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How to Refinish a Vintage Mid Century Dresser

We love refinishing vintage furniture, and we also love to share the knowledge we’ve discovered over the years of doing it! In this blog post we will give brief and simple instructions on how to refinish a dresser, sideboard or credenza –

But please, if you wish to refinish your own furniture, always research a few different sources for instruction, and ALWAYS follow the instructions on the product packaging for any materials used!

The more research you do, the better you’ll be able to distinguish between different types of furniture and their construction, since different types of furniture may have slightly different aspects to prioritize when working. For example, refinishing solid wood furniture made from planks will be different than doing fine wood furniture with veneer. For this post, we will focus on the most common style of vintage mid-century dresser – a plywood or pressboard body with a fine wood veneer.

If you’ve never seen our own work, check out the inventory for our store!

Before we get to the instructions, we embedded a couple Instagram videos below for quick examples of how we refinish a dressers, sideboards and credenzas.

We’re not making a dirty joke here, but this work won’t get done without a bit of stripping. This refers to the process of using a chemical product that will liquify or soften the existing finish on the piece of furniture so that you can scrub or scrape it off.

There are other methods to remove finish, like heat guns or even laser strippers, but we are using a chemical stripper because it is more affordable and accessible for the average person who doesn’t own other equipment. It is also a pretty tried and true method.

One thing we DO NOT recommend if going straight to sanding – this will almost always end in disaster for most enthusiasts. It’s easy to see flippers on social media skip stripping and go straight to sanding, but what you don’t see is how they actually sand through the edges of the veneer. We’ve bought boatloads of furniture that has been refinished by past owners, and a very common issue you find is that the edges of the top and sides are missing veneer. This damage is almost impossible to repair or hide completely when refinishing.

Prep

First things first, we are going to remove the existing finish. Find yourself an area that gives you enough room to work, and put down a drop sheet or even a sheet of cardboard. If you are worried about a mess, use a drop sheet or tarp and cardboard, or double the drop sheet or tarp. Work in an area that gives sufficient air ventilation, because you will be working with chemicals.

Stripper will ruin basically anything it touches, so be careful! Use painters tape and newspaper or plastic to tape off anything you want to protect – that includes anything on the dresser that you wish to keep in the original finish. If you don’t want to refinish inside the drawers or in the body of the dresser behind the drawers, use mask off everything that is exposed. Wear appropriate work wear, and if you value your health, also wear a respiratory mask, gloves and even glasses.

Pick your stripper

You can find all sorts of stripper products online and in stores, and different countries have different laws about the contents of these products, so for your best results I’d recommend reading as many reviews as you can. Here in Canada, we use SOLVABLE Non-Toxic Paint & Varnish Stripper, mainly due to it being conveniently available and relatively effective.

Avoid using chemical strippers with Methylene chloride and NMP. In some countries Methylene chloride and NMP are banned, but in other countries these chemicals are still readily available. These are dangerous and have led to injury and death in the past, so we do not recommend using anything with these chemicals. That being said, most strippers that are available for consumer use have eliminated the use of Methylene chloride and NMP.

Get stripping

Follow the instructions on the bottle! We generally apply it with a brush, let it sit, and then scrape it off with a metal putty knife, scraper or razer blade. If you use a razer blade be very careful – obviously – and do not use it at an angle pushing against the wood, as you will create splinters in the veneer. You are best off to use it vertically and push straight down to pull it along the surface. If you want a safer and easier process, just use a metal putty knife or scraper.

Scrape in straight lines following the grain – going against the grain could leave stains that run opposite the grain, which will look very obvious. Also, don’t let the stripper pool or sit on the wood for over 5 minutes. Instead, scrape it into little piles or pools and lift it off with a putty knife into a carboard box, yogurt container, old Tupper wear, plastic container, etc. We use old restaurant take-out containers, because they’re everywhere in our world. Eventually when you’re done, you can take that container and dump the contents into a pile of newspaper or scrap paper, and fold it up into the garbage.

You can do 2-4 coats of stripper to make sure you have everything. You should be able to tell when the furniture surface is clear, because the colour will change to something more dull, more light, or more red, or more yellow – its hard to predict without knowing the type of wood and type of finish. The point is though, it will look different!

Clean Up

Once the stripping is done, quickly clean up. We use a bucket of warm water mixed with a little TSP cleaning solution. We use a dish scrubber to scrub the water on and scrub any remaining finish off, then we use a wet rag to wash that off, and then we use a clean rag to dry it. Make sure all the gunk and stripper is wiped off!

Let the piece of furniture sit overnight to completely dry before sanding.

