San Diego County, CA, USA

Mid-Century Modern Dresser Makeover 

  A Modern Diy Furniture Makeover Tutorial 

A Step By Step Guide


mid-century modern dresser circa 1958

In 2010 I felt a shift towards simplification and I began the process of getting rid of my overly collected and decorated shabby chic style. I felt like life was closing in on me and I needed a new perspective. I wasn't sure which way I was headed until I came upon this piece during a day of yard shopping for $20.00 and couldn't pass it up. I really liked the classic, clean, simple lines and oh those legs. This was a massed produced piece from the 60's and it was in okay used condition but not perfect and it was definitely in the budget. I had been looking for something with storage to use as a stylish television/entertainment center.

I really like the lines and legs of mid-century modern furniture but I have never liked the orange or yellow varnish/oil finishes from that time period. It definitely dated this dresser. It was gorgeous hard wood with dovetail joinery and the high quality of the wood along with the perfect craftsmanship made this a perfect choice.

Now we need to talk about safety... before beginning any diy project make sure you have all the protective gear necessary for what you are going to do. 

I use protection for every project, no matter how small it is and so should you. These are my basics:

  • Safety glasses: use for every step.
  • Ear Protection
  • Chemical safe gloves: use for stripping, staining and sanding.
  • Respiration mask: use for stripping, staining, sanding and anything else that has a strong smell or non organic chemicals.

Diy Disclosure: Caution: All DIY projects involve some risk from the tools you use, project materials, your skill level and your surrounding work area. Please always use safety precautions when doing things yourself. Follow all tool manufacturer's operating instructions, practice safety precautions like using proper eye wear, ear and inhalation protection, etc. CHIC HOME | Sandra Shepard will not assume any responsibility or liability for damages or losses sustained or incurred in the course of your project or the use of the item you create.

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 water and Simple Green then 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 which is why I do most of my sanding my hand.

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.

note: I make sure I get double protection by purchasing sanders with a good dust trap/filter and I do wear a high quality disposable respirator mask when hand sanding. Mine is the DeWalt Orbital Sander purchased from near by Lowe's on sale.

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.

mid century dresser refinished with dark stain

If you aren't into stained furniture you could always paint or do a wash of half latex or acrylic paint in your choice of color and half water this 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. 

My stain of choice is Minwax and my color is Jacobean purchased at the local hardware store. Large can. 

The cost  $11.99 and had enough left over for two other projects.

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 for and maintain waxed wood furnishings. But it does require up keep and and will not protect against water stains.

If you want one a finish that seals and protects against everyday life with kids and pets you should probably choose a polyurethane.

I used Johnson Paste Wax on this piece. This wax has a strong chemical smell until it is dry. I left it in garage for a few days before bringing it in.

The cost $3.97

It has been a little over 8 years and it still looks beautiful.

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 few trips to the local hardware store looking for something in a bronze finish that would blend into the wood but everything was so chunky so 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.

The hardware was purchased at a near by Home Depot. I shop local because I like to support my community. 

The cost was $ 9.00

mid century dresser makeover drawer pulls

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.

dresser drawers close up

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. 

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 the affordable new stuff winds up in the dumps because it isn't made to last. 

GOOD manufacturing strategy... making products that are designed to fall apart and wear down every few years instead of it lasting through generations. 

VERY BAD for the environment.

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. The 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.

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

photo taken with a Canon Powershot 2011
The big art piece over the dresser is a modern Chic Home Diy

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

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