How hard will it be to refinish and repair this furniture?
April 3, 2021 10:40 AM   Subscribe

A wooden desk that I picked up for free a few years back has a crack between its component pieces of wood. How hard will it be to fix?

Here are some pictures. You can see the crack. It runs to about where the quarter is (in the picture with the quarter), narrowing as it goes.

A couple years ago, I made a run at it with some wood glue, but that didn't really do the job so I basically used it as a shelf in the garage. (But now I have real shelves so it has to become a desk again or get given away.) I can't remember how I tried to brace it together, but I think my clamping system was inadequate. That said, there's a little bit of resistance -- it's not like loose and floppy, just waiting to be re-attached.

There's something I like about the desk, but I think the answer I'm reaching is: it's too hard, do a light refinish on the top (so someone might still want it despite the crack), and then pass this along. But I don't want to give up prematurely.
posted by Spokane to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Do you own a band clamp? Basically a strip of webbing with a ratchet. Or a bar clamp - long bar with adjusting clamp able to span the width of the desk. I'd use wood glue and one of those clamps. Get a syringe to really get the glue down in the crack or use a putty knife to force as much glue in as possible. You could also, once the glue is fully dry, turn the desk over and screw a metal strip across the crack to give it more mechanical support - assuming you can get at the underside where the crack is.
posted by leslies at 11:00 AM on April 3 [3 favorites]

Before applying glue I would see if the bar clamp will draw the two pieces together. If you are able to close the gap then release the clamp and apply the glue and use the clamp to close the gap again. Also before clamping give the glue time to run into the depth of the gap.
posted by tman99 at 11:05 AM on April 3 [3 favorites]

You can even do what leslies and tman99 suggest (which is indeed how to fix such a crack) with just glue, a sufficiently strong tiedown strap, a sturdy wooden bar to use as a lever, at least half as long as the desk is, and a block of wood to use as a wedge. Run the tiedown around the desk, front to back and about halfway along the crack. The lever goes underneath the strap and along the front edge of the desk, one end near the corner of the desk, and at the other end you put the block between the lever and the desk. After you've put the glue in the crack you tighten the strap as best as you can, then tap the block towards the tiedown, tightening it further.

Let it sit for as long as the glue needs to cure.
posted by Stoneshop at 11:55 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]

The trouble with just forcing glue into the joint and clamping it is that the edges of the wood are already coated with glue that the new glue probably won’t stick to very well. You’d get much better results by separating the joint fully, cleaning it up and re-gluing, but that’s more work and bother.

Another thing to consider is why it failed in the first place. A solid slab of that size has to be able to shrink and expand substantially without tearing itself apart. If the connection between top and base/stand doesn’t permit movement then next winter’s low humidity will stress the joint and it (or one of its neighbors) will open again.
posted by jon1270 at 12:20 PM on April 3 [1 favorite]

What you can do when using the above methods is to check whether your tightening efforts are bringing the crack to a close. It should, in which case the glue will work.

However, if for some reason you can't bring the crack to close, you can fill the crack. What you want as filler is going to be a mixture of similar-colored sawdust and glue. Again you'll be using thin cards, syringe, putty knife (metal, not a plastic spreader kinda thing).

After this method or gluing the crack closed as above, you'll use the putty knife to scrape off the dried glue that came out of the joint, and then sand/re-surface the desktop as you probably will already be doing.

So where do you get sawdust that's similar in color? Well, if you weren't going to already, you might a well sand the desktop to get it smooth, since it probably has a few bumps and warps from age and abuse. Capture the dust however you like-- finer stuff the better, which means using a soft brush to collect it. Using disposable implements (tongue depressors, popsicle sticks, paper plate, mix the dust with glue until you have a putty. Quickly get the putty into the crack with the putty knife, paper cards, whatever you have that you can afford to throw away, because you don't want this crap on your tools when it dries.

Fill, clamp, wait, scrape, sand.
posted by Sunburnt at 12:21 PM on April 3 [4 favorites]

Capture the dust however you like-- finer stuff the better, which means using a soft brush to collect it.

My preferred method is a cloth handkerchief or a similar fine-weave textile held over the mouth of the hose of a vacuum cleaner.

To help get glue or the sawdust putty into the crack: a) wood glue can be diluted with water, and you want to get it down from 'molasses' to 'syrupy', especially if you're going to use a syringe. b) tap a spreader (blade of a cheap pocket knife or similar) into the crack from the right side edge so that it opens just a little more, maybe a millimeter (3/64") at the edge. Remove it when you're ready to clamp the crack.
posted by Stoneshop at 12:44 PM on April 3

I'd be inclined to go for a mechanical fix, as shown starting at 6:35 in this video, particularly the mitre bolts. Hope it works for you; it is a pretty great desk!
posted by kate4914 at 1:51 PM on April 3

Another possibility, if the top surface is totally horizontal: shore it up structurally from the underside of the cracked surface, clean the top surface, and get a piece of glass cut that's fit to fit the top. Instant super smooth surface.

I did this with an old secondhand Ikea desk I scored a few years ago. It is the *perfect* size to fit in the only nook in my living room that I could use for office space, and it had a sliding keyboard tray--another non-negotiable feature for me. It's laminate, of course, and the top front edge had some wear. I put pretty wallpaper on top and covered it with a piece of glass cut to fit from the local glass shop. Looks terrific.
posted by Sublimity at 2:13 PM on April 3

I'd guess your old repair didn’t stay shut because you couldn’t get enough glue into it the first time. If that's so, you stand a better chance with the following technique.

Last weekend I fixed a similar but much rougher crack (in the grain rather than a seam). The problem was getting glue to cover the entire interior surface of the crack. The solution was to use a vacuum hose on the bottom side while applying wood glue to the top side. I could see it being sucked into the crack and when I applied the bar clamps, there was a ton of squeeze out in both sides. After clean up, the join was invisible and after a day, I was able to drive a tapered chair leg into a tapered mortise it had run through.

This all might be easier to do if you can you remove the desk top. Move the mouth of the hose along in tandem with the glue bottle above. I was using really thick Lee Valley 2006 stuff and my shop vac pulled it right through. If you vacuum is weaker, a few drops of water might make you glue flow better. You'll want to use pipe clamps or good bar clamps rather than trigger clamps. Put some soft wood where you apply the clamps to avoid making ugly dents.

With a flat, clean break like this, I've also used a triangle cut from an aluminum pie plate to get the glue deep inside.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:33 PM on April 3 [2 favorites]

Is there a reason not to just brace it from underneath with a thin patch brace and four shallow screws to stop the crack from spreading, and then filling the existing crack?
posted by DarlingBri at 4:10 AM on April 5 [1 favorite]

Just noticed my comment above in my activity...the vacuum thing is probably overkill (I was still excited about how well it had worked for me and I'd had a couple early cocktails). Just work a good amount of glue in with a thin piece of aluminum cut from the bottom of a pie plate and use a sturdy bar clamp or two.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:42 AM on April 5

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