Project: Refresh a Wood Dresser

Sometimes I go on Craigslist and recoil in horror:

I see this sort of thing a lot. This is an Art Deco sideboard, the best feature of which was probably its pretty (possibly exotic) wood veneer, which is now covered in white chalk paint. Originally, this sideboard was a mass market piece of furniture and not a masterpiece so painting this isn’t exactly a tragedy in and of itself. It’s just that: 1) I would have painted it differently and 2) If the veneer was intact (as it seems to be), I wouldn’t have painted it at all. It just makes me wonder if people don’t realize how easy it is to make wood look 1000% better than it did before with very little effort. So I thought I’d show how I do it.

At some point I’ll do a post about how I make decisions about vintage furniture. There are a series of steps I go through to decide whether or not to buy something, whether to refresh it, refinish it or paint it and whether to keep it or sell it once I’m done. However, that’s not this post. For now let’s assume you have a piece of wood furniture that you want to keep, but is just looking a little rough around the edges. Like this one:

It looks pretty good from a distance, but this piece has several problems. First, it’s just dirty. I always assume these pieces have been in a basement somewhere and do you really want to put your clothes in that? Not me. Second, it has some obvious scuffs and scratches and wear marks. Here are a few examples of damage:

Definitely fixable with this method
Possibly fixable with this method
Definitely not fixable with this method

The first picture is just some kind of scuffy mark. It will come right off with steel wool. The second picture is a scuff with what is possibly veneer damage. I’ll just treat that and see how it looks when I’m done. The third picture is a gouge in the veneer. It’s deep, it’s ugly and it’s not going to be fixed today. If you have furniture with a lot of this type of damage, you’re probably going to either pass (not buy in the first place), refinish or paint. But since this is the only real blemish on this piece and I need storage, I’m not going to be too picky about this today.

Now, you’ll need to gather some supplies.

Here’s the supply list:

  • Disposable aluminum loaf pans from the dollar store
  • Baby oil from the dollar store (you can also get mineral oil at the hardware store, but baby oil works just fine)
  • Odorless mineral spirits (I use an environmentally friendly version that doesn’t stink)
  • Wood stain (probably several colors because the right color right out of the can is never going to happen, but I’m just showing one here)
  • WD-40 (because this piece has metal drawer gliders)
  • Paste wax (in the cleaning aisle at the grocery store or hardware store)
  • Lint-free paper painters cloths (not environmentally friendly, but you can’t wash Minwax-soaked towels or rags because they can spontaneously combust as they dry! True story! This happens! Bad!)
  • Rubber kitchen gloves
  • A screwdriver (for hardware)
  • 000 steel wool (sorry, not pictured since I had to send hubby out for more. Oops!)

The first step is to pull out the drawers and dust off the whole piece inside and out. You don’t want 70 years of accumulated dust on your clothes, right? I also use this step to check for sawdust (possible insect damage), loose screws on any metal drawer glides and to unscrew the hardware on the drawers. Old metal finishes could be damaged by the mineral spirits so you don’t want to leave hardware on.

Drawers, sans hardware, and gratuitous puggle picture

Then, pour a 50/50 blend of odorless mineral spirits and mineral oil (baby oil) into your aluminum pan. Here’s where I remove my jewelry and don gloves. I suppose you don’t technically have to, but mineral spirits dry out my hands. For this whole dresser, I maybe used half a cup of each.

Take one of your lint-free cloths and dip it in the mixture. Pick a less conspicuous spot (I usually use a back, bottom corner) and check to make sure the finish won’t be damaged by the mineral spirits and mineral oil. Most wood finishes will probably be fine, but if you’re working with a painted piece, you could have problems. Also, if it has a thick or yellowed finish, you’re probably looking at damaged polyurethane, in which case, the only thing you can do it strip it or paint it. Don’t use this method on polyurethane. You’ll just make scuff marks and it won’t help.

Next, get a piece of your steel wool in one hand and a lint-free cloth in the other. Working in sections, with the grain, apply a thin layer of the mixture with the steel wool and immediately wipe it off with the cloth, scrubbing lightly with the steel wool when you hit a spot that’s a little more stubborn. You’ll probably get something like this.

Here’s where I figured out that this was probably exposed to smoke in the past. This was on the side wall of the piece right in the middle–not a place that gets handled a lot. The reason this matters is that this information altered how I decided to treat this furniture. Typically, once I’m done cleaning a piece, it will get a couple thin layers of clear tung oil finish just to seal up the pores of the wood and provide it with some extra layers of protection. However, with a piece that has been exposed to smoke, I will often wait a couple of months, treat it with the mineral spirits/mineral oil again and then finish it. The reason is that the tar and soot has seeped into the wood and will need some time to work itself out. I don’t want to seal that junk into the wood so that’s why this piece won’t get that step today.

Anyway, continue to rub the mineral spirits/mineral oil over the whole piece, changing out steel wool and towels as they get too dirty to use. Once you’ve been over the whole piece, use just a little bit of mineral spirits on a clean cloth and wipe down the whole piece with it, just to get any extra residue left over. If it’s still really dirty, probably you need to go over the whole piece again with the steel wool.

Once it’s clean (drawers too), I like to coat the sides of drawers with paste wax. Often, especially in our alternately hot and humid and cool and dry climate in Virginia, expansion and shrinkage of wood with the seasons pulls the drawers a little out of square. These ones are in pretty good shape, but just so they don’t rub against the sides and bottoms of the inside of the cabinet, I apply this paste wax with a lint free cloth. This is the stinkiest step, but it’s not that bad. I did all of this inside the house with the windows open today.

Next, take your WD-40 and spritz a little on the tracks inside the case. This ones were especially squeaky and sticky so this made a huge difference to the function of the piece.

And that’s it! Just put your drawer hardware back on, put the drawers back in the case and your furniture is ready to use!

Now, just to go back to the spots above that we looked at in detail up top, here’s where we ended up.

I was pleased to discover, once I’d cleaned it all off, that I didn’t really need the stain on this piece. There are a couple of wear marks on the stringer at the bottom of the case, but I actually like that in a vintage piece so I left it. The one spot that needed some attention was the veneer damage on top so I took the cheater’s way out and used a stain marker. They have them at hardware stores and Home Depot.

It’s not great, but it was all I was willing to do today.

The other spots that I pointed out, though? Gone.

There’s a little bit of a dark spot, but nothing you’d notice form 5 feet away

Here’s the finished piece. By the way, this is a six drawer dresser from the Broyhill Brasilia collection made in 1962 in case anyone cares. I love the hardware and the top drawers especially.

Once I get it all loaded up and get the bookcases organized, I’ll take another picture. In the meantime, it’s a lot better than this:

Chester thinks so too.

This is a post from Pies and Puggles. Republishing this article in full or in part is a violation of copyright law. And it isn’t nice. © 2010-2013, all rights reserved.

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