Restoring an Old Desk With a New Laminate Surface




Introduction: Restoring an Old Desk With a New Laminate Surface

I had an old Ikea desk with a deep cherry finish, which while very strong and serviceable added way too much color to my already red/brown office. Knowing that trying to paint it would be a mess and probably not result in a tough enough surface, I opted to re-surface it in white plastic laminate. The results turned out better than I'd expected and only took about a day total, with a total material cost under $100 USD.

Stuff you'll need:

  • An old desk
  • A sheet of High Pressure Laminate (HPL -- Formica, etc.). Look for laminate products that are meant for countertops, etc. I ordered mine from Home Depot (Wilsonart) but there are lots of options. Basically you want something pretty thin (0.039" for what I ordered), with a nice hard surface on one side and a grainy surface on the other for cementing.
  • Contact cement. Definitely recommend getting a low-VOC product.
  • Mineral spirits or similar for cleaning surfaces
  • Edge banding. I ordered a pre-glued, Melamine iron-on product which worked well
  • Disposable gloves
  • Multiple dowels or similar clean strips of temporary support material


  • Roller, brush, or applicator for applying the contact cement
  • 3" J-roller for applying pressure to the cement bond, alternately a small block of wood and hammer
  • Router with laminate trim bit
  • Clothes iron or similar
  • Eye, ear, and dust protection
  • (optional) Edge banding trimmer
  • 80-120 grit sandpaper
  • (optional) Random orbital sander
  • Sharp utility knife with new blades

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Step 1: Surface Prep

The laminate will cover up moderate imperfections in the surface, but try to scrape or grind off any bumps (old glue etc) and fill in any big divots with wood filler or similar.

We're going to use contact cement to adhere the laminiate, so it's best if the mating surface is abraded a bit to give the cement something to grab into. I used a palm sander with 120 grit paper to get rid of the existing varnish on the desk's old veneer. Later I tried 80 grit on a different part of the desk and it seemed to do a better job, so don't be shy about roughing up that surface.

Wear a respirator when sanding, as there may be nasty stuff in the old varnish etc that you're removing.

Clean away all sanding dust with mineral spirits, denatured alcohol, etc. Do not use water based cleaners, as they may soak into the exposed wood and case swelling, bad adhesion, etc.

Step 2: Cut Laminate to Size and Clean Underside

I ordered a 4' x 8' sheet of laminate from Home Depot (large US home improvement center) and had it delivered. It arrived in a roll but lay flat once I unboxed it.

I had worked out in advance how to divide up a single sheet to cover the three sections of my desk. Note that the product I received actually measured an inch longer on each edge, which provided a helpful margin. Try to leave yourself about an inch extra on each side, which we'll trim away later. You can leave less of a margin if necessary, but doing so will make it all the more critical to line things up perfectly later on.

Important: Carton from laminate shipment should be made into a rocket ship or similar. Engage child for design and fabrication assistance.

Unfortunately I didn't take as many photos here as I would have liked. By far the best way to cut laminate sheet is to score the top (plastic) side with a knife several times, then snap it. Use a box cutter with a NEW blade -- blades are cheap, ruined laminate is expensive. I've heard of people using circular saws, table saws, etc., but you run the risk of tearout and messy edges -- the score and snap method is nice and clean.

Once pieces are cut, clean the underside with mineral sprits, just to make sure there are no contaminants to weaken the cement bond. This should dry quickly, but obviously wait for that to happen before proceeding.

Step 3: Apply Contact Cement to Both Surfaces

I highly recommend finding a low-VOC contact cement, such as that in the photo. The regular stuff works faster, but you have to be extremely careful about ventilation and eliminate any potential source of spark or flame (yes, even the furnace downstairs from where you may be working). Personally I wouldn't go near that high-VOC stuff.

Contact cement is applied to both surfaces to be joined separately, and then allowed to dry. Check the instructions on your product, but I let my pieces dry for a good 40 minutes. I used a small roller in a disposable tray for quick and efficient coverage -- you can also use a brush, applicator, etc. Wear gloves and make sure you have good cross-ventilation, even for the low-VOC product.

Step 4: Adhere the Laminate to the Desk

Once the laminate piece and corresponding desk surface both have cement applied and have dried, you're ready to join the two pieces. Be very careful when setting this up, because you only get one shot -- once the two pieces come into contact, there's an instant bond. Fortunately laminate is stiff enough that wrinkling isn't really a problem, so it's a matter of lining everything up right and then systematically dropping the laminate onto the desk top.

