Dresser Upgrade

Introduction: Dresser Upgrade

About: I'm an art teacher by day and an extreme art and DIY enthusiast by night! I love creating custom work for myself, friends, family, and anyone else interested in finding that perfect piece for their own unique…

Nearly two years ago my fiancé and her 8-year old daughter moved into my little 2-bedroom house. We crammed enough furniture for a 2400 sq. ft. house into this 860 sq. ft. house. It's been an interesting two years as we have all learned to live together as a family. Recently, we have been really working toward getting rid of the things we have outgrown so that we can build a home together. As I was preparing for the most recent holiday season, it occurred to me that our next house project needed to focused on my stepdaughter. She is 10 now, growing more creative and artistically talented every sing day, and she deserves to have a space of her own that will inspire her the way she and her mom have inspired me over these last two years. And so started the newest and most face paced, over ambitious house project we have taken on yet.

Somehow, we managed to get it all done. On Christmas Eve my stepdaughter came home to her brand new, custom made bedroom. Of course we couldn't make everything, but at least 60% of that room was designed and built by me and her mom, just for her. One of my favorite things we did during the bedroom renovation was getting rid of her old, busted dresser that barely opened, and replacing it with one of my old dressers that we transformed into something totally new, designed specifically with her and her new room in mind.

This furniture project sums up our family perfectly: t's quirky, inventive, fun, unique, and a little crazy all rolled into one. This dresser remodel turned out to be quite the adventure as we literally weathered the Florida Christmas storm. If a picture says a thousand words, then this dresser could write a book!


  • old dresser
  • varnish remover (Citri-Strip)
  • latex gloves
  • plastic paint scraper
  • hand sander
  • sanding block
  • various sandpapers (150, 220, 320)
  • wood finish stain (get creative)
  • furniture paint
  • paint stir sticks
  • sponge brushes
  • old paintbrushes
  • one high-quality paintbrush (to use with furniture paint)
  • denatured alcohol or acetone
  • rags or old t-shirts
  • drawer pulls
  • patience (most important)

Step 1: Remove the Varnish

Usually clear coats aren't something you have to worry about with this type of furniture, but for some reason the dresser's previous owner thought it was a good idea to coat the frame of the dresser in what seemed like 5 coats of polyurethane. My sorry little hand sander didn't stand a chance! So I went with some good ole varnish remover instead.

There are so many different products on the market for removing clear coats like this, but I went with Citri-Strip. It works pretty well and is easier and less harmful to handle.

Since the drawers were not layered in the dreaded clear coat I removed them from the dresser. Next, I used a cheap old paintbrush to apply a thick coat of Citri-Strip to the rest of the dresser and it let it sit while I moved on to the drawers.

You should let the Citri-Strip sit for at least 30 minutes, but there's no rush as you can even let it sit for up to 24 hours.

Step 2: Sand the Drawers

While waiting for the Citri-Strip to do it's thing, I started working on the dresser drawers.

Because I would be using furniture paint on the drawers, it wasn't actually necessary for me to sand them (more about furniture paint in Step #6). I decided to sand the drawers because I wanted to clean up some of the dings and scratches that the dresser had accumulated throughout its life. I wanted the surface of the drawers to be really smooth in order to achieve an extra slick look and feel once the paint was applied.

I started with 150 grit sandpaper and my hand sander, followed by a round with 220 grit. For the final pass I used a sanding block with 320 grit. I wasn't too concerned with sanding every nook and cranny because I knew it wouldn't matter once I started painting.

*Note: Be very careful when sanding veneer. Ideally you would want to use a belt sander, but if you're really careful you can get away with a little hand held sander like mine. Just remember, veneer is very thin and it's easy to sand right through it.

Step 3: Scrape and Clean the Citri-Strip

With the drawers sanded it was time to tackle the dresser frame, armed with gloves and a plastic paint scraper. Please be sire tp wear gloves! I know I said this stuff isn't quite as harmful as other products like it, but you still don't want to have it all over your hands. Also, make sure you are using a plastic paint scraper because the metal ones will be more likely to leave unwanted marks in the wood.

As I scraped the "Citri-Goo" off the dresser I collected it in a double thick layer of plastic grocery bags. I didn't worry too much about the hard-to-scrape places because I knew I was going to do a quick round of sanding later. Once you've scraped all that you can scrape, use mineral spirits and an old rag or t-shirt to wipe off any of the excess Citri-Strip. Be thorough because varnish removers can react with stains and other products you might want to apply to the dresser.

Step 4: Sand the Dresser

After wiping up all of the gel from the dresser I still needed to do a little bit more sanding before I was ready to paint and stain.

I used a sanding block and small pieces of sandpaper to get into the more challenging areas of the dresser. I also used my electric hand sander here and there where little bits of polyurethane had not been completely removed.

Once all of the varnish was removed from the dresser frame I basically did a repeat of Step #2. I started with the hand sander and 150 grit paper, followed by a round of 220, and then ended with 320 grit on the sanding block.

Step 5: Wipe Down the Dresser and Drawers

After sanding, be sure to clean and wipe down the dresser and drawers really well before moving on to painting and/or staining. Use acetone or denatured alcohol with an old rag or t-shirt to wipe up all of the dust from sanding. Be thorough.

Step 6: Paint the Drawers and Legs

For the drawers and legs of the dresser I decided to use furniture paint because of its durability.

