How to Refurbish an Old Dresser

Learn how to give an old piece of furniture new life using a combo of paint and stain.

Furniture rehab happiness. That’s what this post is about.

It’s also a little bit about making the most of junk that you’re hiding in the attic, basement or just out of sight. One of my hidden gems was an old dresser, something I acquired from my first-ever apartment. I’m not sure who it originally belonged to (not me or my then-roommate) but all I knew is at the time, being only two months out of college, was that I was willing to take as much f-r-e-e furniture as I could find.

Today, I’m taking it from this, to this. Hello, transformation.

I was inspired by a few different real-life designs, but let me back this thing up for a second…

This six-drawer dresser is in awesome shape. Strong construction (entirely hardwood), functional drawers, very stable and (from experience) can hold a lot of shirts. It had a thick manufacturer’s finish that gave it a melamine-gloss/white-washed look and chunky drawer pulls that dated it, but it had potential. I wish I had snapped a picture when I acquired it in 2006, but instead, I borrowed a power sander as fast as I humanly could and went wild baring its natural hardwood grain and texture. I refreshed it at that time with a coat of stain ($1 “oops” stain, again, take what you can get) and gave it a new, rich dark-brown lease on life. It served me well for several years.

This was my master bedroom dresser until I upgraded last year. It was then relegated to the guest room, lost its knobs to something else, and was left to serve the almighty purpose of storing my gift wrapping supplies. A demotion in the life of a dresser. And that’s why rehabbing this dresser has been another thing on my real-life to-do list. I’d like guests to have a place to tuck belongings away.

I scoured design sites and aggregators for reference and inspiration (Pinterest is a fave). Knowing that I wanted to preserve some of the stained wood finish, this dresser by Steph from BirdHouse really struck a chord. She did an amazing job, and I aspired to have half-as-cool a finished piece as she did. (Brava, girl!)

Landing on a similar combo of glossy white paint and dark brown stain, I dove in.

I began by repairing the previous drawer-pull holes with wood filler; the old knobs had left a bit of damage, and I decided that it would be easier to have a clean slate.  I used the wood filler generously, making sure to fill the hole as best I could, and smoothing it over with a putty knife. Truth be told, I could open and close the drawers without pulls, so new ones weren’t even going back on the dresser.

Left to dry overnight, it was ready to be sanded in the morning. I used a low-grit sandpaper to buff it down, and a higher-grit to smooth it out until the filler was imperceivable to the touch.

With the surface well-cleaned, I taped off parts of the drawers; my vision called for glossy-white drawer fronts, but because some of the drawers have a lip, I decided to leave those raised accents brown to create a little delineation between each drawer. Blue painter’s tape worked well, and adhered for days as I took my time adding four coats of Rust-Oleum oil-based Protective Enamel in Glossy White to have as pristine-and-brushstroke-free a look as possible. Fair warning: use this paint in a well-ventilated area. Its fumes are vicious in the house. 

Side note: Sand lightly with a high-grit sandpaper between each coat to level out the surface. It helps a lot.

My patience in applying those four coats paid off. They looked pretty.

For my dresser, I opted for a two-step process involving Rust-Oleum Ultimate Wood Stain in Dark Walnut, and a glossy clear coat of Ultimate Polyurethane.

The stain went on very evenly after lightly sanding and cleaning the entire unit. This particular product is a favorite of mine, through no endorsement; I used it when I did a recent shiplap accent wall in my dining room, and in addition to being very even in application (more so than other products I’ve tried), it dries lighting fast. Well, almost lighting fast, as in, the tackiness of the stain is gone after about one hour, which is about 23 hours faster than most other stains I’ve tried.

I am aware of the art of staining and appreciate all of the steps that go into timing absorption, wiping it down, reapplying, re-wiping it down, etc., but in this case, taking it only a slightly deeper shade of brown, I didn’t bother to engage in the art; I brushed it on lightly and evenly like paint, and left it to dry.

After it dried, I applied two coats of polyurethane and it began to look really good. Felt really good too, thanks to the glossy clear coats. I could drop a glass of milk on this thing without causing a serious issue, so hopefully it’ll be more prepared to withstand whatever future use, kicks, bumps, spills are in store for it.

The drawers received a similar staining and polyurethaning treatment as the dresser. Each exposed hardwood edge along the already-white front panels received a dark walnut touch-up.

Once drawers were back in place, I got my first real look at how the newly rehabbed piece looked reassembled. That’s me, happy, on the deck, with the dresser. This is where I begin to wonder what my neighbors think of me posing in the yard with the tripod next to plants and furniture by myself. They’ve never asked, I’ve never explained.

Back in the guest room, it looks great. It definitely went from being a dingy piece to something I wasn’t embarrassed about, and it is sort of lighting a fire under my behind to get the other sloppy elements of the room pulled together. Guests like a little oasis, no? We’re getting there.

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