Our First Piece of Furniture: Vintage Roll Top Desk


First furniture piece

Vintage Roll Top Desk

We decided early on that we wanted some vintage pieces for the van. Rather than trying to build all custom furniture from scratch, we thought that gathering interesting antique pieces would add a certain kind of charm to our home.

One of the first pieces that we decided on was a writing desk for Shelly. Simple Ikea desks work, but we wanted something with a bit more character.

After searching around, we eventually decided on getting one of two pieces: either a secretary desk, or a roll top desk. Both styles are exquisitely great for small living spaces because they pack a lot of storage with a compatible writing/working desktop. And their closable lids are perfect for keeping things contained when the van is in motion.

Here are some typical examples:

The problem is that most of these desks are built for rather large rooms, so finding one compatible with our dimensions took a little trial and error.

Buying second-hand in Canada

We were already off to Canada when we started hunting for furniture, and online sources are a little different than in the U.S.

Craigslist works pretty well in larger cities such as Vancouver or Toronto. But as soon as we started driving to central Canada, Craigslist ads started dropping in number and we had to look for an alternative source.

Hello Kijiji

The Canadian favorite alternative to Craigslist is Kijiji. It works like Craigslist: the ads are local, come with pictures, and you can contact the seller directly on the page.

The site also has iPhone and Android apps that work pretty well. There's a function that lets you save favorite ads and you can directly message a seller through the app rather than email. 

Compared to antique malls the listings on Kijiji were much more economical and that's where we eventually found our dream roll top desk.

The First Rollie

Our first try at getting a roll top didn't go very well. We found a potential desk that was a little larger than our optimal dimensions, but decided to get it anyways because it was a great deal and we were totally excited. 

So...when we finally set our eyes on the desk we realized two things: one, it seemed HUGE when we finally moved it into the van. Second, it was orange.

We deliberated on whether to keep it for the next few days, and Shelly even began the process of stripping the color so we can re-stain it.

Eventually we realized that as much as we liked the piece, the roll top was simply too large for the space we had in mind. Having it there would severely cut down on our beloved hallway space, and made it hard to sit comfortably without the bed platform digging into our backs. So we sadly said goodbye to the rollie and donated it to a local RV park.

Second Rollie

We were in Jasper National Park for their annual Dark Sky Festival when we found a second rollie on Kijiji.

We immediately fell in love. The dimensions were perfect. It had several drawers for more storage. It was a beautiful, rich brown (ie not orange!!) and the middle of the desk actually pulls out so there's more workspace.

There was just one problem: it was in Edmonton, about 6 hours off course from our next destination.

After deliberating, we decided to go for it. Rather than returning to Kamloops, our home base at the time, we made it to Edmonton in a straight shot and got the roll top that night.

It's absolutely perfect (for Shelly)!

Modifying the back

Because Sprinter van walls taper inward, the roll top didn't sit flush against the wall. In a home where every inch of space is critical, we decided to slightly modify the back of the roll top to improve its spacial efficiency.

Translation: we chopped a wedge off the back.

The entire process was a bit harrowing, but the cut worked really well. The roll top now fits snugly against the wall.

Now we need to figure out how to mount it...


Have you modified furniture for your van, or do you have questions on our approach?  Let us know in the comments below!


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