If you have a power sander then this will be way easier. We use a Makita battery powered orbital sander. If you need to hand sand, you might find it easier to staple sand paper to a block of wood or buy a sanding block. If you need help making a sanding block, here are some examples.

Rough sand

For most people, we would highly recommend starting with 220 grit for the rougher sand, even though that is already quite fine. Since you already stripped the surface, it shouldn’t require that much sanding anyway. The problem with starting with courser sandpaper, like 120 or even 80 grit, is that you will usually get small rings in the wood, or even worse you might sand through the veneer. The problem with the rings is tough, because if you go to sand out the rings once they occur, you risk sanding too much and either thinning or removing the veneer.

Be most careful when sanding near any edges, as your body’s natural tendency will be to subconsciously tilt the sander when the surface gives away at an edge. This is probably because of something called gravity. I can link to gravity but you all should know what that is already.

The best way to prevent any damage is to just carefully sand the whole surface with 220 grit, with an orbital sander or block for all the flat surfaces wide enough to hold your sander or block, and by hand for all the small parts like pulls. I use a sander for the narrow sides of the dresser’s walls that surround the drawers, but this takes a lot of concentration to keep the sander level on the surface. If you are less experienced with sanding, just hand sand anything that is narrower than a couple inches.

For really mucky or heavy finishes that are impossible to fully remove with the stripper, it is faster and cheaper to use heavier grit, because 220 will wear out quickly on less clean wood. As mentioned before though, heavier grit like 80 or 120 is more dangerous for veneers. If you are struggling with 220 and want to try something that bites harder, start with 180 grit before jumping head first into 80. In fact, you should avoid anything less than 100 grit unless you are experienced with sanding and/or don’t mind sanding through the veneer.

Knowing when to stop

Depending on how much finish came off with stripping, your first sanding session should be brief. You do not want to sand too much. The safest way to avoid this is to sand very carefully outwards from the middle, following the grains of the wood, being absolutely careful at the edges. When you sand, you’ll notice the wood changing colour, becoming less saturated or lighter. When the wood has this colour change, that is when you know the finish is off.

The easiest way to see if the finish is off is to wipe down the dresser with a medium wet rag. If the finish look blotchy or streaky when wet, that means there is still finish. Once you get the point where it is blotchy or streaky, you can carefully hand sand to remove any remaining finish.

Don’t ever let wet spots stay on the dresser though, as the bare wood will stain. If you wipe it down with a wet rag, make sure to spread the water evenly. Next you can buff it or wipe it until the water is almost gone.

Filling

After sanding with 220 grit, you can use filler to fix any dents or scratches. Filler products range by opinion and preference, but some common choices are: basic hardware store wood filler; wood filler and wood glue mix; sawdust and wood glue mix; or filler and epoxy mix. Here is a run down on some of the best filler type products and here is another. You might notice I didn’t include a putty – that is because putty is more for filling holes or damage on pieces that you don’t intend to refinish. Other filler products are generally easier to stain and colour match than putty.

We usually just use common hardware store putty for small cracks or holes, and use sawdust/glue mix for bigger damage. For large holes or missing veneer, we’ll use a dowel, piece of scrap wood, or piece or veneer to fill the damage, then use glue and filler to fill around the piece.

Spread the filler with your finger or with a putty knife. Wear gloves if you don’t want dirty hands). Just smear it on, smooth it flat, and let it dry. It might sometimes be easier to pat it flat rather than use a putty knife to pull it smooth.

Last Sand

Now do a finishing sand. Use 400 grit to get a beautiful and satisfying smooth surface over the whole piece. After you’re done sanding you can use a small soft broom or brush to clean it off, and use a damp or medium wet rag to fully clean it down. Don’t ever let wet spots stay on the piece without finish, as the raw wood can stain even with water. If you use a rag and wet spots form, buff them out with the damp cloth in order to spread that dampness.

For this step, I’m going to outline what we use for products, but there are many different options out there. I suggest that you do research from different sources and find the product that best matches your needs.

We are going to use Danish Oil. This specific type of finish combines the rich and beautiful tones of an oil finish with the added protection of a varnish. Danish oil can produce an oily depth, highlighted grains, and can offer a moderate level of protection while keeping a matte finish. In addition to this benefits, we also use Danish Oil because it is easy and cheap to apply, and doesn’t require additional equipment. Please note though that there are more robust finishes available for surfaces that will have high traffic or potential contact with water. For stronger finishes, try researching poly finishes or lacquers. Wipe on poly products can offer a bit more protection against water and traffic without requiring a spray gun and booth.

