How to Restore a Tanker Desk for your 1950s Retro Office

A Complete Guide

This guide was written up for an American and Canadian audience based on my own experience and extensive research into the topic. I have spent hundreds or even thousands of hours learning and doing all of the steps you see below, and I share my experience here so that you may be able to rescue and enjoy your very own tanker desk. Feel free to use this information and share it with others, but provide a link back to this website (exactly like this: Retro Peacock) to provide proper attribution. If you ever have trouble with any aspect of your restoration, please leave a comment below to share your experience and any questions you may have.

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Acquiring a Tanker Desk
  3. Disassembly
  4. Refinishing the Steel
  5. Refinishing Aluminum Parts
  6. Refinishing the Table Top
  7. Reassembly
  8. A Note on Seating
  9. Displaying and Enjoying Your Tanker Desk

1.

Introduction

Unlike the seasonal mass-produced furniture common today, tanker furniture was designed to be completely fireproof with a workmanship that would last beyond a lifetime. Tanker desks, ubiquitous in American and Canadian offices in the 1950s, were favoured because of their sturdiness and high-guage steel construction. In fact, the material out of which these desks were constructed and the manufacturing process itself are too costly and impractical for today’s furniture companies to afford on a mass-production scale. Nowadays, many offices are unfortunately clearing or already have cleared out their old tanker furniture in favour of newer trends. It is a shame and a waste to see these important parts of history being discarded as junk or recycled as scrap, as they will never be produced again.

Yet, vintage-styled furniture has become a popular trend in itself, and tanker furniture in particular has become quite sought-after in certain quarters by artists, yuppies, loft-dwellers, and other similar types. There are entire businesses in California and other states devoted to refinishing this type of furniture professionally for resale to eager buyers. Tanker furniture can often command a high price, but the good news is that resourceful people can end up with very favourable results restoring these pieces on their own – that is, only if they go about the task properly.

2.

Acquiring a Tanker Desk

Above: switchboard operator works at her tanker desk in Baltimore in 1961. (Source: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History)

You can buy a fully-finished tanker desk from companies in the US, but expect to pay around USD$2000 + shipping. If you choose to go this route, here are a few links to get you started. It is a good idea to browse through these websites in any case as a way to determine the commercial value of vintage furniture.

A more affordable way to acquire a tanker desk would be to purchase a second-hand piece. Depending on where you live, these items can be exceedingly rare. In many cases, you must be patient to find what you are looking for. Craigslist is an excellent source to check out, and you may find something on Kijiji as well. Some of the keywords you will want to use are listed here (do separate searches for each): steelcase desk, tanker desk, metal desk, steel desk, vintage desk. Results may require some sorting to get past the all the Ikea furniture people are trying to get rid of. A secret tip is to look at the swap shop of your local university: these desks are often discarded as university departments update their decor, and you may be able to get a desk in very good condition, complete with its original keys. These desks also commonly used in schools, and if there is an elementary or high school in your area discarding its old furniture, you may be able to get your hands on what some people call a “teacher’s desk.”

The price you should expect to pay varies depending on who you are buying from. Many people selling locally on Craigslist will be more than happy for you to take their old, clunky furniture off their hands because they see it as valueless junk. In other cases, you may run into someone who knows the value of mid-century furniture as sold by the above companies, and charges you hundreds of dollars for their furniture in what they call a great deal. If you are buying from a university swap shop, you may be able to get away with a desk for $10 or more.

Do not worry too much about the brand of the desk you are acquiring. Steelcase and American Fireproofing are two of the most well-known companies in this area, but their designs were widely copied and circulated amongst a variety of companies in both the USA and Canada.

The condition of the desk you are acquiring is also another factor to consider. If you are buying a desk which has been neglected outdoors to fend against the elements, it will likely be rusty and filthy. It is usually possible to restore desks in this condition to near perfection, but be prepared to do some serious cleaning. Grateful owners will often be glad to have you take this type of desk off their hands for free. On the other hand, desks which have been lightly used in an office setting are often in great condition, and can even be used as is, if you like the colour.

Finally, you will need no less than a large van to transport your bounty back home. You could borrow a vehicle from someone, or perhaps hire one of the many furniture movers on Craigslist to assist you. Do not try to contact a professional moving company, as you will not be pleased with the prices. For comparison, I was able to find someone to transport my desk for CDN $50 after calling around. Someone on Craigslist once claimed that he had once moved his disassembled tanker desk with his Honda Hatchback, but I doubt that people trying to get rid of their old furniture would let you spend hours in their home trying to take apart your desk.

3.

