Project 1: Refinishing a *Thinly* Veneered Dresser

As promised, I’m here to spill all the details of how my first home-related project went . . . the highs, the lows, and all the in-betweens.  As you know (if you’ve been paying attention), I started with this:

A dresser covered in thin veneer, but nevertheless with a great timeless mid-century style.  So I gathered my supplies (there’s a list of all the supplies at the end of the post in case you’re interested in the details) . . .

And then I took these steps to get to my final product . . .

Step 1: Do Your Research  When starting any new project, I always Google the hell out of it; meaning I try to research it to within an inch of its life so that, god forbid, I don’t make a single mistake, but instead do everything perfectly.  And that is why I rarely start new projects–my research usually makes me too scared of somehow screwing up and ruining my life (no seriously–sometimes I get that dramatic about it).  BUT, now that I have the Mr. by my side with his carefree, devil-may-care attitude, I’ve learned to loosen up and just go for it.  What’s the worst that can happen, right?  If I ruin a $50 Craigslist dresser, my life will not end.  Or at least the Mr. promises me it won’t.

So for this project, I just did some basic research instead of getting bogged down in all the possible variations for refinishing a dresser (there are lots, btw, so this is just the route I chose, and I’m making no affirmative statement that it is the best way–it’s really just one way).  For this project, I searched “how to refinish a veneer dresser” and I ended up at YHL’s site to see their nursery dresser overhaul, but also at Minwax’s site for a video tutorial on refinishing.  The video gave some very useful advice for testing what kind of finish your furniture piece has–shellac or polyurethane, and then gave you steps (albeit only using Minwax products) for how to proceed; in short, I’d recommend watching it before embarking on any refinishing adventure.

Step 2: Determine Furniture Finish and Plan of Attack  The video advised using nail polish remover and a cotton ball to test what type of finish was currently on the furniture (of course, that’s only if you plan to remove the finish; if, instead, you want to restore some luster to the existing finish, just rub on Tung Oil–I definitely plan to try that route in the future on a piece that doesn’t need a whole new look, but just a good shine).  Once you know the finish, if you then wanted to use a chemical stripping agent, you’d know which one to buy.  If the cotton ball ends up looking dirty and pulling up some of the finish, then that means the piece was covered in shellac or lacquer and you would need a product like Formby’s Refinisher to dissolve the old finish; however, if the cotton ball stays clean, that means the piece is covered in polyurethane, and so you need a paint and poly remover like this one.  Your local hardware store experts can guide you to the products and materials you need, but at least this test allows you to go to the store armed with some information.

I used some cotton swabs (we didn’t have any cotton balls) and some of the Mr.’s nail polish remover ;) to test the top and sides of the dresser.  Since the cotton swabs got dirty (see that black stuff?  that didn’t come out of the Mr.’s ears), I knew then that the dresser was covered in shellac or lacquer.

Nail Polish Remover Cotton Ball Test

But, I wasn’t sold on the idea of using a solvent to strip the dresser.  See, I already owned an electric sander and the sandpaper, and I was trying to stay on the cheap end of things (and also the lazy end of not wanting to drive out to our local Lowe’s for more supplies).  So I figured I might as well go the sanding route and just see what happened–if I ruined the thin veneer, then I would just paint the dresser and consider it a good lesson learned for the future.  So there it was–my plan of attack: sand off the dresser’s finish to get down to the bare wood veneer, stain it, poly it, and enjoy!  (Even though my inspiration pieces were painted white, I decided initially that I wanted to keep the whole piece natural wood if possible; as you’ll see, everything didn’t quite go as planned . . . )

Step 3: Clean the Dresser Before I started, I gave the dresser a quick wipedown with just a damp rag, removed the drawers, and removed all the drawer pulls.  This way, I was set to start sanding.

Step 4: Sand.  Keep sanding.  Sand some more.  Soak your arm in ice water.  Here’s where we bring in the power tool: the electric sander (insert your own Tim the Toolman grunt here).  Oh, and of course–safety first!  Make sure you wear eye protection and a face mask so that you don’t get lungs full of sawdust.  Plus, this is a messy job, so do it outside or in a garage; definitely don’t tackle this inside or else you’ll have sawdust EVERYWHERE.

Start with the 100-grit sandpaper (quick sandpaper lesson: most of you probably know this, but the numbers on sandpaper tell you how rough it is–the lower the number, the rougher the grit, and the faster it will sand down whatever it is you’re sanding).  Keep in mind that you don’t want to be too aggressive with the sanding since the veneer is very thin, and you don’t want to sand right through it.  And always sand in the direction of the wood grain–in the case of the drawers, this meant I sanded everything lengthwise.

