Help me stain or paint my ikea desk
December 19, 2009 7:38 PM   Subscribe

I want to stain (ideally) or paint (less good) my ikea wood veneer desk. How can I best do this?

I have a desk made of the same material as this one. It's basically a light coloured wood veneer. I'd like to make it a darker brown-black colour. While I could get a desk of the same material in the colour I want for a mere $69, it's not the same size and I really need the new desk to be the same size.

How can I stain or paint this? I'd prefer a stain or a glaze that would let the original grain markings through, but I might settle for paint. Whatever you advise, I will go to Ikea and buy a piece of board of the same material/colour in the as-is section to try it on before tackling my actual desk.

I'm aware of a previous question about painting ikea laminate, but I don't think this is laminate (except, see next paragraph)

Oh, and one more thing: I'm not absolutely sure it's wood veneer. It might be some kind of plastic. What makes me doubt is that I have an Ikea Billy bookcase that is an ash veneer (stained brown-black) and you can actually feel the grain of the wood. You can't feel anything on the desk. It's super-smooth. Does this mean it's not a wood veneer?

So what do you advise oh wise hive mind?
posted by If only I had a penguin... to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Tinted polyurethane. Walnut is probably the flavor you want, but check the display at your local hardware store.

You can make a wood veneer (or solid wood for that matter) so smooth that it feels like glass - even before you put a finish on it. So it could still be a veneer. A strong magnifying glass should let you know whether that outer layer is wood or not.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:50 PM on December 19, 2009

If, in fact, it is the same as the one in the ad, you have a particle board-core wood laminate desk. It is sealed with an acrylic sealer. Also, if it is the same, you probably have the same veneer on the edge at the back of the desk. If you won't see this surface, it can be the laboratory for some experimentation. I would get some very fine sandpaper and carefully sand the surface on that back edge. You should be able to feel when the wood emerges and the sealer is more or less gone. DON'T OVER SAND! If the sealer has been removed sufficiently, you can use a good wood stain, applying it with a soft cloth and wiping it off to the desired coverage. If it goes on smoothly, you can re-apply it as many times as you need to get the depth of color you want.

If it did not go on smoothly, you can either sand again, or turn the back of the desk to the wall and leave the room.

Assuming you get to the point that it works for you, sand the top as carefully and thoroughly as you did you test patch and apply the stain as above. Then sand the edges and the drawers, etc., and do it again.

The key to a good surface is dust control. Keep your work area and work surfaces as dust free as possible.

After you have stained the whole thing, let it cure for a day or two and then spray with a good clear sealer. Let the sealer cure for a couple of days, lightlysteel wool the surface and reseal it. Let it cure for a couple of days and move it back into the house.
posted by Old Geezer at 8:00 PM on December 19, 2009

Response by poster: I was secretly hoping I could get away with not sanding it. Well, I guess sanding is better than stripping and sanding. I've refinished furniture before with all-in-one products (like tinted polyurethanes). Is there any reason to go with some sort of spray on sealer instead?

Oh, and the desktop is way too heavy to leave the apartment so I'll be living with it in a one bedroom apartment while this is going on, but will likely wait for warm weather so I can open the window before I start introducing toxic fumes into the apartment.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:11 PM on December 19, 2009

Best answer: We tried this. It failed. I became very sad.

We sanded down the surface of the veneer to get down to what we thought would be wood grain. However, the way it is treated, the stain didn't soak in at ALL. It's just sitting on top looking fake and shiny. It was wet for DAYS (in Tucson, where everything dries at super speed).
posted by bookdragoness at 9:58 PM on December 19, 2009

I fear you'll need to sand, perhaps a lot. Ikea tends to be pretty honest about its product descriptions, and if it is the same Jonas desk you linked to, it indicates that while it is a birch veneer (yay!) it's been lacquered (not so yay).

For a stain to take well, you need to make sure the wood fibers are exposed enough to soak into the grain and not just sit on top like the lacquer is currently doing. I'd recommend testing out sanding and staining on a small patch (4 inches?) on the back of the desk or side of a drawer. If you do have to sand it, palm sanders do wonders for getting through a job like that quickly and evenly. Go over it once with a medium grit and once with something finer.

