before and after

before & after: refinished dresser

by Kate Pruitt

In many ways, “makeunders” are much more difficult than makeovers. I’ve passed up many a promising chair or table simply because I cowered at the thought of all the stripping and sanding required to bring the piece back to life. I admire those determined individuals who follow through on a refinishing project, and I love seeing the beautiful results. This dresser looks so much better after all the love and effort that Vanessa put into it. This project must delight all you wood purists out there; I would never have guessed that the wood grain on this piece was so stunning. I think I’m fully convinced that my next project should finally be a refinishing one. Great job, Vanessa! — Kate

Have a Before & After you’d like to share? Shoot me an email with your images right here! (Low res, under 500k per image, please.)

Read the full post after the jump . . .

Time: 12–16 hours

Cost: $100 ($75 for the dresser, $25 for paintbrush, sandpaper, stripper and clear Minwax finish)

Basic Steps: I found the piece at the William Temple House Thrift Store in Portland, Oregon. Although it doesn’t show up in the before picture, it was really a greenish color. The finish had cracked, and as my neighbor mentioned, it looked like alligator skin. I believe that it is birch, just a veneer, and not really a fantastic piece of furniture, but it has a nice shape.

I started stripping the old finish using that nice smelling orange stuff but was not making much headway. So I went back to the store for that really stinky paint stripper, but unfortunately, I still didn’t get much relief. The whole thing needed to be stripped three times (my technique is probably not quite right). Also, although I know I’m not supposed to, I took the hose to it a couple times to get the stripper off. Scraping was causing its own damage, and sanding was taking forever.

Luckily it’s warm here right now in Portland, so I got it to dry completely out in the sunshine before I did my final sanding. After that, I put the Minwax on it, two to three coats, and those wild stripes showed up. I lucked out with the handles, which are a beautiful brass, and my copper polish did the trick to bring out their luster.

My advice is to do this outdoors: Having access to a workspace is imperative. The process made quite a mess and smelled bad. Also, it was suggested to me that I give it one more sanding with a 770-grade paper and finish it again with a wax finish. Even though it looks pretty, it is not smooth to the touch, and that is the nice part of having wooden things around — they feel good. So I think I will definitely do that! — Vanessa

Suggested For You


  • WOW! It looks amazing! Wood purist over here, so I have to admit I usually cringe at makeovers that involve teal paint, ombre effects, and the like. But this is gorgeous! Love the deco styling. Well done, Vanessa!

  • Its amazing how much the wood surface improved after the refinishing process. Usually, people have to paint to refinish. But somehow, the natural state of the dresser was transformed into a dresser that looks not only gorgeous, but of very high-quality.

  • When I saw the picture, and before I read the related blurb, I figured this was going to be yet another “before and after” featuring mid-century modern with a bunch of brightly colored paint thrown on it. My eyes literally popped when I saw the after shot. What a beautiful job you did. Simply BEAUTIFUL!!!!!!

  • WOW. What a beautiful piece. And I appreciate Vanessa’s use of the hose (I’ve done that before too); sometimes you have to figure out the best way to get the job done, and it’s the opposite of what someone might tell you.

  • So gorgeous! I am so daunted by stripping that I inherited a nakashima chair with one leg stripped, and that is how it remains. This is such a testaments to the value of lovely wood!

  • Its beautiful. Way to go on keeping the original charm of the dresser. The direction of the grain is beautiful and you found a way of accenting it instead of just painting over it.

    Great work! Ill definitely be trying something similar in the future after seeing this.

  • Very nice! I bought an old church pew that needs a face lift. I’ve been debating on whether or not to paint or refinish. You make me want to try refinishing.

  • That looks great. My Mom was an antique dealer for many years and did her own refinishing. You MUST do it outside if you use the really strong stuff and wear rubber gloves. It will burn your hands. (but it works the best) Let it do it’s job and wait for it to work before scraping, but don’t let it sit so long that it dries on the piece. Rinse with water but be very careful. Veneers will peel if you are not careful. I give her credit for tackling a veneer piece. My Mom tried to stay away from those, but I had great luck with refinishing veneered pieces.

  • Beautiful job guy! even though its not a new color being slapped on but the natural wood color plus some touch up looks fabulous ;) Great post guys!

  • Great job! I’d love to see a DS tutorial series on wood refinishing. Anyone know of any good reference sites around the web that breaks down the steps/options?

  • Longtime reader… this is definitely my favorite dresser makeover ever. So nice to see such beautiful grain versus the normal paint job.

  • It’s like taking care of an aging loved one….You did a beautiful job and should be commended.

  • You did an amazing job! So happy to see you didn’t throw a chevron stripe on it or uber-girly knobs. You stayed true to the piece and it looks incredible.

  • yes, it is WOW and a transformation but now I remember why people paint over
    the veneered MCM pieces like that rather than go thru the ordeal of 3 strippings and the horrible toxic mess that it creates…..which all gets washed down into
    somewhere by the way.
    I had to smile about the hosing bit as that is a sure fire way to swell the wood
    and get the drawers to stick/jam …that has happened to me many times and it
    involved lots of time to remedy. Also, surprised that a veneered piece held up
    under the hose glue wise. In spite of all this, I am inspired by the beauty and
    may for looking for …ha….something like this…just a little bit smaller.