Since I started off nervous about sanding through to plywood, I applied almost no pressure, but then I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere (let me tell ‘ya–after an hour, that was an awesome realization).  It was only when I got to the 6th drawer that I finally got somewhere . . . I had been so gentle on the other drawers that I hadn’t really changed their appearance at all.  With the 6th drawer, though, I decided to go a little harder and then I saw this:

See the difference?  Now I knew what the bare wood looked like (the areas on the left above), and that it meant I needed to get rid of all the shiny stuff, not just rough up the shiny stuff (the stain won’t be able to penetrate unless it’s bare wood).  This may seem obvious to all of you, but at the time I was just playing it safe, so forgive me for being slow.  Anyways, now I knew the goal–get rid of the dark, shiny stuff; this meant I had to redo all the drawers.  Awesome.  But finally, after my arm was practically numb, all six drawers were looking shellac-free . . .

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything was perfect.  There were definitely some areas (particularly along the edges) where the veneer had pretty much disappeared:

But with all my chillaxing lessons from the Mr., I wasn’t worried.  I figured it just gave the dresser some character.

Next up, sanding the dresser and all the nooks and crannies.  I used the electric sander for the sides of the dresser, but I had to hand sand the curves on the front of the piece along with the rounded legs.  Here’s a shot of the side halfway through sanding–note again the difference between the lighter left side and the darker, still-shellac-covered right side:

Even though the top of the dresser seemed quite different than the rest of the piece, I still decided to try and sand it.  First with 100-grit sandpaper, but after seeing no progress, I switched to a stronger, 60-grit paper.  But, something still didn’t seem right.  For one, the dust was all white.  I’m not 100% sure, but I think the top may have just been some type of laminate.  Here’s what it looked like after my sanding attempts:

Not quite what I was hoping for . . . :(.  But oh well, right?  It’s just a dresser–no use crying over it!  So I just changed my plan–I decided I’d paint the top white, in which case the sanding wasn’t a complete waste of time since it was a necessary step so that the primer would stick to it, but more on that in a bit.

Once I sanded everything down with the 100-grit sandpaper, I then switched to the 220-grit in order to get a really smooth finish.  Using the 220 went much faster since I had already sanded off everything I was trying to remove; the 220 was just to get it as smooth as possible.

Step 5: Apply Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner (Optional)  Once all the sanding was done (it probably took me about 5-6 hours with quite a few breaks thrown in so I could regain feeling in my hands), I wiped down the pieces with a barely damp rag (if you wipe down sanded wood with a soaking wet rag, chances are you’ll raise the wood grain and have to sand the whole thing over again–so consider yourself warned).  I then decided to apply Minwax’s Water-Based Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner to all the surfaces I planned to stain.

Why?  One of two reasons:

  1. Either I’m a total sucker–see, the directions on the back of the Minwax can of stain suggested using the company’s Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner to ensure that the stain went on smoothly instead of splotchy (is that a word?).  And so sometimes I like to follow directions to the letter, which therein led me to buy the Wood Conditioner on a whim when I was at Lowe’s; OR . . . 
  2. The Wood Conditioner ensures that the stain gets soaked into the wood evenly, thereby avoiding any darker or lighter spots (again–this is what the can told me would happen).
So, did it help?  Well, it’s hard to tell because I didn’t try staining any pieces without it.  However, in the end, I thought the stain went on pretty evenly, but whether that was a result of the wood conditioner or not, I guess we’ll never know.  Maybe next time I tackle a similar project I’ll skip this part and let you know what happens.  Either way, I loved how the wood conditioner made the wood look–just check out the difference between the unconditioned drawers (on the left) and the conditioned ones (on the right):
And check out the side of the dresser in all its conditioned goodness . . .
Nice, huh?  So how do you do it?  Well–use a foam brush to apply a heavy coat of the wood conditioner in the direction of the grain (it’s milky white in color).  Then, let it sit for a few minutes (the directions advise anywhere from 1-5 minutes; I left it on for 3 minutes) so that it can soak in.  It will look like this during the soaking-in process:

Once the time is up, use one of your painter’s rags to wipe off the excess.  Be sure to wipe in the direction of the grain.  Then, let the Wood Conditioner set for at least 30 minutes before moving on to the next step.  Make sure you apply it to every part that you plan on staining; for me, this was everything except the very top of the dresser.

Step 6: Apply Stain  Once the Wood Conditioner has set, it’s time to get your stain on.  Now, there are lots of stain options out there: oil-based, water-based, and gel stains to name a few.  I decided to just use what I had on hand, which was a Minwax water-based stain in American Walnut.  I wanted a deep, chocolatey brown and this fit the bill.  Plus, since I already owned it, it was free.

But, Minwax has lots of color options and there are tons of other stain companies as well, so don’t feel limited.  The Mr. even suggested that we go with something more vibrant, like Sangria, but I shot that idea down.

Sorry Bunches–maybe next time?

