Steelcase Tanker Desk Restoration Tips
A discussion started in 2003 but continuing through 2018(2007)
Does anyone have any advice on refinishing a 1954 RCA metal cabinet from a radio station: The original finish looks like a gunmetal grey metallic baked lacquer finish with a clearcoat with what look like mottled or 'dimpled' surface inflections.
At the moment, there is a bad black spray paint finish. The original finish is visible on the inside surfaces.
- Vancouver, Canada
March 11, 2008
Q. Does anyone have a step by step video or CD how to restore desk?Marco Lugo
hobbyist - Denver, Colorado
July 7, 2008
A. I have restored at least 10 tanker desk and tables. Firstly if the old finish is still good with no rust, and no chipping;do not strip it. The baked on OE finish makes a good base for the new paint. If this is the case, disassemble, using a Air Powered DA simply knock down the old finish, do not sand through to the metal. Once you you have the surface sanded paint with automotive paint, clear, wet sand and buff. I found a local shop that will paint and clear for $150-200. I will finish the wet sanding and buffing, which only takes about 2 hrs.
If the OE paint is damaged have desk bead blasted, and powder coated. Check Local industrial powder coating shops. I have a shop that will bead blast and coat for under $200 on most desk and tables. Having done my first few desk the old fashion way; lots of elbow grease and massive amounts of time, bead blasting and coating is by far the most economical.
- Youngstown, Ohio
September 10, 2008
Q. To those who have refinished tanker desks: Can most of these desks be disassembled for easier stripping & painting, not to mention transporting? Especially, removing the top. The powder coat company I contacted said the top (orig. "rubbery" black, laminate) cannot withstand the 400 degrees necessary for this finish. Thanks.Janice Parks
hobbyist - West Tisbury, Massachusetts
March 1, 2009
Q. I have a steel 50's vintage reading table. It has the linoleum type top. I recall back when I was much younger you could pour a liquid chemical on the top of the desk and it would dissolve the top at which point it would re-solidify back to its original good finish with no dings or dints. Does anyone know what this chemical is?
- Birmingham, Alabama
March 14, 2009
A. As far as getting a brushed look on steel it can be done. I have been an automotive painter for 13 years and have done many successful finishes on brushed steel. When you sand metal that is what paint/clear coat sticks to. That is how automotive painters do it every day! When you stripped the paint off you didn't sand through the galvanized layer. It will not rust if there is ample clear coat on the piece.
As far as the rubbery top on the tanker desks, I have just used wedges, screwdrivers, or anything thin and ripped the top off. Once you get it going it should come off with ease. Then remove any excess glue and get the metal top of the desk as smooth as possible. I then take 1/8 press board with a very smooth finish on top and fit it to the desk top. I prep it for painting and then give the finishing color and making sure that you seal all the edges of the press board. If you do not then the press board will separate.
- new orleans Louisiana
April 11, 2009
Forbo Nairn in Kirkcaldy produce very nice furniture linoleum for desk top type applications.
www.forbo-flooring.co.uk is a useful link and you can contact them for USA suppliers.
This is not just an ad - I was looking up furniture and lino-topped desks on Google.
Old furniture restoration is real work...
Accountant - St Boswells, Roxburghshire, Scotland
May 5, 2009
Q. I asked this question sometime ago, but got no response.
So here goes again. I have a gray steel table with a soft clay like top. I recall this type of desktop 50 years ago.
When it got dinged up you poured this mystery liquid on top and it would melt the clay and as it dried, the top would be restored to a nice finish. Does anyone know what this liquid was or the contents there of? Please help, the war department is wanting to throw this fine table out on the street.
- Birmingham, Alabama
May 9, 2009
Q. I also need to know how to clean up a linoleum-type desk top.
It's a dark gray... not in bad shape, but could use a good cleaning to get pen marks, scuffs, etc. evened out.
Any help would be appreciated.
- Lakewood Ohio
July 21, 2009
Q. I am looking into restoring a vintage tanker desk. I found one in really good shape but it has the formica top and I would like the all steel look. I am wondering if anyone knows if it is just steel underneath the formica if I removed it or is there a different material under there? Thanks, any help would be appreciated.Angie Bander
Hobbyist - Rice, Minnesota
July 19, 2009
I am wondering if anyone has any experience of restoring a 1950's HON Steel (Tanker) Desk.
