Dresser Restoration

The finished dresser back in our bedroom. Sigh, it puts our other furniture to shame now. My wife is now on a mission for unfinished night stands to receive the same treatment!

About a year and a half ago my wife and I decided to purchase a dresser. We were still living out of boxes and previously owned Rubbermaid stracking drawers in the closet. After a quick bit of Craigs List searching, we found a nice dresser we planned on eventually restoring to match the rest of our decor for a mere $40! Well, that dresser sat used, but un-restored in our bedroom until about two weeks ago when we decided to get to finally restoring it.

We weren’t really sure how long restoring a dresser would take, or how much effort was truly going to be involved in the process when we first started. Around 40 hours of labor and about $170 in equipment and new dresser hardware, here we are two weeks later and we’re finally finished. Let me tell you, if you want to restore a piece of furniture, a lot of hard labor is involved, but man, is it ever worth it!

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Here’s the breakdown of the entire process we used to restore this dresser:

  1. Strip the old finish and stain off as much as possible with Klean-Strip 15 minute paint stripper. This stuff is way toxic, so use in an area with good ventilation and wear rubber gloves. It works pretty well inspite of the complaints people give it on Amazon. My parents also used this to do their entire kitchen cabinets and it worked great there too.
  2. Sand all surfaces with 60 grit sand paper using an orbital sander (man did that orbital sander save some time!) to strip off the remaining stained wood layers and smooth out grooves left by sloppy scraping off of the stripper. I used about a pack and a half of 60 grit paper to finish this part of the job.
  3. After completing the stripping with the 60 grit sand paper, sand all the surfaces with progressively finer sand papers from 110 grit up to about 500 grit for a nice smooth surface. Still use the orbital sander as much as possible as it can save a ton of time and provide a smooth, even surface. You should only need one pack of each grade (110, 220, 500).
  4. Apply the stain pre-treatment. The dresser was made with some sort of maple from what we could tell and therefore needed to be treated like a soft wood for purposes of staining. We applied some Minwax stain pre-treater to prime the wood to accept the stain and then got right to the staining (staining needs to happen within 2 hours of applying the pre-treatment).
  5. Start applying coats of stain. We ended up using Minwax brand Polyshades Antique Dark Mahogony, which while gorgeous in the end is probably not the stain we would use on our next project. The Polyshades contains the stain and the polyurethane finish in one liquid, which sounds great at first, but causes problems the more coats you put on. Since the Polyshades contains polyurethane (a sealant and finish) you seal our wood with each coat – which prevents further stain penetration. You can sand it all down to the wood after each coat (and you should really) to expose the wood surface again, but in doing that why bother with the all-in-one stuff in the first place if you’re going to sand off your polyurethane finish? Next time we’ll just be using regular Minwax stain and finishing it with a separate polyurethane coating.
  6. Between each coat of stain sand with 000 grade or greater (we used 0000 grade) steel wool. The steel wool works well for better pressure distribution when hand sanding than sand paper, so I would recommend it over using a fine grain (1200+) paper. I tried the paper and wasn’t that happy with the results and eventually went back to the steel wool. Learn from my mistake though – don’t be afraid to “sand” with the steel wool until its smooth (you shouldn’t, or should barely feel the ridges from the brush strokes from the staining). Sand like you are polishing, even if the surface looks dull in the end. When you’ve finished sanding, just dust off the excess steel flecks and polish it with a shop towel to get most of the micro-dust off the surface.
  7. Once we finished with the coats of stain and sanding between, I sprayed on some Pledge and wiped it down. This got rid of all the dull areas left by the sanding and produced a gorgeous glossy result. I may go back over it with a different dark wood polisher made for protecting antique furniture to give it an even smoother look.
  8. After its all polished and shiny, add in your new hardware! We took in a drawer to compare hardware against the finished stain as well as an old piece of hardware to match screw hole distance for the handles. The hardware was by far the most expensive single portion of the entire job (about $90), but its worth it since either way you look at it, you’ve got a beautiful piece of furniture for a fraction of the price of a brand new, comparable piece.
Here’s the final shopping list:
  • Klean-Strip 15 minute Paint Stripper ~$20 at Home Depot
  • 60, 110, 220 and 500 grit sand paper for stripping and smoothing ~$20 at Home Depot
  • Minwax Polyshades Stain, Minwax Pre-treatment, brushes for application and 0000 grade steel wool ~$40 at Home Depot
  • New Dresser Hardware ~$90 at Lowes
Since my parents had just finished with refinishing their cabinets we were able to borrow some other ancillary materials for the stripping portion of the job and didn’t have to purchase them ourselves, but we needed to use the following:
  • Cheap paint brushes for applying the stain
  • Cheap plastic covering for the floor
  • Rubber gloves for use while stripping
  • Orbital sander
  • Eye protection goggles when sanding
  • Sanding blocks to make sanding a little easier
  • Paint Thinner to clean paint brushes after staining
  • Orbital buffer (not necessary, but helpful in the end for polishing the surface, this could also just be done by hand)
  • Blue shop towels to buff surface after using the steel wool between coats of stain
  • Soda, water and beer to keep hydrated and refreshed during the process – refinishing a piece of furniture is bloody hard work! 🙂
Hope this was both informative and inspirational to do your own furniture restoration project. There’s no need to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on beautiful furniture you can just as well accomplish yourself with a bit of elbow grease!

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