Disassembly

In order to restore your tanker desk, you must dissassemble it completely. You will need wrenches and screwdrivers to do this task. Every part of your desk should be able to come apart, and you will need to reach into every small corner to get at all the screws.

Do not forget to keep all the hardware you remove in a safe place. Often you will find that 2 or 3 types of screws are used, and that you can easily match up the type to the size of the hole. Diassembly can be quite difficult and may require some ingenuity, but ultimately everything should come apart nicely. Although the reassembly process is often much smoother, make an effort to try and remember how it all fits together again. Drawing a diagram is a good way to keep track of what belongs where, or you may opt to take photographs instead, as they may serve to document your progress as well.

4.

Refinishing the Steel

The most time-consuming part of the process will be to restoring the painted steel. In the 1950s and earlier, the most popular colours for tanker desks tended to be light gray and a sort of olive green. These colours may appear drab by today’s standards, and you may want to redo your desk in a different colour especially if it is already rusty anyway. That said, there may be a day in the future when light gray decor becomes all the rage, and someone who comes to acquire your desk down the road may wonder in frustration why someone repainted a perfectly fine gray desk into some horrendous non-authentic colour. What you want to do with your desk is your own choice, and whether you prefer to preserve its historical appearance or alter it to fit your own needs is a matter of balance. If you are fine with the colour of your desk as it is, you could just start enjoying it straight away without bothering with any of the steps in this guide.

Sandblasting Method

The best and most efficient method to refinish the steel is to hire a professional to completely sandblast all the parts, and to powder coat the desk in a colour of your choice. People at autobody shops can usually do this, as car parts are blasted and repainted in this way all the time. The staff there will know how to remove all of the rust from your desk properly to ensure a long-lasting, durable finish. For the labour involved and the integrity of the final finish, it is reasonable to expect to pay a few hundred dollars for this work. Furthermore, powder coating is the most environmentally-friendly of all painting methods, the process releases no VOCs into the atmosphere.

Having your desk powder coated professionally will also afford you the option of choosing a clear finish, which allows the bare steel to show through. Lately, the bare steel look has become very trendy. However, this trend is already years old and is probably nearing the end of its term if it hasn’t already. So if you would like for a finish that is not dated and reflects the original spirit and design of tanker desks, it might be better to pick a colour instead.

Do-It-Yourself Method

This method may be slightly cheaper if you have lots of time, but is less environmentally friendly and requires a lot of labour. The finish for this method is also less durable and less professional. If you are a student with the luxury of free time in the summer, or if you can invest a few hours a night and some afternoon weekends in your project, this method would likely be feasible. The process will be a long-term effort, but if you value self-sufficiency and enjoy bringing a fragment from the past back to life, you will be happily consummated by the task in a process psychologists call flow.

First, you need to decide if the primer on your desk is worth keeping. A primer is a base layer of paint which goes on top of the metal, and serves as a surface to which the top coat can adhere to. The original paint for these desks was baked on in a process that you will never be able to match, and if you get rid of the original primer, the one that you apply will not be as strong.

A desk that has spent its entire life indoors in an office, and has no rust at all, can be repainted without removing the original primer. To do this, use a power sander to sand through the top layer of the finish. You will know that you have gotten past the top layer when you reach a layer that is a different, often lighter, colour. Do not sand past this layer! It is the primer and if you go past it, you will hit steel. All you need to do at this point is to apply another layer of primer if you like, and then apply paint in the colour of your choice. Spray paint is an easy way to do this, but you must practice to ensure that your strokes are light, short, and overlapping. Another, more environmentally-friendly way of repainting your desk would be to buy a paint sprayer if you have or want to invest in an air compressor. This method is also much more economical in the long-run than buying spraycans, and you will be able to use the equipment to paint other things. One final method is to use a roller brush with a bucket of paint. I have admittedly never tried this method before, but others1,2 have used it to restore vintage cars with impressive results.

On the other hand, if your desk is or pieces of it are badly rusted, you will need to strip all of the paint down to the level of the steel. For this task, use a metal brush (the kind which can be attached as a drill bit to your power drill) to grind through the rust and layers of paint. You can also use a power sander, or a combination of both tools, to accomplish this job. As you sand down through the layers of paint, you will notice that one layer gives way to a layer that is a lighter colour. This layer is the primer layer. Once you get past the primer, you will be down to steel. It is important if your desk is rusted to go down to the steel level and remove all remaining signs of rust. Badly pitted surfaces can require some work to achieve this. For the average hobbyist, it is often difficult to get rid of all the rust. As such, I recommend that you paint your desk according to the above methods using rust paint. Rust paint is specially designed to bond chemically to rusted surfaces and prevent further rusting. It is available in different colours, such as black gloss, which looks fantastic.