Once you’ve picked out your stain, you need to ready your staining area.  Make sure your piece is on top of something that you don’t care about (I used some old moving boxes) and that you’re wearing old clothes.  Since water-based stain is pretty runny, it can end up anywhere.  Again, consider yourself warned.  Make sure you have your painter’s rags (or cut-up old t-shirt) handy, and rubber gloves aren’t a bad idea here either (and definitely a must if you’re using oil-based stain).  Then, just apply the stain with a foam brush in the direction of the grain and keep an eye on your watch.  Here’s a shot of the stain soaking into the drawer:

I let the stain soak in for 3 minutes before wiping it off with a rag that was lightly dampened with the stain.  I used light pressure to wipe off the stain so that I didn’t remove too much, and I wiped in the direction of the grain.  Here’s the after shots:

Do the same thing for all the drawers and for the dresser.  Try to allow the stain to soak in for the same amount of time everywhere (this means you have to apply it to just a few areas at a time–two drawers, or one whole side, etc.) and apply even pressure when you wipe off the stain in order to discourage any blotchiness or uneven spots (hopefully the Wood Conditioner helps here).  Let the stain cure up for at least 2 hours before deciding whether or not to do a second coat.  Here’s what the dresser looked like after one coat of stain:

You can tell from the last picture that it was a little blotchy in spots.  I think that was probably due to the fact that I got a little lazy with my sanding–particularly on the legs and curvy parts of the dresser.  And it really wasn’t as dark as I wanted it, so I decided to do a second coat.  I followed the same procedure as before–apply, let sit for 3 minutes, and wipe away with even pressure.  After two coats, I was left with this:

Much better, don’t you think?

Step 7: Prime and Paint Top of Dresser  Since the top of the dresser was covered in some type of laminate, I ended up having to paint it.  Once I had sanded it down, I then primed it with Kilz Oil-Based Primer with a foam brush (I hate cleaning brushes after using oil-based paints, so I always use foam ones so that I can just throw them away).

Make sure you apply a thin, even coat.  It doesn’t need to totally block out the dark laminate underneath, but instead you just want to make sure it covers the entire surface so that your paint has something to grab ahold of.  Once it’s dry (I let it dry overnight), do a quick sand of it with 220-grit sandpaper to make sure there are no brush marks.

Then, apply light, even coats of the latex paint of your choice (I used Lowe’s Olympus low-VOC paint in Semi-Gloss in the off-the-shelf white).  And I used a foam roller to apply it so that there were no visible brush strokes (thanks for the hint Carrie!).  You have to apply thin coats though, and do enough to get the coverage you want (I went a little overboard and did 7 separate coats–yes, I’m crazy).  You only need to wait about 30 minutes between coats of paint, though, so it’s not that bad; just wrap your roller in plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge so the paint on it doesn’t dry out (it’ll actually last days like that; the same trick works for paintbrushes as well).

Step 8: Wait Two Days.  ‘Nough said.

Step 9: Apply 2 Coats of Polyurethane.  After you’ve let the dresser cure up for at least two full days, it’s time to add some shine to your piece.  I wanted it nice and glossy, so I chose to use Minwax’s Water-Based Polycrylic Protective Finish in Clear Gloss.  Make sure to apply the polyurethane in a well-ventilated area (open garages are perfect for this).  Apply a thin coat with a foam brush or roller, making sure to not go back over what you just covered or else you’ll leave rough patches.  So just resist the urge!  If you do end up with any rough patches though, just let it dry, and then sand the area with 220-grit paper, wipe off the dust, and do another coat of poly.

Allow your first coat to dry for at least 5 hours before applying another coat.  Check out how nice and shiny the drawers looked while drying . . .

Step 10: Wait 3 Days. Add Drawer Handles.  Enjoy!! Once you’ve finished with the two coats of polyurethane, allow the pieces to dry and cure for at least 3 days–that will make sure the surface is good, hard, and strong.  Then, add your hardware, put the drawers back in, and sit back to marvel at what you’re hard work has accomplished . . .

So what do you think?!  Do you like it?  I’ll show you how I made the drawer handles in another post, but for now, here’s the total cost breakdown for my first project:

  • Electric Sander: (already owned–bought it at Walmart years ago, but it’s similar to this one for $45)
  • Sandpaper, 100-grit and 220-grit: (already owned)
  • Painter’s Rags: (already owned; alternatively, just cut up an old t-shirt since that’s all Painter’s Rags are anyways)
  • Minwax Water-Based Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner: $11.87
  • Minwax Water-Based Wood Stain in American Walnut: (already owned)
  • Kilz Interior Oil-Base Primer: (already owned)
  • Olympic Low-Voc Semi-Gloss Interior Latex Paint in White: $10.47
  • 6″ Foam Roller: $4.97
  • 6 Pack 2″ Foam Paintbrushes: $3.58
  • Painter’s Mask: (already owned)
  • Eye Protection: (already owned)
  • Minwax Water-Based Polycrylic Protective Finish in Clear Gloss: (already owned)
  • White pleather belt: $2.50
  • Aluminum post screws for handles: $13.68
Total cost, including the $50 for the dresser, was $97.07.  And from start to finish, it took about a week (that includes all the drying time), but real work time was probably ~14 hours.  Not bad, right?
One last look back–I started here . . .
. . . and ended here:
So there you go–a 10-step program for refinishing a dresser . . . and in only 3,063 words!  Phew.
Update: The finished dresser is now the changing table in Mini B’s nursery.  Check it out here.
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