For the past few weeks I have been working on a campaign style desk. Authentic campaign desks are bloody expensive antiques, and quite frankly shouldn't be painted unless you have a death wish as the "antique purists" may possibly linch you for it 😳.
A couple of months ago I was contacted by a London based customer via my Etsy 'Pedestal Desk Listing', asking if I could paint one of these desks for the customer's daughter. The customer had a very specific brief about what she wanted and what it should look like. I really like having rigid briefs as it can push me outside of my comfort zone and force me to learn new skills... which this did!
We messaged to and fro for some weeks until the customer finally settled on wanting a campaign desk and could I paint one for her. Easy! So after scouring the internet I realised pretty quickly that a real campaign desk was going to be mega expensive to source and wouldn't be achievable for the listing price. However, I did suggest that I could recreate one for her using an existing pedestal desk by adding lots of brass brackets and braces. Sounds super easy, right?! Wrong!
First step was to put together a mood board with my ideas showing my customer how vision can be turned into reality. This is a really great way to put all the aspects of a commission piece together for the customer so they can visualise the final outcome. I know my own capabilities and know that I can do the impossible but I just need to be backed into a corner for the mad scientist techniques to surface.
I started off sourcing the desk, this was fairly easy as one happened to almost fall into my lap. When I collected the desk, I had a really good chat with the seller who was also in the trade. He gave me some great tips about sourcing various things needed for my projects and also recommended a hardware shop local to him. On the way back home I stopped off at the hardware shop. This is your typical old school hardware shop which is a little treasure chest of all things needed for any DIY project you may have. In one of the back rooms I spied some fabulous military style brass pulls which I knew would be ideal for this desk. I took a quick photo of them, got the price and went on my way.
Once I had the desk back at my workshop, I was able to visualise how and where the brackets and braces would be affixed. Next came to ordering them. Believe it or not finding brass T braces and L brackets is much harder than you think without costing the earth and then being right size is quite a feat. As I sat there staring at my laptop screen thinking that this may not be possible it suddenly dawned on me, why not buy steel ones and turn them into brass. Ok, I may not quite be of Jesus' standard, turning water into wine, but making steel look like brass should be a doddle. I ordered the steel pieces and waited for them to arrive (via Hong Kong special delivery 🇭🇰)... Thanks Amazon Prime 🤦🏻♀️
Finally it was time to get started on the desk. It was fully stripped down including all of the cock beading which is beading that frames the edge of the drawers. Now as I have said before cock beading is impossible to buy, you cannot buy it in this country, well not that I have found and tbh I am pretty good at sourcing stuff. Perhaps people got fed up of saying cock beading, who knows?! 🤷🏼♀️ So by stripping this desk I have inadvertently supplied myself with a shed load of beading for future projects, huzzah! I thoroughly cleaned, keyed and cleaned again the desk ready for spraying.
The colour the customer chose was modern, bold and daring... yet oddly it is perfect for a campaign desk! Annie Sloan's 'Antibes Green' is a bright bright green. It looks great sealed with clear wax or darkened with dark or black wax. However when your sprayer decides to spring a major leak halfway through spraying said desk you will pretty quickly end up looking like The Hulk! The four year old was DELIGHTED that his Mummy had finally got on board with the whole green superhero thing. FML!
Whilst waiting for my sprayer to come back from the manufacturer (after being repaired FOC - Thanks Wagner). I got on with the task of turning 20+ steel pieces into brass. First I keyed the surface of the brackets and braces with a fine sandpaper causing the surface to become slightly rough, this ensures any paint I use, would adhere. Next, I sprayed them with Rustoleum 'Brilliant Bright Gold' metallic spray paint. This stuff is brilliant, not to mention the noxious fumes which make you high as a kite - Wear a face mask! 😷 Once sprayed gold I then lightly keyed the surface again, I now used some Rub 'n Buff 'Gold Leaf' which is a gold wax. A little goes a long way with this stuff. I kind of dabbed it on with an artists paintbrush to allow for some texture without covering all of the surface. I then gently keyed the surface again and added some black wax to areas, again adding some depth and texture. Think old tarnished brass.
The next part of the jigsaw was the military brass pulls. I telephoned the hardware shop, gave them the product code and ordered them; asking for them to be delivered to the store local to me. After several days and lots of phone calls; the pulls had arrived, but there were only FOUR! After several more days and more phone calls, they had finally all arrived in store. I sent my poor suffering husband to collect them on the way home. When he went to collect them he was told they were going to be triple the price to what I had been quoted. Luckily he checked with me first before handing over the money. When you are doing a project like this, margins are tight and paying £15 per pull rather than £5 was a no no. Especially when you weren't expecting it. As some of you know, I am a little hot headed at times (Viking blood) so what happened next will stay between me and the manager of that store, however, needless to say I got the pulls at the quoted price.
