Refinishing the Family Dresser Set

Complete dressers after refinishingThis project documents the process of refinishing a clothes dresser. As purchased, circa 1948, these dressers were stained, and at some point in the 70’s were painted over. Therefore the refinishing process included stripping the paint, sanding down the bare wood, staining, and finishing with polyurethane. In 2008 I needed a dresser to replace the particle board dresser I had brought from Walmart. My in-laws were generous enough to let me have and refinish the short dresser. In this project I refinished the tall dresser. It is nice to now have a matching set in our bedroom.

Picture of the Dresser in August of 2011


We believe that Wes and Dorothy purchased the two dressers discussed here in 1948, shortly after getting married in 1947. The dressers were part of a three piece bedroom set that also included a head board and foot board for the bed. Wes used the tall dresser and Dorothy used the short dresser. Sometime in the 1970’s the dressers were painted over. At the time, antiques were trendy and it was popular to refinish furniture with an “antiquing” technique. Essentially, the antiquing technique is the process of applying a darker base coat (yellow), and then lightly brushing on a lighter top coat (white) that does not provide complete coverage. By all accounts, the dressers were starting to look dated and refinishing them provided them with new life. The first time they were refinished the original drawer pulls were removed and the current hardware was installed. In the 90’s, the dressers were moved to the upstairs bedrooms in the Delor Ave. (Louisville, KY) house where they stayed until they were removed in 2008. Kevin had the following memory about the tall dresser:

When very young, one of the memories you have about your parents’ bedroom is some of the most interesting things are placed where you cannot get at them. Such was the case with my dad’s chest of drawers. The mystery of what exactly lay on top and in the upper drawers was tantalizing. I could stand on their bed and look but not touch what was there, or pull out bottom drawers and climb to where I could do both. As I grew taller and wiser, I learned that if I asked permission to explore this terrain it was granted without much fanfare. I also learned there was not much of interest on my fathers chest of drawers except for the upper left one. (I never asked about what was in my mother’s chest, having determined things were there that no boy should.) In my family, this drawer was referred to as the “junk” drawer. In it, there were a lot of things he brought home from work and elsewhere that were amazing to us kids. All kinds of small mechanical doodads, games and puzzles, optical equipment, arcane hand tools, key chains and other connective devices, small change, wallet size pictures, and souvenirs from by gone days. Every now and then, especially on rainy days or nights when there was not much else to do, we would pull the drawer out (well our parents did) and rummage through the drawer. We would try to figure out the functions of what we saw, manipulate and test what we could, and then sort things out neatly to return the contents in more orderly fashion than we had found them. Funny thing though, the drawer never stayed orderly for very long because my dad would be adding and subtracting to the drawer’s contents regularly.

In a few cases, the original dressers were captured in the background of family pictures. The following series of pictures shows what the dressers looked like originally.

Kevin as a toddler with the tall dresser in the background

Steve (left) and Kevin in front of the short dresser. Notice the original drawer pulls.

An image of the headboard that accompanied the dressers, and a screaming Kevin (Steve on right)

Another view of the short dresser. Steve on left, Kevin on right.

Kevin and the matching headboard that completed the three piece bedroom set. The current location of the headboard is unknown.


Side view of the dresser

Top view of the dresser

Close up of the "new" drawer pull added to the dresser in the 70's

Date stamp found on the inside of the dresser

An industrial strength paint stripper was used to remove the paint from the dressers. Any paint that did not lift off the surface was scraped off with a putty spatula and and carpet knife. On the really suborn spots I used 60 grit sandpaper to remove residual paint.

Dresser striped of paint

Marking on drawer front where the original drawer pulls were removed and wood putty was applied before painting. Many of these marks were permanent unfortunately.

Once the paint was removed a series of sandpapers (60, 100, 180, and 220 grit) were used to sand the dresser to a very soft finish.

Dresser after sanding

Top of dresser after sanding.

After sanding the wood was so soft, I did not want to apply the stain. To help cover the dents, dings, and markings from more than 50 years of use, we chose an oil based Minwax(TM) red mahogany stain. By applying two coats, the dresser received a very dark stain.

Dresser being stained with an oil based stain

Drawers being stained

Previously, when I refinished the short dresser, which I have been using for the last few years, I only applied one coat of polyurethane. At the time I was in the process of moving between houses and not surprisingly never finished the chest properly. While I was applying polyurethane to the tall dresser, I pulled all of my clothes out of the short dresser and added a few extra coats of polyurethane. I am glad that I took the time to do this, the chest looks much better with a few extra coats of polyurethane. Most surfaces received 3 coats, but the tops of each piece was given five coats for extra durability.

Applying polyurethane to the dresser and chest of drawers

After many slow weeks of sanding and scraping in awkward angles and positions both the chest and dresser are finally finished. Here is the final result.

The complete finished set

Side view of the matching set

Top of the dresser with its heavy coat of polyurethane

For whatever reason, one of the drawers was built with a piece of wood cut across the grain instead of with the grain

Most of the unsightly markings left from the original drawer pulls are not visible after finished

I was happy with the way everything on this project turned out. The short dresser is noticeably less refined when directly compared to the dresser. I believe this is because I spent more time and effort sanding the dresser. Lastly, even though both pieces had a couple days of drying outside under the car port before I brought them into the house, they are still not dry (ie: they make our bed room smell like a chemical factory) . With such thick coats of polyurethane I should have allowed for extra drying time.


About Ryan

Ryan is currently a National Research Council Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Air Force Research Laboratory. His research area includes Prognostic Health Management of Electronics. For more information please visit:
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