If sanding ends up crappy on your test patch, you could try a asking the paint store to tint clear lacquer for you, so you'll be essentially just adding another semi-transparent layer of the same stuff that's already on there. Stinky stuff though- get good ventilation- fans and open windows.
posted by alight at 11:27 PM on December 19, 2009

IKEA's birch veneer (which is what the Jonas series is) is indeed real wood. The lack of palpable grain is due to the nature of the wood--it's a very tight, closed grain hardwood, as opposed to ash, which is an open-grained species similar to oak in that regard.

Birch is a bitch to stain. You will need to sand, but you will need to do so very carefully to avoid sanding right through the veneer.

There are a few different approaches to dealing with birch's hard-to-stain nature. One is to use wood conditioner prior to staining (this is a product often used with softer woods so that they will absorb stain evenly). Another is to apply a thinned-out coat of shellac sealer. A third method is to use a dye rather than a stain (there are water-based and alcohol-based versions).

I cannot personally recommend any one of these over the other, but I think because you are wanting to go very dark, and yet wanting to still see the underlying wood grain, I'd start experimenting with dyes first.

If you do a google search on staining birch, you will find more detailed instructions for each of these methods.

Once the wood is the color you like, there are a few different options for a finish coat (varnish or oil-based polyurethane are two good choices for a hard-wearing surface like a desk, but they require several coats, relatively long drying times between coats, and a light sanding/dust mitigation--a tack cloth is indispensable--between each coat).

Frankly, looking back at what I wrote, I am reminded of what a lot of work it is to re-finish wood furniture! There are a lot of steps, a lot of noxious products/tools, and a lot of time involved. Unless you're really into that kind of thing, I think painting might be an easier and more forgiving option (although you're still looking at a light sanding, primer, +2 light coats of paint to get decent results).
posted by drlith at 6:45 AM on December 20, 2009

Do not sand! At least not seriously. Back in the day a wood veneer was thick - maybe as much as 1/8 inch or so. Due to new technologies out there, they are now only thick enough that you can't see the substrate. You can casually sand right through these - hence Old Geezer's specifying VERY fine sand paper.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:15 PM on December 20, 2009

Best answer: Former furniture re-finisher here. Don't use sandpaper at all. The woodworkers secret is lots of double zero steel wool and plenty of elbow grease. Paint is going to look like crap unless you use a gun and have plenty of practice. This was never meant to be refinished and it's doubtful you will get a satisfactory result. Sorry. The veneer is probably microns thin over a cheap substrate, probably pre-finished, and fully sublimated (impregnated) with polyurethane of some kind to make fast, error free (splinter proof) production possible. Sand and you may get to the end of the veneer before you get to the end of the poly if you know what I mean. Without being able to get to an unadulterated wood surface, adherence of a smooth refinish seems doubtful.
posted by Muirwylde at 12:14 AM on December 21, 2009

And sadly you might be right about it not being actual birch veneer despite IKEA marketing copy stating it is. If it's plastic imitation birch laminate...well...good luck.
posted by Muirwylde at 12:21 AM on December 21, 2009

I recently read a good how-to on painting laminate furniture—and yes, it requires sanding. They recommend using 220 grit sandpaper.

posted by ferdinandcc at 12:47 AM on December 21, 2009

Response by poster: Well the naysayers combined with the plastic-like look of my desk suggest that this isn't worth attempting. In a few months I will likely post "I want to build a desk identical to my existing desk. The desk is basically four boards..." and you can offer some more useful advice then (current thinking, buy the boards, cut, get them finished at some furniture finishing place, then assemble).

And yeah, I have a good amount of experience finishing furniture, but whenever I'm doing it I tend to remember that it's more work than I remembered it being. When I'm not finishing furniture I think, "It's just four straight boards. Easy-peasy."
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:57 PM on December 25, 2009

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