I don't often have blonde moments (and yes, I can say this because I'm blonde), but I defo had one here. When I opened the box of pulls I realised they didn't sit flush on the outside of the drawer fronts. I have no idea why I didn't notice, perhaps the four year old kept me up that night, maybe I drank too much gin (probably) but either way my brain did not register that the pulls needed to be embedded. Luckily the husband was keen to get himself a router which I had been protesting to for weeks (why the F do we need a router?) Yep, we need a router. Cue man slave happily playing with his new toy practising on old wood before he worked on the actual desk. He did a smashing job and I must say I do love that man! 👍🏽
Next, tarnish those shiny new pulls... After plenty of research I discovered how to make new brass appear old and tarnished. Most modern brass is coated in a lacquer which stops the brass tarnishing too quickly. Removing this lacquer can be time consuming; after several days of soaking and rubbing the pulls in acetone the lacquer was finally peeling away. Next you can brush the un-lacquered brass with salt and vinegar place in hot oven or you can use ammonia fumes to tarnish the brass. Either option bloody stinks but after lots of playing around with these different methods I was finally happy with how they looked. Notice how the pulls are slightly coppery too, well I blotted on some copper spray to the brackets and braces which gave a brilliant match to this added patina!
Finally it was time to start putting it all together. First lot of screws ordered, were too small. Next lot were too big. Third lot of screws ordered were perfect but I was short by 21. You would think people would count properly wouldn't you. No not me actually! Frantically calling the screw guy who was sick. Now rather than keep your customer happy and quickly pop some in the post which would arrive the next day he refused to get out of his death bed and assist, and instead said I would have them on Monday. Errrr no can do amigo, the desk is being collected at 7:30am Monday morning and it's Friday today. After a lot of hissing and spitting, the husband offering to drive 4 hours up North to collect them, I cancelled the courier for Monday morning and admitted defeat. I said to the customer I would deliver myself Monday evening (this actually translates as father of my offspring delivering whilst I put the feral little pickles to bed) .
When the screws finally arrived on Monday morning and all the brackets, braces and pulls were affixed the desk looked stunning and was just perfect. I sent some final photos to the customer and she was very happy! BUT, "could the escutcheon (key cover) be more simple"? Hmmmmm never wanting to let people down I replied back and said "let me see what I can do" 😏
Nothing on eBay, nothing on amazon... think think think woman! Thinking outside of the box, I was wanting a brass plate, what else is rectangle and brass? What about a brass dog tag which could have a key shape cut out. Looking through Etsy at brass tags and I found the perfect answer. Thankfully the seller was able to fulfil my request and was local (ish). 50 miles to Eastbourne on Monday morning with a bag containing a bunch of kitchen roll soaked in ammonia, I collected the shiny new un-lacquered escutcheon. Driving home with it sat on my dash board hitting those rays made the new brass tarnish up beautifully. I'm a genius, but when the clock is ticking you do what you gotta do; although as ammonia is used to make bombs, in hindsight, perhaps it sitting on my dash in the direct sun light wasn't the wisest of moves 😆
Talk about working close the the wire. With moments to spare I attached the escutcheon. Staged and photographed the desk (with my amazing faux taxidermy insects), then packaged it up and sent it on it's way. Once delivered I had word back from the customer that she LOVED it and wished to order another for her son this time. Fabulous news and makes it all worth it!
Although I grossly undercharged for this desk, I have also learnt so much along the journey.
1) Most projects are never as easy as you expect. Especially with old pieces they always throw something unexpected into the mix.
2) Don't get between a Scandinavian woman and her margins by misquoting prices... she'll eat you for breakfast.
3) This is the husbands "always find a good reason to get a power tool" - Yeah, yeah James, whatever you say.
4) Customer happiness and satisfaction is always paramount. Even if that means driving a 100 mile round trip in the final hour.
5) Love the people that supports you doing what you love!
So there you have it, this is just a snippet of what the process is when you are buying bespoke. Small businesses like myself go the extra mile and make the impossible possible. Your piece of furniture goes on a journey and sometimes that journey isn't just as simple as slapping on some paint. So much goes on behind the scenes, think of a swan gracefully swimming along, yet furiously paddling under the surface of the water.
I hope you have enjoyed the read and learnt a few bits. Any questions please ask :-)