My Thank-God-It’s-Finally-Finished Dresser Rehabilitation Project

Well, my Craigslist dresser is finally finished and I’m excited to show you what I managed to accomplish. Despite some very real fears before I started, I managed to refinish my dresser and didn’t have to resort to painting it.

My Craigslist dresser

In case you missed my original post waaaayyyy back in October, here is what it looked like when I got it. It had great bones, but the missing veneer and other dings and scratches left the dresser looking very old and tired.

The damaged veneer along the top of my new dresser

The first thing I did was remove the entire front strip of veneer that was damaged. This was actually quite easy – I simply used a damp cloth to lay over the veneer, and then passed my hot iron over the cloth to moisten the glue. I then used a small putty knife to lift off the veneer. While the veneer did break up during this process I wasn’t concerned about it breaking as I wanted it all removed anyway.

After the first round of stripping

My next step was stripping the old varnish from the dresser. I’d never done anything like this before, and it was an adventure to say the least. First up – this is REALLY smelly, so if you’re going to do anything like this get a respirator. I got mine at Home Depot for about $45, and I’m sure I’ll use it for many projects after this one. The chemical stripper I used is Greensolv from Lee Valley Tools. It’s pretty easy to use – just paint it on, let it work and scrape it off. Through trial and error I discovered that a thicker coat works much better, as if you paint it on too thinly it will dry before it has a chance to work. Some of the areas I had to do a second time. This step took me a while as I did each side, the front, top and drawers on different days, and spaced the days out so my apartment didn’t smell like chemicals permanently. This is when I got my first ever chemical burn – I was wearing gloves as directed, but stupidly wore a short-sleeved t-shirt. As I was scrapping the stripper off the dresser some went flying and landed on my forearm. I wiped it off, but a few seconds later knew that it wasn’t enough, and spent the next 10 minutes running cool tap water over it. Luckily there was no permanent damage, but if I’m ever working with these chemicals again I will remember to wear long sleeves. Chemical burns hurt A LOT, so please if you’re ever using these chemicals learn from my mistake.

New Walnut wood veneer from  Lee Valley tools

Repairing the missing veneer was incredibly simple. I bought a strip of walnut veneer edge banding from Lee Valley tools, cut the length I needed and applied it. The veneer already has glue on it – all you need to do is lay a clean rag over the veneer, and then heat the veneer using your iron (my iron got more use on this dresser refinishing project than it has ever doing what it’s supposed to – ironing clothes). I had to do this step twice as on my first try the veneer shifted while it was ironing it. Luckily the edge banding is sold in 25’ lengths so I had quite a bit to spare. I also got the second burn of the project during this step – luckily this time it was only from the iron. After the veneer was glued on I trimmed the excess using an xacto knife, and then sanded the edges smooth.

I ironed the new veneer in place, trimmed off the excess and sanded the edges.

Next up was my big adventure with sandpaper. I used fine 220 grit sandpaper over the entire dresser to remove any leftover old varnish, and to smooth any other marks. There were some old long burn marks on the top of the dresser that I believe are from two cigarettes that was left burning. I sanded them as far as I dared, but in the end I was afraid to sand too much in case I went all the way through the veneer. I’ve decided I rather like the marks – it shows that this dresser has a bit of history.

Then came the scary part – adding stain. I spent quite a bit of time in the stain aisle at Home Depot debating which shade I wanted. I didn’t want anything too red, but I also didn’t want anything too dark. Given my inexperience with this type of project in the end I just picked the middle of three shades and hoped for the best.

I used Minwax Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner and Minwax Stain in Dark Walnut

Before adding the stain I gave the dresser a coat of pre-stain wood conditioner. I’ve never done anything like this before, so I can’t tell you if it made any difference over any other project, but I can say that the stain went on my old dresser quite easily and there was no streaking. You just paint on the pre-stain, let it soak in, and wipe off the excess. The directions say to stain within two hours of using the conditioner, and with lots of trepidation I approached my dresser with a foam brush dipped in the stain, and starting applying it. As with the wood conditioner you paint it on, let it soak in, and then rub off the excess with a clean rag. I liked it after the first coat of stain, but I did a second coat to deepen the colour just a little and I liked it even more.

After the stain was applied it was time for the protective finish. I used clear Polycrylic in a semi-gloss sheen, and if I were doing it again I’d probably go with a satin finish. This step took a little longer than the stain as I did three coats (sanding with a fine-grade sandpaper between). I found it really hard to get the finish to be perfectly smooth. Try as I might I couldn’t get all the brush marks out, but they’re only noticeable from an angle in certain light and I’m more than pleased with the finished product.

Here is the finished product (there are a few pictures – I hope I’m forgiven as I’m rather proud):

My newly refinished dresser

If I hadn’t told you I replaced the veneer along the top would you be able to tell?

So, what do you think? Was all the work, the fumes, the two burns and months of dodging dresser drawers in my dining room worth it? Are you tempted to try your hand at refinishing some furniture?

Linked to: {Primp}, The Shabby Nest, Chic on a Shoestring, Meg & Mum’s, The Girl Creative, Primitive and Proper, DIY by Design, AkaDesign, The CSI Project


  1. says

    Wow. Michelle, I think you should quit your day job tomorrow and do this for a living. SO impressive! Don’t apologize for being proud, you should be! The new veneer blends seemlessly.