If you need more guidance on how to strip down or repaint your desk, I suggest you talk to someone who is into restoring old vehicles, or read about that topic online. Much of what I learned is from the world of car restoration, and their knowledge applies specifically to the present task. The only difference is that tanker desks are used indoors, which means that a less-than-optimal finish is more forgiving on a desk than it is on a car.

I should also mention that people have tried to use a chemical stripping technique rather than grinding. I have not tried this technique before but it has been reported that this while technique is a more time-consuming process, it is better at maintaining the texture of the metal.

Safety

Inside your desk, you may find what looks like a cloth pad glued on the insides. This material is asbestos, and the padding was installed in tanker desks as well as in many buildings as a fire retardant. Nowadays, asbestos is a known carcinogen and is banned in most countries. If you choose to refinish your desk by yourself, the safest way to go would be to simply paint over it, since it will not cause any harm unless it is disturbed and its fibres are released into the air. If you choose to remove it, be sure to observe all safety precautions and local regulations.

As well, it goes without saying that in any kind of sandblasting, sanding, or other work you might do, you must wear the proper personal protective equipment. This equipment may include, but is not limited to, an appropriately graded mask, goggles, and gloves.

5.

Refinishing Aluminum Parts

Your desk may have separate metal corners or ledges. In many cases, this hardware is made out of aluminum and years of oxidization have made it appear dull. In order to restore its original shine, you will need to use steel wool to get rid of the surface layer of oxidation. Start out using a rough grade, and gradually work your way up to 0000 for best results.

6.

Refinishing the Table Top

You may be lucky enough that your table top is in good enough condition to be preserved without restoration. For desks which have had tougher lives, the only way to restore the table top is to replace it.

Many desks are finished with some sort of laminate or linoleum type material. I don’t know very much about how to replace these. If you have experience with this please share it in the comments below.

Other desktops were lined with a black rubber sheet. After decades of aging, this rubber will appear and feel stiff, and is often cracked. Underneath the cracks you will likely find rust developing. What you need to do is to remove as much of the rubber as possible in order to reveal the steel surface it was glued to underneath. Remove any remaining rubber as well as dried glue from the surface. A metal brush works well for this task. Then, use a power sander to remove any excess rust from the surface. Coat the entire surface using rust paint, and leave it to dry.

Finding a replacement rubber top can be a bit of a treasure hunt. Often, the largest flat rubber sheeting available has indentations, holes, or spikes designed for different purposes. I was able to find a local rubber company in my area which produced masticated rubber flooring material made out of recycled tires, and was able to convince them to make a special order. In ordering material, try to get the smallest thickness they have available. If you accidentally use material which is too thick, it may be difficult or impossible to fit the metal edges or corners back onto your desk. To attach the rubber onto your painted steel desktop, try using contact cement. You may need to clamp down the rubber securely while it dries. Trim off the excess once the rubber is firmly in place.

7.

Reassembly

When you are all finished, you will need to reassemble the desk the way you took it apart. If some of the screws and other hardware were extremely rusty when you first removed them, you may want to replace these at the hardware store. It is important that you carefully match up the threading and length of the screws. Using brand new stainless steel hardware is a great touch to complement a new paint finish.

Also, if you are refinishing your desk in your garage or workshop, it might be easier to move all the parts to their final destination before reassembling, especially if the desk is very large.

8.

A Note on Seating

After investing all of this effort into restoring your tanker desk, you should make an effort to ensure that the chair you use with it comes from at least the same era. Perhaps you were lucky enough to buy a desk with a matching chair. If not, you will likely need to search elsewhere. In any case, the procedure for restoring a chair is much similar to what I have described. You will need to acquire some leather or pleather to replace the fabric as it will likely be cracked or in the wrong colour. Fabric for the seating may be attached using spikes cut into the metal. Use pliers to adjust these spikes in removing and replacing the fabric.

Above: A completely refinished streamliner model Tanker Desk from Canada manufactured by Sunrise Co. Restoration and photography by R. Peacock.

9.

Displaying and Enjoying Your Tanker Desk

If you go through all of these steps properly, you should end up with a shiny new tanker desk which will last many lifetimes provided it is cared for properly.

To make the most of your desk and wow your friends and family, you may also want to acquire some accessories for your desk. A retro clock, an airplane lighter, an ashtray, and a vintage stapler are all items which you may want to look out for online or in flea markets and garage sales.

It took me over a year off-and-on to finish my tanker desk project, but the end result is well worth the effort. I am very pleased every time I walk into the room and sit down at my vintage tanker desk. If you have experience restoring your own desk, or if you are seeking help with any aspect of your restoration, please leave a comment in the forum to share your thoughts.

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