If you’re anything like me, the day you start thinking your furniture might need a makeover is also the day your mind becomes impervious to ANYTHING else. Once I decided to give my vintage dresser a refresh, I could not stop thinking about it, hatching the plan in my head while pretending to look at the TV above said-dresser. I’m sharing the detailed step-by-step of my Mid Century Modern dresser makeover so you can spend less time scheming, and more time enjoying the process. Refinishing furniture is so much fun, and ultimately a very rewarding weekend project!
This is my “Before”. It didn’t look that bad from afar. Good enough in fact that I had it in my living room for a few years before I realized the existing finish was in such a bad condition! The tabletop had become a real eyesore with white water stains and the veneer either cracking or peeling off.
No one could blame the quality of the piece of furniture. It’s a family heirloom, originally bought by my great-great-aunt, and had been in storage for a few years before it ended up in my house. It’s from the 1950s and there is zero doubt that the current varnish is the original finish. Considering that the finish is over 70 years old, it actually held up quite well until today!
Before & After
It was most certainly due to age, but the finish had turned yellow with a weird greenish tinge. The texture of the wood was also very rough. I couldn’t tell whether the finish deteriorated or – worse – if it was the wood veneer cracking up in deep ridges. So I went into this DIY with a fair bit of apprehension, a lot of determination, and a huge stash of sandpaper…
Spoiler: it turned out GREAT! I’m so in love with the dresser, I want to write poems about it.
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For this Mid Century Modern Dresser Makeover, you’ll need…
- Sander with different grits of sandpaper (from fine to rough)
- Microfiber cloth
- Wood paste
- Wood stain (get a zero VOC stain like Tried and True to prevent chemicals polluting your home)
- Protective finish (in matte or satin, again low-VOC is best!)
- Chalk paint
- Drawer pulls
Step 1: Clean & Sand
To start off, you need to take apart the dresser. If it only has drawers, pull them out and set them aside. If the dresser also has doors, you need to unhinge them to work on them separately.
Give the whole piece of furniture a good scrub with soapy water to remove the grime. Vacuum inside the drawers too to get rid of old dust. Leave the dresser to dry off completely before you continue.
Sanding can be a tad tricky. The aim is to remove the varnish and/ or paint. Most Mid-Century Modern furniture is clad in veneer (a thin layer of beautiful wood applied to the less aesthetic construction wood). So you can’t sand to your heart’s content, or you might go through the veneer!!
A good rule fo thumb here is to start with a fine or medium grit sandpaper. Try a 120 grit and see how it works. Is the finish coming off easily? Great, stay with that grit and sand off the whole piece. If nothing seems to be happening, swap the sandpaper for a rougher grit and try again. Change the sandpaper until you reach a grit that takes off the finish without eating through the veneer too fast.
Don’t forget to sand the drawers you set aside! 😉 If you have some painted areas you’d like to strip to show the wood grain, try to sand off most of the paint with your sander and use manual sanding blocks for hard-to-reach spots.
Tip: if even sanding blocks are too bulky, wrap a sheet of sandpaper around a thin piece of wood and use it as a wood file!
Step 2: Lift the Wood Fibers & Sand Again
Now that you’ve sanded the whole dresser, take a microfiber cloth and dip it into water. Wring it well and use this cloth to wipe the entire piece. Applying water to the newly-sanded wood will make the wood fibers swell. I know this sounds bad but it’s actually good!
The wood fibers are just laying flat after sanding. If you apply your stain right away, the fibers will stand up, and the wood’s texture will be quite rough. Moistening the wood fibers now to make them stand up will allow you to sand them. The texture of your finished piece of furniture will be SO much smoother after doing this!
Allow the wood to dry. You should be able to feel that the texture has become rougher than it was right after the first sanding. Change your sandpaper to a medium grit, 120 at most, and sand the piece all over again. This round of sanding should be much quicker than the first. Just lightly go over the wood with the sander. Use the palm of your hand to feel the texture and stop sanding as soon as you feel the wood is smooth again.
