thank you!

  2. Hello, I have a desk almost EXACTLY like this one. It was my dad’s and I want to update it like this for my office. How did you get the top and tambor off without ruining it? Are there screws somewhere? Also, did you use spray paint or brush on paint for the main white portion? How did you keep paint out of the tambor rails?

  3. we have a roll top desk,but the inside of the top is canvas, is there a way to soften the canvas? we worry that rolling the top will crack the canvas

  4. Hi, Thanks for this post. I have a roll top desk but I think it is just stained and has not top coat? If I open the draws thay are light wood and looks like someone just slapped stain on the outside. I can scratch the stain off easy with my fingernail. What do I do to make a good top coat? Thanks

    1. Hey Danni – My favorite top coat is Varathane’s Water-based polyurethane. Just to be on the safe side, test the clear coat on the stain in an inconspicuous location to make sure it adheres well to the stain. Let me know if you have any other questions. Thanks! – Karin

  5. I have this same exact desk except there are cubbies and two drawers where you put the jewelry boxes (great idea!). Love the white. Glad to know why you didn’t use chalk paint because I use my desk constantly and want the paint to not rub off. However I might keep the oak look for the writing part where I put my keyboard. You did a beautiful job.

  6. I can’t seem to find any information on how to take the top off the desk. I want a flat desk to accommodate my laptop because the rolltop isn’t tall enough to keep my laptop open. How did you remove it?
    We plan to store the top and put it back on when we’re ready to sell it. Thanks for your help.

  7. You do beautiful work. You also have given me some courage to finish some of my projects. I did a table in chalk paint with wax over it and I do not like it. I would love to redo with a faux stain like you did on the top and white on bottom. How do I do that with wax already on the top? Maybe just chalk paint it again and then enamel paint over that? Love your website!

    1. Yeah, you might just delete it for a time and see what you learn about yourself and any potential addiction. I have my facebook app back on my phone but the period of time I deleted it made me more aware of what tendencies are healthy and which aren’t. Thanks for reading Enid!

  8. What a beautiful piece. I really enjoy looking at all the pictures of your makeovers. They are inspirational and make me want to refinish something.

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