Published on October 22, 2020

Back in the day, a secretary was the place where you sat down to pay bills or write a letter with a quill pen. Today the austere, heavy piece of furniture, synonymous with escritoires and bureaus, is considered a bit archaic. But don’t let all the drawers and doors fool you: This hybrid desk-storage staple is super-practical for tiny offices—and it doesn’t take much to make an old one look brand-new. 

When COVID hit, Jen Watkins-Smith (sales manager by day, artist by night) had to turn her home art studio into a proper WFH space, leaving her in desperate need of a place to stash all her supplies. “I wanted to keep the two spaces completely separate,” she says. So she went searching for a solution on Facebook Marketplace. It didn’t take her long to find an old, battered secretary for sale for £30 (around $40). “The woman I bought it from got it from her parents when she was a teenager in the early ’80s, before she went off to university,” says Watkins-Smith. With the help of her husband, she transformed the dated piece into a mod craft station in two days, spending only £50 (close to $65) on supplies. Now, at the end of a painting session, she can literally close up shop. Here’s how they pulled off the update.

The Prep

To get the chest ready for painting, the couple wiped the piece down with a rag and a regular surface cleaner. Then they went over it lightly with fine sandpaper. In spots where there were gaps or dents, they applied a quick-drying wood filler and, again, sanded the surface so everything was smooth. 

The Paint

Watkins-Smith chose an interior wood and metal paint from Valspar in a shade called Baby Blues to complete the transformation. Because the original veneer was a darker walnut hue and the paint was quite light, they ended up applying three coats to cover the piece completely, but kept the original brass hardware on the drawers to create some contrast. 

The trickiest part was covering up the slick hinges, which also required sanding in order to help the paint stick. “It’s impossible to prevent peeling and cracking when it’s being opened and closed so much,” she says. Knowing the furniture will likely get covered in oil pastels over the years, she skipped applying a sealer. 

The Result

The bonus of these tiny but mighty storage units is there are infinite nooks to store things. Watkins-Smith divided her brushes, palette knives, small sketchbooks, and canvases, and used colorful acrylic containers to hold her pens and oils, but you could easily create a similar setup with office supplies. Her advice for organizing such a tight area? “Think about the things you use most frequently and how to make them the most accessible.” When your whole office is your desk, you barely have to move to grab what you need.  

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