Get a bunch of dowels or other clean strips of material and lay them down on the desk top with a foot or so in between. This will allow you to float the laminate directly above the surface to which it is to be adhered. The clean dowels won't stick to the dried contact cement. Take your time and make sure there's a good overlap over every edge (that is, the laminate will hang over each edge of the desk when dropped down).

Once you're all lined up, slide the center dowel out to let the laminate bow down and make contact. Carefully remove successive dowels from the center outward, making sure the laminate continues to drop down smoothly.

Hopefully once you have all the dowels out, the desk top will be completely covered with laminate extending an inch or so beyond each edge.

To really make the bond strong and permanent, you next need to apply pressure across the entire surface. The cement that I used recommended 25 psi (lbs per square inch). A typical tool for doing this is a 3" j-roller, which looks like a painting roller but has a hard rubber wheel. So for a 3" roller, you want to apply 75 lbs of pressure while rolling across the surface, again starting from the middle and working out. Another way to do this is to get a small clean block of wood, cover it with a light cloth to protect the laminate, and hammer down on the block little by little across the entire surface.

In particular check that the corners and edges don't lift off easily. If they do, apply more pressure. If that still doesn't work, the cement may have dried past its working time, in which case you can try to re-activate it with medium heat from an iron.

Step 5: Trim Edges With a Router

This is the fun part. You'll need a handheld router with an edge trim bit, which comes with a little bearing wheel below the cutter. Set the bit height so that the bearing will roll along the edge of the desk as the cutter trims away the laminate. This is one of the easier things to do with a handheld router, but still work carefully and wear eye, ear, and dust protection.

Note that when viewed from the top down, the router bit will be spinning clockwise. This means that you want to move the router counter-clockwise around the edge of the desk, such that the cutter is always "digging in" to the laminate as opposed to running along it. If you go the wrong way (meaning the bit is rotating in the same direction that you're moving), the router may jump around and be hard to control.

Step 6: Add Edging

There are a few different ways to approach this, but I went with a pre-glued, iron-on edge banding product. Be sure to get something that is a bit wider than the actual thickness of the desk top + laminate. I used a 7/8" product for a 3/4" thick desk.

Lightly sand the desk edge to improve adhesion and get rid of any old surface coatings.

Basically you just set your iron on "cotton" (high), line up a piece of edging with the edge of the desk top, and apply heat. The glue will melt, soak in to the desk edge, and stick when cooled. If you mess up it's pretty easy to re-apply heat and move the strip a bit.

Two warnings: First, I found that the fumes from this stuff when heated made me surprisingly dizzy. It didn't help that I had my face right up to it while trying to see what I was doing. I don't have an MSDS but there's probably some nasty stuff in that glue, so make sure you have adequate ventilation.

Second, it's worth it to protect your iron with a sheet of aluminum foil, to prevent excess glue from mucking up the surface. You don't want that ending up on your shirts.

Once the edging is applied and cooled, you need to trim the excess off the top and bottom. You can get a special tool for this, which cuts both the top and bottom at the same time, or just use a very sharp knife (again, use a NEW blade). The free-hanging edge will be brittle, so be careful and use a light touch to avoid creating a break or tear that runs down to the part that will be left.

Finally, get some 120 grit sandpaper and lightly deburr the top edge of the banding all the way around the desk, but especially at the front where you'll be working. The slightest raised edge or burr will catch on clothing, scratch your arms, etc., so you really need to smooth it out. Do this by hand, not with a power sander -- hardly any force is needed. It may be worth it to protect the edge of the laminate where you're sanding with painter's tape, just so it doesn't get scratched up.

The only area where I had a problem was at the corners. The banding is not flexible enough to make the turn, so you need to do each edge separately and have the banding meet in a butt joint at the corner. Unfortunately since I was applying this to a desk that already had a veneer with a beveled edge, the tip of the corner ended up being unsupported and cracked a bit. Quick fix in my case was to apply some electrical tape right over the tip of the corner, but there are probably better options.

Step 7: Enjoy Your New Desk!

That's pretty much it! Enjoy your updated desk and get back to building that 4D printer or whatever else it was that you were working on.

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