The first coat of furniture paint needs to be very thin. You should still be able to see the wood grain underneath. Because the paint is self leveling, you have to be sure your painting surface in on flat ground. Even a slight tilt in one direction can cause the paint to move and drip. After painting each drawer I had to go back and check that the paint wasn't dripping and piling up anywhere. If it is, I simply used my paintbrush to spread the paint back out over the surface. As long as I did this before the paint dried, the paint would readjust and self level into a smooth surface again.

Once all of the drawers were painted it was time to wait. The recommended time in between coats is 4 hours. You'll repeat this process continuing to use thin coats until you are satisfied with the coverage.

I repeated this process for the legs of the dresser as well.

Note: Humidity hugely affects the results of furniture paint. I decided to take on this project in my garage during a week-long rain storm, during which Florida couldn't decide if it was winter or summer. Needless to say, the humidity was at its worst. I struggled with paint coverage during the first two or three coats. As my frustration set in, I finally decided to bring the drawers into my kitchen where, finally free from some of the humidity, the paint dried opaque and smooth as silk!

Some things you need to know about furniture paint: Furniture paint is very similar to cabinet paint and SOME trim/door paints. It's more expensive than your ordinary household latex paint because it's unique formula makes it very durable once it has cured. It is also self-leveling, leaving behind a smooth, streak-free surface. The one major drawback with this paint is that it cannot be rushed. With latex paint you can usually get away with slapping a second coat onto it almost as soon as you've finished the first. Furniture paint on the other hand requires at least 4 hours in between coats and while it may be dry to the touch, it takes another 4-5 days to cure. During this dresser upgrade I also learned that furniture paint is less tolerant when it comes to forces of nature - specifically, the bi-polar weather of Florida and everlasting humidity.

For me personally, the durability of the paint is what attracted me to it. Because this dresser is going into a 10-year old artist's bedroom, the paint needs to be able to withstand a lot of spills and messes as well as the subsequent scrubbing and cleaning that follows. Not to mention, I'm a bit of a klutz myself!

Step 7: Experiment With Your Stain: Combine Colors

Often when I set out to stain something I find myself experimenting with different products, combining colors, inventing my own wiping techniques, and whatever else I can think of to create unique stain effects. Staining this dresser was no different!

The color I was going for with this project was a grayish driftwood type color. The Classic Gray stain from Minwax is much too blue to accomplish this, so I ended up mixing it with some Jaco Bean and Simply White. I used about a 1:2 ratio of the white and gray (twice as much gray) and then combined that mixture with Jacobean using a ratio of about 1:4 (four times as much gray as brown).

Any time you are making your own stain mixtures make sure you mix enough to complete your project if you're not taking exact measurements. I myself prefer the "eyeballin' it method."

Don't forget to test out your color on a piece of scrap wood (ideally you want to use the same wood as the actual project).

Once I have the color down, I move on to application.

Step 8: Experiment With You Stain: Timing and Wiping

Once you're happing with your stain color I recommend experimenting with timing and wiping techniques. I have a tendency to just wing it and sometimes it works, and sometimes it's a disaster. I happened to get lucky with this project, especially considering the insane and unpredictable weather conditions at the time.

I ended up applying my stain mixture to the dresser frame using a sponge brush that was dripping with stain. I left a pretty thick layer of stain and let it sit for 15-20 minutes (see image A above). Keep in mind, with so much stain on the surface, combined with the cold and wet weather, the wood did not absorb the colors as much as it normally would have.

I then wiped the stain with a piece of an old t-shirt, neatly folded into a square. Sometimes I would wipe very gently (image B) and in other areas I would apply more pressure (image C), always wiping in the direction of the grain. This created a variety of tones throughout the dresser.

There were a few times that I wiped too much of the stain off (image D) and ended up a using the sponge to reapply the stain.

When I was happy with the results I left the dresser to dry in the cold garage for about an hour.

Generally speaking, you would not want to leave this much stain on the wood without wiping it off, but I actually wanted it to get to that thick, sticky state.

After an hour I used the foam brush to apply another layer of stain on the dresser, but this time only on one side at a time and not near as thick as before. Using the same folded t-shirt, still wet from wiping stain earlier, I gently wiped each side of the dresser. The wood maintained the variation from my earlier wiping, but now it did not have that thick, sticky layer on top.

I left the dresser in the garage to dry overnight. With the weather finally clearing up the next day and the humidity below 80% for the first time in a week, the stain was able to dry. The results of this wacky staining technique can be seen in images E and F.

Step 9: The Waiting Game

Now that the drawers are painted and the dresser frame is stained, it's time to wait. The stain should be left to dry for 24-48 hours before you start to reassemble the dresser. While the drawers will be dry to the touch after several hours, the furniture paint takes 4-5 days to cure. Because I was in a Christmas time crunch, I was only able to wait about a day and a half before I had to put the drawers back in. I was very careful putting the dresser back together and I didn't have any issues with it besides some sticky drawers for a couple of days; however, if you have the time, I highly recommend waiting. You don't want to mess up all of your hard work in the last few minutes!

Step 10: Finishing Touches

Once everything is dry and cured you can put the dresser back together and start adding your own unique embellishments. I added some new drawer pulls that match my stepdaughter's bedroom perfectly. When she gets a little older and is craving a new look for her room I think it would be fun to add a funky pattern to the white drawers.

Get creative. Make something new out of something old. Try out a new technique. Heck, invent your own technique!

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