Now what? My DIY Dilemma

Summer’s official end was the impetus I needed to finally tackle the thankless job of stripping two coats of paint from an old metal tanker desk I found on Craig’s List last year. The industrial-grade stripper is a nasty, highly flammable, probably cancer causing gel that burns to the touch. I’m just getting started, but I’ve already spent hours scraping away the off-white top coat and the underlying army green powder coating, a task that’s meditative in the worst possible way. From time to time, the repetitive nature of the task lulls me into a hypnotic stupor, but inevitably something happens – my glasses slip off my perspiring face or I accidentally get the caustic gel on my skin, which burns until I take off the thick, rubber gloves and wipe it off with a wet towel. It doesn’t have to be this hard. It’s not like old metal office furniture is rare. This stuff was mass produced by many different companies for years and years, and companies like Twenty Gauge rehab and sell metal furniture that looks brand new, but I’ve been searching for a long time, and buying an already restored desk felt a little too easy.

Continued . . .

Here’s one from the very cool Los Angeles company Twenty Gauge, which offers a wide variety of vintage metal office furniture. I love the wood top and may go in this direction.

A few years ago, I thought my search might be over when my mom called to tell me that she and her husband had just spotted a tanker desk abandoned along the side of the road. Should they return to pick it up, she asked. Guess how the story ends? Evidently somebody spotted it and took immediate action, because by the time my mom returned, the desk was gone. To the victor goes the spoils. No doubt you have your own tales of lost scores – all vintage enthusiasts do. My point is: while hiring somebody to rehab the desk might be easier, I felt like I should be the person to take on the grueling experience. It’s been a troubled tale from the get-go. Why change things now? But it’s hell, and I haven’t even started the most difficult part: stripping and cleaning the sludge-like mix of stripper gel, army green and off-white paint shreds from the desk’s many crevices, ridges and corners. Gulp. Wish me luck ladies and gentleman.  I think I’m in over my head, so I appreciate any pointers.

The tanker desk before. Note the army green color on the feet.

Taking the desk apart makes it easier to cover every surface. Even the feet come off, which I didn’t notice until after I’d started working.

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12 Responses to “Now what? My DIY Dilemma”

  1. Hi Nate, Looks like you are well into this so my advice may only be irritating at this point but I use SafestStripper by 3M. It’s non-toxic, no fumes, no burning skin. It takes longer to dissolve the paint but here’s a tip – cover the piece generously with SS and cover with plastic wrap. Let it sit overnight and in the morning you should be good to go. I don’t know why this stuff isn’t more popular. It’s the Slow Food version of stripper. Good Luck, I’m sure it’s going to look killer when you’re done!

  2. AH
    first put some paper or drop coverings on the floor. Later you could throw that away since even when your done you are going to have another big job cleaning up the room again. Vent that room well also. Some of the newer no odor strippers also rob oxygen from the air in the process (even these liquid ones). I next would tackle it by sections and not all at once. Helps you feel progress and keep inspired also. Then lots of newspaper to wipe and toss the scum out on, and do remove those papers from the room each time you’re done for the hour or day. That can be a flammable hazard and in some cases quite combustible. Finally, once the bulk is off and it looks near clean, hit the entire surfaces with a fine sandpaper (which will quickly clog so use the cheaper brands) and I would suggest having it in a rotary oscillating sander so it leaves the metal automotive body smooth. Then go to a good paint store for the next suggestions on what pant, gloss or semi or mat and best durability to cover it with. I would also go for spraying it on if possible. If it ends up having any brush marks it will sort of cancel the idea of doing this whole job in the first place.

  3. I like Colin’s advice, Nate. My mom stripped furniture for years and she didn’t get cancer. If you get really fed up you could just take it to Speedy Strippers and they’ll dip it and be done. But you’ve made it this far…think of the feeling of accomplishment.

  4. It might be time to give up on some of the DIY and have a powdercoating or auto body shop sandblast (or equivalent stripping media) down to bare metal. Might need to be careful with the outside panels to avoid warping, but trying it on the inside portions would save a lot of elbow grease and show you how it will work out.

  5. Judith Kramer 08. Sep, 2010 at 9:21 am

    Lots of good advice . . . However, Grandma Judith thinks that you’ve done enough w/that dangerous stripper. You have better things to do. Had I realized it was going to be so unhealthy for you, I would have suggested just having it powder coated in the first place. Now, my advice is to take it to have it dipped by a professional stripper (Speedy Stripper sounds like a possibility), and be done w/it. Your health is more important. You can be proud of other projects you’ve completed.

  6. Your grandmother has given you some good advice, Tate. Here’s another suggestion. Do you have a backyard? If so, move the big desk outside in pieces, and bring in a crew of good buddies for a Saturday “strip party”. Provide coarse (60) and fine (120-180) grain sandpaper, an air compressor, and an orbital sander. Put a whole bunch of newspapers or even a big plastic drop sheet under the desk before you start. When the desk has a smooth finish, put overalls on all your helpers and go at the desk (and each other) with paint sprayers. Try to get the majority of the paint ON THE DESK… Use a rust-resisting paint like Tremclad. Add the woodgrain (laminate) top, it helps the desk surface last longer and is smoother to write on than metal.

    Aren’t you lucky to have a friend who has written hundreds of DIY articles for the Internet?!

  7. Thanks everybody. I really appreciate all the great tips and information. I’m now torn between finishing the work and calling Speedy Strippers for a quote. The novelty is wearing thin, but so is the paint, so I could go either way.

  8. Keep going Tate- you’re almost there. AND in 2 yrs from now when you are telling dinner guests about the labor inducing, cancer scary, experience ……’ll feel you earned your chops having done it on your own.

  9. My mom said to tell you to take it to the yard because of the fumes. She also said she thinks that paint is baked on, so it won’t be easy, but don’t give up.

  10. Seeing what this takes is enlightening since I’ve considered it myself.

    I would recommend bringing it to a pro, since they can get the smooth finish you want in the end and will probably charge a lot less now that you’ve done a lot of the work.

  11. i’m with albert. muscle through and you get your desk, plus a good story.

  12. Project update: I’ve spent many more hours working on this, but the scene looks very much the same.

    Judith: I appreciate your sentiments, but unfortunately, finishing the desk has become a source of pride. I take it where I can get it!

    ChicagoGirl: do you think there’s a way for me to get the smooth finish myself? Or is this a lost cause?

    I did break down and call Speedy Strippers, but their answering machine picked up so I hung up.