June 18, 2024


Built General Tough

Are Extreme DIY Home Improvement Projects Worth the Risk?

I’VE BEEN spending so much time at home these past few months that I swear my furniture has started talking to me. A number of the furnishings—chairs, mostly, and one of the friendlier sofas—sometimes call out chirpy greetings.

“Nice jeans,” one of my midcentury boomerang chairs said to me recently.

There must be a pertinent step-by-step video among the 500 hours of content uploaded every minute on YouTube.

“These old things?” I said. “I’ve only been wearing them, like, every day for the past eight months.”

But lately I’ve noticed my relationship with other, older pieces of furniture is somewhat strained.

“Hey,” my 19th-century, Eastlake-style secretary desk said the other day as I tried to sneak by.

I stiffened.

“Remember when you bought me 25 years ago and said I was the most beautiful piece of furniture you owned?” the desk continued. “These days, I’m lucky to get a dusting every couple of weeks.”

I said nothing and looked at my shoes.

“Is it because my glass bookcase doors don’t open as smoothly as they once did?” my desk asked. “Or because my leather blotter is crumbling, or because there’s so much buildup on my finish that you can’t see the mahogany?”

“Maybe,” I whispered.

“And whose fault is that?” it demanded.

Secretary Desk had a point. For months, I’ve been tackling as many DIY projects as the next quarantiner. Secretary Desk must have seethed as it watched me remove water rings from Marble Countertop.

But restoring an antique desk to its former glory? That’s extreme DIY. While it might sound like a new reality show on cable, extreme DIY is what we’ve come to: People nationwide are taking on complex, hands-on, interior-improvement projects that they never would have attempted in years past.

About 35% of 1,519 people surveyed nationwide in August said they are undertaking new home projects, said

Jennifer Mapes-Christ,

an analyst at the Freedonia Group, a market research company in Cleveland. Sales are soaring at home-improvement retailers, with

Home Depot

reporting this month a 23% increase in third-quarter revenue over the same period last year. “Even if they weren’t much of a DIY person before, now they really need a hand drill,” said Ms. Mapes-Christ.

“We’re morphing into a society that’s taking matters into its own hands, when it comes to home improvement, and that’s a good thing,” agreed Marco Wolf, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Southern Mississippi who studies the motivations of


Ms. Slatalla’s partially rehabbed 19th-century secretary desk with most of the buildup gone from the drawer fronts, revealing the mahogany grain.


Michelle Slatalla

People are tiling their own backsplashes. (“I tiled mine,” Prof. Wolf said.) They are knocking down non-load-bearing walls, refinishing floors, paneling their rooms in shiplap, and installing their own ceiling fans and light fixtures.

“All DIY activities have a positive effect on mood and your sense of well-being,” Prof. Wolf added.

I suppose it could also have a positive effect on my desk’s mood. If nothing else, Secretary Desk would love the attention.

Where to start? YouTube, of course. There must be a pertinent step-by-step video among the 500 hours of content uploaded every minute.

Of course, every encounter with YouTube is a digressive affair. But after five hours of screen time and snippets of about 50 videos, I knew for sure that leather removal is a messy business involving chemical strippers. And the reason a roll-top desk can roll is because it has tambour slats that slide along tracks. (Also, it turns out

Olivia Colman

had to overcome her fear of horses to play Queen Elizabeth in season 3 of “The Crown.”)

Finally, I came across a video that recommended mineral spirits and extra-fine steel wool to clean stubborn layers of dirt from the wood.

The next day, after a trip to the hardware store for supplies, I surveyed my 8-foot-high desk to determine which section to clean and started working at the bottom, with the three drawers beneath the roll top.

It was slow going, even with steel wool. After an eternity of rubbing, old dirt and wax and God knows what else finally started to drip away, revealing a promising section of wood grain beneath the grime.

Congratulating myself on a good start, I knocked off work for the day.

I returned the next morning to survey my handiwork—and my heart dropped. Overnight, the section I’d been working on had dried and now the finish looked uneven, sort of bleached in some areas and still black in others.

Had I ruined my desk?

Panicked, I phoned

Christophe Pourny,

a Brooklyn furniture restorer and author of “The Furniture Bible,” a book I turn to whenever I need to identify furniture or hardware styles.

“In retrospect I should have paid closer attention to your chapters on restoring furniture,” I said. “I’m afraid I may have damaged my desk, and now it’s going to hate me.”

Secretary Desk rolled its eyes.

“I doubt it because furniture, especially the old stuff, is very forgiving,” said Mr. Pourny, who learned his restoration skills in France working alongside his father, an exacting craftsman who sold antiques. “You are going to send me a picture of it and I am going to tell you what to do next.”

Five minutes after I emailed photos, Mr. Pourny called back. “You are starting with a really, really big piece,” he said, “but it will be fine, because you are removing dirt and not the patina. I think the desk may have a shellac finish, and if so, you can use denatured alcohol and it will be much easier to remove the gunk.”

Relief flooded over me.


What have been your most successful DIY projects during the pandemic? Join the conversation below.

“One more thing,” he said. “Take the drawers off and remove the hardware—I know, it sounds scary, but do it—and clean them one at a time, and it will go faster. It’s going to take some time, but when you have one drawer really clean, you are going to feel good.”

He was right about the shellac finish—the work is going much faster—and after I finished cleaning two drawers, I ordered some swatches of replacement desktop leather in a fit of optimism.

Thanks to extreme DIY, my mood really has improved.

Secretary Desk was starting to look younger, and in better shape.

“Nice jeans,” it said to me this morning.

“You don’t look too bad yourself,” I replied.

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