  • Beautiful. I love to see a good refinishing project. The more you do it, the easier it gets and the better the results get. Here’s a couple tips I’ve found for the problems you had in the process: STRIPPING: For older pieces with clear finishes (like varnish or lacquer but not modern finishes, like poly) that haven’t been painted, you can use a product that’s usually called “furniture refinisher” to remove the old finish more easily. It’s still a “use outside” product, but it’s a liquid that removes finishes using only steel wool, so there’s no scraping damage or gunk to build up in grain or corners. Often you’ll find there’s no need to even sand. Also if neither refinisher or stripper work well, the piece may have been waxed at some point. Wax doesn’t come off easily and it prevents stripper from working, so consider using a liquid wax & buildup remover first if you suspect wax (if you scrape the surface with a fingernail and get a little build up on the nail, it’s probably waxed). FINISHING: If your polyurethane finish is a little streaky, dimpled or too shiny when you’re done you can buff it with mineral oil and #0000 steel wool to correct imperfections in the top coat. Wipe off the mineral oil well when done. If it feels really gritty though, you might need to sand a little more. I’ve begun finish sanding with 400 or 600 grit paper. It reduces the risk of sanding through delicate woods or removing too much patina, plus you really get a smooth surface for finishing. Keep at it! You’ll soon be refinishing everything in sight.

  • I am totally in love with this! I bought a piece that sounds very similar to the description of this one when it was originally bought – if anyone has any more suggestions on stripping or websites with techniques, I would love to hear more. This is just a lovely job, very exciting to see it look better than it probably did originally.

  • gorgeous! I especially liked the part about hosing it off! Something I would probably do myself even though I know it is not advised!

  • Thanks everyone, this has been such a nice experience for me. I’m not an artist, designer or woodworker. I admit, also, that I did not anticipate the way it would look when I was finished. I was only responding to the shape and size of it. I have a giant livingroom that I am trying to balance out with more bulk. I really got lucky.

    About the hose, I was pretty quick with it. I washed, scrubbed, rinsed and dried in a matter of a few minutes. I know that I could have caused trouble with that.

    Also, I nominate Austin to do the tutorial for Design*Sponge. He sounds like he knows what he’s doing!

  • vanessa, bravo! it looks like a cool million now. you did GREAT work…most people would have given up…such a painstaking re-do. so proud of you!

  • What a lovely job! I am definitely a wood purist. I think I’m still scared away by the paint stripper, though! Glad you were able to press on. The end result was well worth the effort. Thanks for sharing! :)

  • Absolutely gorgeous! Beauty does not have to cost big $$. Its the love and care you give a piece that brings it value. Great job! You go girl!!

  • I occasionally pop in to D*S to see if there’s anything exciting, and I can’t believe I came across this a few weeks ago. I have an almost identical hutch, procured from a garage sale a few years ago (except we kept the shelving above). Vanessa, I can attest to the weird greenish hue! We currently use it for our dishes in the kitchen, but I’ve been thinking of refinishing it. This page is now bookmarked and waiting for enough balcony space and warm days to take care of it! Thanks for the inspiration!

  • This is one of the most beautiful refinished pieces of furniture I have ever seen. And being a fellow Oregonian (Scappoose 4-EVER!!) I appreciate the head’s up about William Temple House. REALLY NICE JOB. SIMPLY AMAZING. =)

  • This is FABULOUS! I love the update on the natural wood… it gives it that modern look with a hint at that sexy Danish style and a wink at the Mission style as well. Great job!

  • OH! I nearly forgot why I loved this idea so much… I inherited a vintage dresser from my grandmother. It has the same greenish tint that the BEFORE dresser had. Thing is a bit rickety and needs some tightening of the joints, but I would love to redo that dresser in the same style to match the oak headboard my grandfather handmade for me. This idea is not only fabulous — but really hits a sentimental soft-sport with me as it’s been a dream of mine to do the very same thing!

  • Thank you. This is the best thing I have seen so far in the makeovers department. It was very attractive to begin with and now is even better. Anyone can paint, but this took courage. I am so impressed with this piece.

  • Yes! Can I also nominate someone for the tutorial ? Would love to try this but never had had the guts! :)

  • I have refinished many wood pieces (yes, I have used the hose trick, time is of the essence!) and my favorite ‘smoother’ is the finest steel wool you can buy – gently go with the grain of the wood after varnishing/polyurethane and it will feel silky-smooth.

  • I kept looking through the post and comments trying to figure out what stain you used. DUH! It’s the wood its self. Beautiful! I once was a person that would paint everything. I have a dresser that my mom convinced me not to paint. Thank goodness! The grain of the wood looks very similar to the pictures. I hope mine turns out just as gorgeous.

  • This is one of the most gorgeous furniture refinish jobs I have ever seen. This is what should be done to nice vintage furniture. People need to back off on the stupid painting. This is what they are covering. It is incredible craftsmanship that goes into the way they placed and worked with these veneers to get them to make these beautiful patterns. Unfortunately this was done on many vintage pieces and then covered with that ugly tinted lacquer. I have no idea why they did that or why it was considered fashionable. All they needed was a good oiling or waxing. No stain, no paint, nothing but cleat oil or wax.
    BTW, this is not birch it is Mahogany, ribbon mahogany, called that for the straight lines of different shades in the grain. This is what allows them to create these beautiful patterns. Beautiful job refinishing this lovely piece. Save the top of that cabinet to use somewhere else.

    • I forgot to add these pieces that are lacquered can be stripped with rubbing alcohol, either 91%, or 99% aka denatured available in pharmacies for the former and hardware stores for the latter. These are not toxic removers, so that is a bonus. You can brush it on & scrape off the top layer with a very thin scraper and remove the rest with steel wool & more alcohol or just use steel wool & the alcohol for all of it until it is clean. This also works for oil finishes that have been damaged and need refurbishing.