Chartreuse paint and striped wallpaper on the interior gives this furniture a fresh look.

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secretary desk
Credit: Ashley Poskin

There are those who believe painting wood furniture to be a serious offense and those who are constantly on the lookout for wood furniture to cover in paint. Others still are somewhere in the middle: people who agree that vintage or antique furniture made of quality wood like mahogany or walnut should not be painted, but pieces made of lesser quality wood that's marked by scratches and dents are up for grabs.

Painting old wood furniture that is either past the point of refinishing or not worth restoring is an opportunity to give it new life. This was the story with our latest find, a vintage secretary that was the perfect size and depth for an apartment but made of cheap wood and had seen better days. For $60, we happily made the purchase and started plans to customize it to fit into our place. Have a piece of furniture you're ready to paint? Here's how to get started.

vintage secretary desk before makeover
closeup of hardware
Left: Credit: Ashley Poskin
Right: Credit: Ashley Poskin

The Before

Before you paint, remove all hardware and prepare the surface. Start by first filling any dents or cracks with wood glue, let it dry, then lightly sand. Next, you'll want to prime your piece (unless you're using chalk paint, then you can just start painting). The best primer, especially for old wood items that have a bit of a funky smell, is Bulls Eye 1-2-3 by Zinsser​ ($10.98, homedepot.com). It provides a great surface for paint to adhere to and encapsulates any off-putting odors (including smoke). To get a super smooth finish, roll the paint with a ​mini roller​ ($5.57, homedepot.com). If you're painting with a brush and want to minimize brush strokes, add ​Flood Floetrol Clear Latex Paint Additive​ ($6.97, homedepot.com) to the paint.

opened writing pad of secretary desk
opened cabinet doors of secretary desk
opened secretary desk
Left: Credit: Ashley Poskin
Center: Credit: Ashley Poskin
Right: Credit: Ashley Poskin

The After

Painting furniture has become increasingly popular in the last few years, largely in part because of the convenience of chalk paint. A quick clean is all you need to get started painting, which makes projects quick and easy to tackle. If painting a piece of furniture (like a chair) that will see a lot of wear and tear, you should consider first priming your piece and, no matter which paint you use on your furniture, you'll definitely want to seal it with an ​acrylic spray​ like Rust-Oleum's Protective Enamel Satin Clear Spray Paint ($4.27, homedepot.com) or ​furniture wax like Annie Sloan's Clear Chalk Paint Wax ($24.99, shop.thepurplepaintedlady.com)​. For this project, we purchased a ​one-quart sample​ of satin paint in ​Verdant​ and ended up using just over half the quart. It cost less than $10, and was the perfect amount for the project, with just enough leftover for touch ups, if needed, in the future.

You can create some drama on the inside of the secretary with removable wallpaper in a bold ​red and pink stripe​—lining the top, bottom, and all shelves. We used Tempaper Stripe ($39.99, tempaper.com). Applying wallpaper to the inside of the cabinet was easy, the paper is extremely forgiving; it can be pulled up and readjusted, if needed. That's the boldness it brings to an otherwise traditional piece of furniture.

As the finishing touch, add a faux leather writing pad (or desk blotter) on the desktop. For this, you can trace a paper template to the size of your writing pad, then use a rotary cutter and quilt ruler to cut a vinyl piece to size, and use spray glue to adhere the pad to the desk.​ Embossed desktop leathers like Vandykes (from 66¢ per square inch, vandykes.com) are also available to special order if you're looking for something special. If you like the look but don't want to glue fabric to your desk, you could always purchase something like ​Pottery Barn's Solid Personalized Desk Mat ($39, pbteen.com).

For now, this cheerful secretary will hold a tea pot collection and stationery, but it can be used to display and organize any collection. And when you tire of the wallpaper or paint color, you can change it because the best part of customizing furniture is that you can do exactly what you want—there's no limit to your creativity.

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