The Danish Oils we normally use are either Tried & True brand or Watco brand. There are a couple factors that go into deciding which to use:

1 – Toxicity

Tried & True boasts a less toxic ingredient list, which makes it a more preferable option when you are working in your living space, or anywhere where you have to spend a lot of time. We used Watco for years in our workshop without using masks or proper PPE, simply because we spent our time in our workshop and it was impractical if not impossible to always be wearing a mask. We seem to still be healthy, but it’s definitely not the recommended way to use typical oil products. Typically you would wear a mask and gloves when dealing with Watco oil products, or any other major department store brand of oil product, and you would not use the product in your living space or anywhere where you will spend a lot of time near the furniture until it’s had time to vent off the oil fumes.

If you can work outside, or if you have a detached barn or garage or shop, then it shouldn’t be a problem, as you can simply leave the space when you are finished working. For people like us who spend a lot of time in their work space, or even live in it, it could be dangerous to spend that much time surrounded by freshly oil furniture and their fumes.

According to their promotional material and instructions, Tried & True is a lot safer to use. In fact, in their instructional videos the woodworker doesn’t even wear gloves or a mask. We still highly recommend wearing gloves and wearing a mask if possible, but it’s good to know that this product is less toxic either way.

2 – Application

Watco is a very easy to apply product, with a very forgiving application method. Tried & True on the other hand can be more tricky. If you are looking for an easier application, you might want to try Watco Danish Oil. Using Tried & True is by no means difficult, it just requires you to follow the instructions and pay careful attention when applying.

Also, if you pre-stain wood to darken it or change the colour, it could be easier to use Watco rather than deal with the finicky Tried & True application. The main difference is that Watco Danish Oil can be poured onto the surface of a piece and spread across it, while Tried & True must be rubbed in with very small quantities on a cloth. With Watco Danish oil, the large quantity used during application covers any recently added stains, soaking through it into the wood. When it comes time to wipe off the excess oil, a small amount might come off when you wipe it, but enough will remain in the wood to preserve its new color.

With Tried & True Danish Oil, on the other hand, it must be rubbed in vigorously with a lightly oiled rag or cloth, so the application usually means you will rub off recently applied stain. Once an oil finish product is applied, it’s a lot harder to stain the wood and keep colour retention.

For that reason, it’s better to use Watco Danish Oil for instances where you are applying over recently stained wood, or if in general you’re just looking for the easiest to use product.

3 – Results

We find Tried & True to have more superior looking results. In best case scenarios, it leaves wood with a deep and gorgeous finish that somehow looks flat while still having glimmering layers that sparkle within like diamonds. How the finish looks will also depend on the wood or veneer it’s being applied to, but in any case we find it to be superior to Watco Danish Oil.

Apply The Oil

Depending on what product you use, your application process can vary. It is most important to always follow the directions on the product packaging. For example, as previously described, Tried & True Danish Oil is applied in very small amounts by vigorously rubbing a dampened rag or cloth, spreading a thin and even coat across the surface. Meanwhile, Watco Danish Oil can be applied by pouring a large volume of oil right onto the surface and spread around from their by cloth or roller. If you pour Tried & True onto the surface and spread a large volume, it could leave you problems with inconsistent coverage and sheen, and even fingerprints and pools of gloss. That’s why it’s important to look at the instructions first.

If you decide to use our recommended product, Tried & True Danish Oil, start with a clean cloth or shop towel. Dip a part of it into the oil can and wipe excess oil off the rag and back into the can using the lip of the can. Roll your gloved fingers around the cloth or towel to spread the oil.

Following the grain, wipe or rub the oil across the surface. All you need is a very thin coat, so spread the oil as far as possible using what is on the cloth. When you can’t spread it anymore, dab more oil from the can. Once your first surface has been fully coated for 5 minutes (do each part of the dresser as a separate part), you can start buffing it out with a clean and dry rag. Wipe down the surface so that it is completely dry to the touch – if you do touch it make sure to wipe off any fingerprints.

You can do another coat after 24 hours, and the more subsequent coats you do (wait a day between each), the better the protection, but the more glossy the sheen will be. It would probably be about three coats before you’d notice any glossy sheen though.

For Watco Danish Oil, the process is different. You apply more oil and fully saturate the surface. You can use a soaked rag to wipe onto the whole dresser, or even pour the oil straight on for flat surfaces, and spread it with a rag across the full surface. Follow the directions for how long to wait before wiping the oil off. For the particular Watco oil we use, we wait 25 minutes after the first coat, then apply another coat and wait 15 minutes. After waiting, we use a clean and dry rag to completely wipe down the dresser until it is dry.

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