  2. Glenda says

    It was worth every minute. I love this style of furniture, and you have turned this into a beautiful piece of furniture. Kudos to you!!

  3. says

    Oh, my gosh! I remember it! I had so hoped you wouldn’t paint it. And kudos to you for having the guts to jump in and try all these new things. It looks so fantastic. You should be very proud of yourself. I hope its beauty warms your heart every time you look at it!

    • Michelle says

      Hi May,
      I must admit, it’s still a little strange seeing the dresser in my bedroom, but I get a little smile of pride every time I see it.

  4. says

    Girl, that is gorgeous!!! Thanks so much for sharing all the steps you had to go through to get the dresser so beautiful. I would be scared like you to put the first brush of stain on the wood after you worked so hard to get the other stain off. Hope nobody else lets their cigarette burn into the refinished wood. I saw your post over at “Flaunt It Friday” blog party.

  5. says

    That is awesome! We inherited almost the exact same dresser from our home’s previous owners and it has chipped veneer as well. Looks like I know what my summer project will be. : )

  6. Mindo says

    What a lovely dresser and you did such a good job!

    Thanks for the step by step instructions, I’ve never tackled a project like this but you have given the confidence to try.

    • Michelle says

      Hi Paula,
      Actually I was only missing one of the medallions – I had all the rest of the pieces of the handle. All I did was go to Lee Valley Tools and find a pull that had a medallion that matched as closely as possible in size and colour to the originals.
      I’ll keep my eye out for another set of the original hardware, but for now I’m happy with the substitute.

  7. Paula says

    Nice, it’s not even remotely noticeable that you used a substitute.

    The Salvage Shop in on Kingston Rd E. has a whack of old hardware (and other cool stuff) , if you’re ever in the area.

  8. Fairfax Avenue says

    Was just introduced to your dresser at Better After and must compliment you on your efforts. The dresser looks great and inspires me to get to work on the one I have. It’s circa 1890, was refinished in the 1970s and that finish has clouded over. Cleaning and waxing have not worked. I see I’ll have to use patience for this, but your dresser makes me think I’ll be successful with time. Thanks for the detailed description of your work and advice to use a respirator.

    • Michelle says

      You’re very welcome, and good luck with your project. It is a lot of work, but the results are so worth it!


  9. teresa says

    I thought Id commented when I first read this. It’s a beautiful dresser and you deserve kudos for rescuing it. It’s the rare piece of furniture that needs painting and it takes an eye and a bit of determination to bring it back. Very elegant!

  10. says

    Hi Michelle! I remember your dresser from back in February (I left a comment on 2/10/12) and have thought about it during the year and what a great job you did when ever I need inspiration for finishing a piece of furniture. I saw you over at CSI project link party.

  11. Leticia says

    I just had to stop and congratulate you on the A-M-A-Z-I-N-G job you did. I came from AT, from your comment. It was a pretty decent dresser before, but you took the time to bring it back to glory.

  12. says

    Over here from AT… I didn’t get much further than this:
    “This was actually quite easy – I simply used a damp cloth to lay over the veneer, and then passed my hot iron over the cloth to moisten the glue.”

    I have been ironing the heck out of a beautiful veneered table I rescued from beside the road. Got off 80% of it… the rest seems to be glued for eternity.

    Any other ideas for removing persistent veneer? If I can’t come up with a workable solution, I’ll have to use the machinery (sorry don’t know the english word for it… grinder, maybe?)

    Kudos for that dresser… looks fantastic.

    • Michelle says

      I didn’t have any trouble with mine, but it might have been the glue that was used on my piece that made it easy.
      I know some people use a heat gun to help remove veneer, but I’d be a little wary of going that route – scared I’d burn the wood. Is there a woodworking or furniture store near you that you could ask for ideas? I know Lee Valley here has very helpful sales staff that are always willing to give tips.
      I think if I were in your shoes, and if I couldn’t get the veneer bits off I’d probably resort to sanding them. I’d probably start with hand sanding, and then try a palm sander if that didn’t work.

      Good luck with your project!

  13. Kimberly Outen says

    Incredible job! I was doing a “vaneer repair” search and came to your blog. I have a complete bedroom set waiting to be done. I had actually considered having a professional look at it (even though I am a notorious DIY’r) but I do believe that I am going to go the extra mile out of my comfort zone and repair the vaneer myself, on all pieces. I’m kind of thinking along the lines of your original post on your dresser though… “What am I getting myself into” :/

    Nice job!!! Thanks for the inspiration to take on my Summer Project for 2013!

    p.s. How long did this piece take you to complete?

    • Michelle says

      Hi Kimberly,

      Yay for DIY-ers! It is a hugely daunting project, but the results are so worth it! As for how long it took, well it was few weeks, however keep in mind that I had to work indoors, so I spaced out the steps by a day or two to allow the odors of the stripper, etc. to dissipate before moving on. Also, I’m a rather huge procrastinator :)
      For a big veneer job I’d seek out a professional, but for smaller things like edging it’s a lot easier than I though it would be and something I’d encourage others to try – what’s the worst that can happen? If you screw it up you can get a professional to fix it, but at least you will have tried!

      Good luck, and let me know how it goes!



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