We are going to have the unit sand blasted to get rid of the rust and the lovely (ahem) gray paint to get the shiny metaled look.
After this is done were unsure what needs to be done after that.
Does the metal need sealing, in some way shape or form?
What are our options on the top of the desk, currently some form of trashed rubber? Where can we find replacement/alternatives?
There is an Art Deco looking rubber surround enclosed in an Aluminum rim (pardon the terminology). We would like this completing in Aluminum. Suggestions very welcome.
Any advice would be really helpful.
Thanks in advance,
fashion design - Columbus, Ohio
October 2, 2009
A. For all of you with torn up desk tops:
Just have a piece of glass cut to fit over the top. It costs about $150.00 for 1/4 inch, radius corners with the edge sanded. I have an old tankers desk with ugly wood laminate. I got some beautiful wall paper with a large graphic print & slipped it under the glass. It looks wonderful & I can change the look of the whole room by changing the wall paper.
A word of caution about removing the rubber edge. I have heard that they can not be replaced once removed. Something about the way the manufacturer installed it. Can anyone confirm this?
What is the best way to remove spray painted numbers & permanent markers?
- Vancouver, Washington
November 3, 2009
I've restored a couple of these steel desks for my home and office, and here are some things I've learned:
1) Always try to retain as much of the original paint as you can. It was baked on and is much more durable than the paints most of us will be using. The original color can be closely matched if you take a piece of the desk to a professional paint store that uses a computer-matching system. They will hold an artificial eye machine against the desk piece, and then the computer will generate a recipe for the color the eye "sees." (Although the metallic content of the desk paint usually throws the computer color off a bit.) For one of my desks I only had to repaint the front of the desk drawers; I left the rest of the desk alone even though it wasn't "perfect." Although only the top drawers were dirty and scuffed, because the mixed color was ever so slightly different from the original paint I repainted all the drawers so that it wasn't obvious that only two of the drawer fronts were repainted. Even when I've repainted the whole desk, I've kept as much of the original paint as possible and sanded it to use as a primer. One last thing about these professionally-mixed paints: they're expensive -- about $20 per spray can! But they're professional paints that are tough and have a short drying time, which making the job of painting go a lot faster.
2) These desks can be taken apart. This makes them easier to restore and paint. Missing pieces can be cannibalized from a damaged duplicate desk purchased very cheaply. To do this, however, you should know which pieces you're looking for and make sure that the duplicate desk has them. This means that you have to take your desk apart and then wait for a damaged duplicate to turn up -- which might take a while, during which you can't use the desk you're restoring.
3) If you love the brushed-steel look, paint the desk in a metallic silver or metallic gray. Taking the paint completely off and clear-coating the desk is not wise -- you're simply asking for rust. The desk won't look nice for long, and you'll just have to restore it again.
4) Linoleum tops can be restored using a hot air blower. Similar to a hair dryer, these machines can be purchased for about $20 at a hardware store. They produce a small beam of extremely hot air. Directed towards the top of the linoleum and moved back and forth, you can heat areas of the linoleum until it gets soft and mushy. Then you can use a marble rolling pin to smooth out the surface. Deeper ruts in the linoleum can be gently shaped with a spoon and then rolled out. I've found that this technique works best using a two-person team: one person runs the blower and the other person rolls the rolling pin over the area being heated. (You have to watch out not to get burned, however!) Letting the linoleum heat until it slightly begins to bubble seems to work best for me. Although the former dents and gouges might still be visible (they often leave a discoloration or "ghost" of their former shape), you can get the linoleum back to a smooth writing surface with a little work and elbow grease. But it's worth it -- linoleum is a natural material and is soft and warm to the touch. Also, you'll be restoring the original desktop, and any time you can keep an original part to the desk, you should. The linoleum should finally be coated with a protective surface of floor wax specially formulated for linoleum.
Those are all the tips I can think of at the moment. Restoring these desks takes time but if you are careful and do a good job the results are well worth it. Do you think the particle board desks you purchase at Office Depot or Office Max are going to last 50 years or more? These steel desks have been around at least that long and with proper restoration and care they'll last another 50 years. Think of your restoration work as an investment.