Step 3: Repairs and Touch-ups
Refinishing a vintage dresser likely means there’s more to be done than just sanding off a bad finish. The piece of furniture probably has scratches and bumps that need your attention. Watch the edges of the dresser, especially the corners, for peeling veneer.
To fix veneer issues, apply some wood filler over the offending area. Try to slather more wood paste than necessary so that you can sand it down later.
Let the wood paste dry according to the manufacturer’s instructions. When it’s done, use a sanding block to carefully sand down the paste. Sand until you reach the veneer. The wood paste should only fill areas where the veneer has peeled off.
Check the state of the drawers. It’s very common for drawers to be made from thinner wood and assembled with wood glue. Considering they hold up a charge, they’re more likely to bend or break down. If needed, replace the bottom sheet of wood or hammer a long piece of wood under the drawer bottom to strengthen it.
In my case, the wood for the drawers was in good condition but the glue had deteriorated so I used staples and thin nails to make sure the drawers were assembled more strongly.
Step 4: Paint (if needed)
To be honest, I wish I could have sanded the whole dresser down to show the wood grain all over. I do love painted furniture but I think Mid-Century pieces look so elegant when restored to their former glory – meaning no paint!
For this Mid Century Modern dresser makeover, I had to compromise because the drawers had been painted white and it would have been a complete headache to sand those tight corners. So I decided to paint them a muted sea green color (I would happily paint my whole house this color!)
Tip: paint your dresser before staining the wood that way, if you make a booboo, you can sand it off before staining. This takes a lot of pressure off painting and means you can choose to not use masking tape (yay!).
Step 5: Stain the Wood
It can be tricky to find the right stain. The color of the wood influences how the stain comes off, making it darker or lighter than intended, but you won’t know how the wood really looks until you’ve sanded the finish off.
I wanted a rich oak color but, in the uncertainty, got both a medium and dark oak stain. I thought that if the medium color ends up too light, I’ll mix in some dark oak. This is not exactly the most affordable option if you’re on a budget. In that case, sand a small corner of the piece beforehand so you have an idea of what’s hiding under the varnish. This will make your shopping for the perfect wood stain much easier.
To stain the wood, apply the stain by brushing along the wood grain. If you’ve applied too much stain, spread it with your brush or use a cloth to wipe the excess off.
If one coat of stain gives you the perfect color then stop there! I needed another coat to achieve the rich oak color.
Once the stain has dried thoroughly, use a sanding block to go over the wood. Don’t sand too much, you just want to equalize the color and smooth the wood fibers. Wipe the dust off with a cloth and apply a second coat of stain.
Step 6: Protect the Wood
Now that the wood is stained to perfection, it needs to be protected. You wouldn’t want to ruin all this hard work with water stains! Choose a wood finish that will protect the wood from staining while giving off low or zero VOC. It’s important to think about VOC emission (volatile organic compounds) because the dresser will live inside your house alongside you and your family. Some finishes, especially paint and wood finish, will release chemicals in your indoor air, essentially polluting the air you breathe in your home.
For this mid-century modern dresser makeover, I chose a low VOC food-safe satin sheen varnish. Ok, the whole piece doesn’t need to be coated in food-safe varnish but I thought it might be a good idea at least for the tabletop, in case someone puts down a piece of fruit or a cookie on top of it.
Step 7: Rebuild and Install New Hardware
Finally, the makeover is almost done. When your top coat has dried thoroughly, you can reassemble the dresser. Put the drawers back in place – and if you had taken out doors, place them back on their hinges.
No furniture makeover would be complete without a change of hardware! For this piece, I got some golden button pulls – here are some similar drawer knobs from Amazon!
Tip: Gold or brass hardware cannot fail you when you’re refinishing a Mid-Century piece.
That’s all! It was a great weekend project. You could finish it in a day if you wanted, I just took it at a leisurely pace because I wanted to enjoy every minute of it!
If you’ve never refinished furniture, it may seem like a lot work and, well, it kind of is! But being methodical and following clear steps makes the whole process flow smoothly.
I’m very happy about how this piece came out. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a family heirloom but I love seeing this dresser brought back to life, with its rich wood grain and smooth finish.