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How to Refinish Old Wood Furniture

Mid-Century Modern Dresser Makeover 

 A Modern Diy

originally posted in June 2011      

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I found it at a yard sale for $20.00 and couldn't pass it up. I really liked the classic, clean, simple lines and legs. This was a massed produced piece from the 60's and it was in good used condition but not perfect and it was definitely in the budget. I had been looking for something to set the t.v. on with storage.

stained it in what is now my favorite deep chocolate stain. Although I really like furniture from this period, I have never liked the orange or yellow varnish finish they used on furniture of that time period. It definitely dated this piece. 

These are my six basic steps that I use on my wood furniture. If you stick to the basics it gets the job done. It isn't always easy but I know you can do it!

 Step #1     Cleaning

I washed the entire dresser with 50/50 solution of Simple Green and let it dry thoroughly. It was coated in nicotine, one of the perks of buying vintage furniture and old houses. It also had some staining on the top and I couldn't tell what it was so after it had dried I did a little test sanding of the finish on the back corner of top. This piece was finished in a matchbook veneer which means the grain matches all across the front if you get the drawers in the right order.

Good news: it could be sanded.
Bad news: it definitely needed to be stripped first because of the veneer I couldn't be overly aggressive with the sanding and I noticed some dark spots on the top which turned out to be oily stains that had penetrated down into the wood.

Step #2     Sanding

I started out sanding using 80 grit sanding blocks and my little buddies the orbital sander and the mouse sander. When you are working with veneer go easy, veneer is a thin decorative wood that is applied to the outer surfaces and you don't want to go through the veneer while sanding.

I did a second sanding with 120 grit. Always sand in the direction of the grain and be sure you use sanders with the dust collector and always wear masks and protective eye wear. I like hand sanding better because there is more control and less chance of making a mistake but I also have learned to love my orbital sander. Clean off sanded piece before next step, I use by air hose to blow it off and then I use a tack cloth which you can find at most hardware stores.

Step #3     Staining

I usually have my favorite stain in mind for a piece before I start the project, but when I first started refinishing furniture I picked up smalls of all the stains I liked and tested them on different types of wood so I had stain boards that I keep adding to with the maker, color and number next to each one for future reference.

Before beginning I usually take a little stain and find a tiny spot on the top edge in the back for testing just to be safe. Be sure to follow directions on the can of the product you use. You can use a brush to apply stain or I save old t-shirts and use them to apply the stain.

If you aren't into stain you could always paint or do a wash of half latex or acrylic paint in your chose of color and half water. It allows the grain to show through. Do your finish sanding and a test area before you paint. If you want more coverage use less water. 

Step #4   Finish Sanding

I did a light sanding of all stained areas with 220 grit sandpaper to close up the grain.

Step #5   Wax on Wax off

To seal and protect there are different types of finishes you can use; oils, waxes, polyurethane. My personal preference for my own pieces is a paste wax. I like the hand rubbed finish and I grew up learning how to care of and maintain waxed wood furnishings. But it does require up keep and stains when wet. If you want one to seal and protect that can handle everyday life with kids and pets you should probably choose a polyurethane.

Step #6   Hardware

I cleaned up and put the original drawer pulls back on and brought it in but they just didn't do anything for me except detract from the beauty of the wood. I took a trip to the local hardware store looking for something in a bronze finish that would blend into the wood but everything was so chunky. I finally settled on some sleek, thin modern looking pulls in a black finish for the outside drawers and matching knobs for the center drawers. They blend in so perfectly that when you are looking at it you don't even notice them unless you are up close.

After 2 weeks of stripping, hand sanding, staining and waxing...Voila! 

The stain brings out the best in any wood piece and I kind of have a thing for wood-grains. 

Updated: 5/8/19

We have moved 4 times since then and I still love it! I am currently using it as a dresser in the master bedroom because I found another piece to redo for the t.v., that will be in another post. It still looks as beautiful as the day I finished it.

Pictures are from 2011 and my Canon 8 mp.

Those are the basic steps I use for refinishing wood furniture. If you need any help let me know. All of my projects serve as therapy and stress relief from a crazy day. I was usually in a quiet garage or work room when the kids were in bed or at school and the hubs was asleep on the couch. Ahhhhhhh

Side Note:

This dresser was manufactured in Los Angeles in the 60's with wood grown in America. It has been around 60 yrs and will still be here 60 years from now as long as it is cared for and that is what I love about buying vintage furniture and fixing it up. There is very little affordable high quality furniture being made anymore and most of it winds up in the dumps because it isn't made to last. 

If I wanted to buy new or replace this piece with something that was the same quality, same size, it would cost me well over $1,000.00 in today's market.Total cost for me was sixty five dollars and my time. I would say that was well worth my effort and I created a new family heirloom.

example: Tate Crate and Barrel

Photo from Crate and Barrel

I always like to look for like items when I am finished for replacement value, it gives me validation for all of that sweat equity. Seriously I scoured the internet and after eliminating all of the "assembly required" choices, this is the closest I could find to the size and measurements of mine. $1,499.00 

The thing is it is irreplaceable because it's a one of a kind. I will never see one in any magazine or in anybody else's house and that is exactly what I love about my kind of style!

Have fun with it and amaze yourself and your family at how thrifty, artistic and chic you are!

My techniques can be used to transform any of your diys into any style you are interested in just my changing up stain color, painting instead of staining, changing out the hardware and putting your own flair on all of your projects. 

{If you have questions about how to achieve your look on something you are working on or need help figuring something out just leave a comment or drop me an email in contact form in footer.}

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