Good luck and have fun!
- Milligan College, Tennessee
November 19, 2009
I have an old Steelcase desk, believed to be a Tanker desk with 3 drawers on the right and 2 on the left with a center drawer. My dad has had it forever and I only recently noticed the high quality design and it simplicity. It's in great condition but is missing the center drawer lock and one handle. Does anyone know of a good source for these items. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
p.s., I do plan to refinish the desk and thank you all for your suggestions.
- Thousand Oaks, California
July 15, 2010
Q. I have an old Steelcase-esque (actually made by a now-defunct company in Philadelphia, PA) desk that I want to take apart to move since it is extremely heavy to move as-is. How do I do this? Does anyone have any tips on where to start? I've poked around a little bit but thought I might ask before I really start crawling around. I imagine the top comes off and then the two pedestals separate from the metal that holds them together, but I can't figure out where/how to start.
Thanks for any pointers!
- Washington, DC, USA
A. Hi, Kay
I also doubt that you'll find anyone with assembly directions for such an old desk, but the usual best way to start is with the desk lying on the floor upside down for safety and practicality. You'll be able to see the fasteners without climbing under the desk, and you won't be risking something falling on your face when you loosen it :-)
Ted Mooney, P.E.
Pine Beach, New Jersey
September 18, 2010
Q. Did anyone ever get a response on the name of the auto body shop in Denver that will refinish the tanker desks? Need to find one asap - can't leave on truck much longer! Thanks for any help in locating a Denver shop - just picked up one yesterday - have started calling around.Mary Krohnfeldt
- Denver, Colorado
November 16, 2010
Q. I recently purchased a great tanker desk is fairly good condition from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore -- the university in our town has started to provide the store with it's surplus furniture items! In the future, I'd love to have the desk powder coated -- but for now, it's clean and sturdy.
The rubber on the top is not peeling up -- but it is a bit worn, and I would like to clean it up as much as possible. When I cleaned it with a basic all purpose cleaner, a significant amount of gray/black residue came off of the desk. Each time I sprayed it down, the same amount of residue was on the paper towels.
I'm wondering if the rubber is breaking down - or if I'm simply not cleaning it properly. Perhaps there is a way I could seal it?
Any advice some of you other hobbyists could provide would be very helpful!
Hobbyist - Athens, Georgia, USA
March 20, 2011
I recently came across a couple of General Fireproofing desks and I want to remove the formica top and use glass. But in doing so, I need to replace the aluminium edge that edges the desk top. It's in pretty bad condition. Does anyone know of a website I could find material to replace the edging? thanks, Brad
hobbyist - Decatur, Illinois
July 6, 2011
A. I have a desk like Mr. Taliaferro's pictured at the top of the post (no pedestals, just a pencil drawer). The laminate top was cracked so I took a screwdriver/chisel and hammer to it and scraped it off. The surface underneath is stained with old, red glue. Not bad, just ugly. I don't think it's worth the trouble to replace the laminate. The non laminated surface was smooth enough after some sanding. Luckily, the family business is auto paint/body.
I'm going to cover the top with chalkboard paint after primer for a nice smooth surface. The hardware store also sells dry-erase board paint too.
In my opinion, replacing the laminate if it's cracked is not worth the time finding the laminate and installing it. Painting it is way easier.
After taking the desk apart, I've begun to sand the paint off the rest of the desk to the metal with an orbital sander and 80 grit sandpaper. Then my husband will prime it and paint it. I've chosen a BMW interior color for the rest of the desk. My husband's family has a ton of experience with paint/body and they said that sanding and painting would be the best way to go about restoring this desk. Other options are too expensive and time consuming.
- Tucson, Arizona
March 4, 2012
A. I used gel paint remover, naval jelly rust remover, sandpaper, and car wax. I did this to my tanker desk 2 years ago, live a block from the ocean, and don't see any rust. I was going to clear coat it with this stuff they sold at Home Depot that says it prevents rust but was lazy and just waxed over the sanded steel. I did wipe it down with WD40 before waxing. I'm not an expert but am happy with the results.
I left the drawers original paint and I get compliments all the time. I found a matching chair on Craigslist: desk $60, chair $75.
- New York, New York
May 3, 2012
Q. I have a 1950s Steelcase desk that I got at an architectural salvage store. It has 2 drawers on the left and a space for a return on the right. The return was not attached when I bought it (nor was it attached when it was salvaged). I have 2 metal bracket pieces, but I cannot figure out how they all go together to attach the return. Does anyone know how they attach or where I can find information about how to attach the return? Thank you!Rachel Nugent
- Kansas City, Missouri, USA
October 1, 2012
Q. My wife just purchased an Art Metal tanker and I am tasked with the disassembly for the eventual blasting and powder coating.
The laminate top isn't in bad shape, but it has to come off, and therein lies my question.
The desk looks to have some metal end caps that seem like they would pop or otherwise be able to be removed but I don't want to use excessive force. Haven't flipped it over, so maybe there are some anchoring screws there?
I think once those are removed I should be able to use the putty knife and pry off the laminate. I just don't want to damage the end caps.
Thanks in advance for any advice!
- Springdale, Arkansas, USA
January 20, 2013
Q. Hi I am going to refinish a tanker desk and I was wondering if anybody has any thoughts on scuff sanding and using lacquer spray paint on the metal and possibly the same paint on the Formica top. ThanksRobert Beach
- Santa Barbara, California, USA
February 1, 2013
I answered my own question! It worked great, scuff sand, 4 coats of white lacquer, wet sand each coat, 4coats clear lacquer, wet sand each coat and buff with car polish.Robert beach [returning]
- Santa Barbara, California, USA
July 9, 2013
Q. Can you tell me where the asbestos is normally found in these desks? I want to check mine to see if it contains the asbestos fabric/padding. What is the best way to go about removing the padding if it is present?Megan Black
- Atlanta, Georgia
February 22, 2014
Q. Hello. Can anyone please advise where I can purchase parts for my tanker desk? I'm specifically looking for the round plastic rollers inside the drawers. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Best regards, Mike.Michael Biehl
- Setauket, New York, USA
January 10, 2015
A. I suggest contacting Berkeley Outlet in Berkeley, California.La Ronda Bucciarelli
- Inverness, California USA
Ed. note: Respond to Michael with names of places only, please, gentle readers -- no praise or criticism please. Testimonials from strangers with unknown vested interests have no value, and they have often prompted sellers to post with fictitious names and praise themselves, posing as satisfied customers :-)
April 20, 2015
Q. I have a tanker desk and want to start using it but the drawers pull really hard almost like they stick. What type of lubricant would I use.
Thanks in Advance!!
- Wausau, Wisconsin
July 20, 2015
A. I have had my tanker desk since 1990 where I use it in my home office. All the drawers open and close smoothly on nylon rollers which should not be lubricated. The center desk drawer with the pencil holder in it does need to be lubricated periodically. And for this I use a plain white lithium grease. This works well and doesn't attack the paint. Slide the drawer out and empty it if you wish. Then remove it completely. Looking at the tracks under the desk it will be obvious where the old grease was. I clean it out with a few cotton tipped swabs. Same for the drawer itself. The grease I buy comes in a squeezable metal tube. I just add new grease to the front half of the sliding surface attached to the desk, and the rear half of the sliding surface of the drawer. Slip it back in and it opens and closes a lot easier and smoother. The grease will migrate on its own to the entire areas that need it. One application lasts me well over a year.John KaBang
- Schenectady, New York, USA
September 7, 2016
Q. I have had this steel desk (ALL of it top included is steel ... very heavy) since 1998 and cannot for the life of me find any information about it ... can someone help with this? The gentleman I bought it from had it since the 60s.
That is all I know the corners are brass inlaid? And paint, etc. all appear original including the pencil tray in the center drawer.
Thanks in advance for any help at all Cristine
- Cave Creek, Arizona
A. Hi Christine. I'm no tanker desk expert, but I've worked at office desks for 50 years or so :-)
From the heavy look of it, and your statement about its weight, and the fancy feet, I doubt that it's from the 60s -- but probably the 40s or early 50s; maybe even the 30s from the lack of aluminum handles that have been used on almost all office furniture for many decades. Steelcase is probably the most common brand name, so I'd try that for some similar pictures on e-bay, etc.
It's a small desk, probably not an executives ... maybe a teacher's desk?
Ted Mooney, P.E. RET
Pine Beach, New Jersey
Striving to live "Aloha"
October 18, 2016
A. Your desk strongly resembles a small library table I recently purchased. The brand name is Shaw Walker and I believe dating is more like 1940-50's. And I believe those corner caps and feet covers are aluminum and can be polished up very nicely.
Try Google search "Shaw Walker student desk or small desk"
The top of mine is in horrible condition and I'll be trying the "melting" method mentioned in this thread after I clean it up as much as possible. I thought I'd replace the top with "Forbo marmoleum", but after looking at samples, I think it's too stiff to wrap around the bullnose perimeter. And lots of glue would also be necessary.
- Waukee, Iowa USA
December 18, 2016
Thank you for taking the time ... had it in my office for almost 20 years and bought from the original owner.Cristine L Orzel [returning]
- Cave Creek
May 28, 2017
Q. Hello all! Hoping I can get some type of answer to this, since google and YouTube have failed me. I have a late 60's teal tanker desk with drawers on either side (unsure of brand) that is unlocked, but only half the drawers open. They all opened in the store when I bought it, we transported it, the counter weights kicked in, and now 2 drawers won't open. Anyone know what the trick is to this? It's the middle left drawer(of 3), and the top right drawer above the filing drawer.
Luckily these things can take a beating, I'm about to that point x-D
- Fredericksburg, Virginia, USA
A. Hi Candace. Each manufacturer probably patented their mechanism, forcing other manufacturers to do it differently ... so there are probably several different possible arrangements.
But in any case, pushing the rest of the drawers in was supposed to free the remaining drawer. So what I would do is to remove the drawers you can remove, then look up/down or reach up/down and see what needs to be pushed, jiggled, or held. I'd be virtually sure that it's possible with a drawer removed and almost impossible without. Once you free the stuck drawer, you can remove it as well and you'll have good access to fix whatever got bent or came loose.
Pine Beach, New Jersey
Striving to live "Aloha"
August 9, 2017
Q. Okay guys, in Sep 16 I asked about refurbing, etc., my little single pedestal desk. Well, just getting the rehab / repainting done :) of my 1941 Shaw Walker desk with brass corners and brass feet as well as brass around the lock and YES original Bakelite Drawer pulls in great shape. Am considering painting them to match the body of the desk :)
... I even got a key but am afraid to try it out; could not find a DWA 148 lock remover though? Anyone know where to find the lock remover key for that pre-Yale lock?
Now comes the dilemma. I can't safely get the pencil drawer in :(
... afraid of scratching. Attached is photo of where I am at right now ....do you try angle up or angle down rather than straight in? there is a spring on left side and a rubber stop on right to get around and onto the tracks
HomeSmart - Cave Creek, Arizona
February 12, 2018
RFQ: I have a circa 1960'a steel tanker desk that has been in my family since the mid-'60s. I'd like to have it refinished/repainted along with some minor repairs, i.e. sticky drawers. I'm NOT INTERESTED in DIY. Any suggestions on getting this done in the Chicago area?
Even as old as I know it is (did my homework on this desk), it's still WAY better quality than the multiple desks I've had in the past 10 years. I decided to keep the tanker and dump the newer but poorer quality desk I currently us. Thanks for any help.
- skokie, Illinois USA
^- Privately contact this inquirer -^
Automotive Wet Spray vs. Powder Coat -- 1950's Tanker DeskJune 18, 2018
Q. I bought a great 1951 ArtMetal two-pedestal steel tanker desk. It's in great shape structurally, but needs refinishing. After soda blasting to remove all the old paint, I am trying to weigh the pros and cons of bringing it to a body shop for wet spraying (more readily available in my area) or having it powder coated. What say you?
Hobbyist - Saco, Maine, USA
A. Hi Karen. Whichever is easier will be fine. Obviously a tanker desk isn't exposed to the corrosive conditions a car is and any decent pretreatment and painting or powder coating method should be fine.
Pine Beach, New Jersey
Striving to live "Aloha"
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