Thursday, June 11, 2015

Mid Century Modern Dresser Makeover

Boy, this project was a doozy! Lots of learning involved, and lots of new products tried and tested. I tried stripping for the first time...that's a tough job... and you sure feel dirty when it is all over (get your mind out of the gutter...I am talking stripping layers of paint people!) I used TSP for cleaning for the first time and I have to say I am a believer. And I tried re-doing a piece of history for the first time and it was fun! Read on to see what this beauty looked like before, as well as what it took to look snazzy.

There are a lot of life lessons that could be applied to this transformation. The most obvious is that over time we get covered in gunk, grime, and things that seem like good ideas at the time (layers of nasty black paint), that really just end up hiding our best qualities and true beauty. Others then pass by seeing the ugly external, notice our flaws, and want nothing to do with us, judging us on the outside and what they quickly take in. But they don't take the time to notice that we are solidly built, uniquely awesome, and built to last. They don't know that we are built better than most, no matter how pretty the others are on the outside. They have no idea that we have beautiful wood grain, solid wood throughout, awesome artistic details, and dove-tail joinery. Then, when time is taken to peel away most, and scrape away the remainder, of that build up that is hiding who we truly are, the exciting, beautiful possibilities celebrate! And we can be seen by everyone that passed us by that we are built beautifully on the inside and the outside. And although we have gone through lots of hard knocks, we are unique and awesome. That is how I feel, in a nutshell, about this piece (and so many of us in this thing called life).

Now without further ado, here is how you can deal with a piece that has lost it's innate beauty, and needs some stripping and care:

Prior to this redo I was both scared and intrigued by stripping paint off of furniture. Surprisingly I had avoided it thus far. However getting a timeless piece of furniture history that had black paint caked on it, I knew it was time.

I bought:

I learned some valuable lessons with these two products that will hopefully save you time:

1. Apply Citristrip liberally on the places you want paint removed. Then cover with a bag of some sort immediately so that it doesn't dry. The bottle doesn't say this, but keeping the stripper wet for longer allows the process to work more fully. Learned this the hard way and had to apply a few times.
This is what one of the drawers looked like after it had been sitting (covered) for several hours (not necessary, but doesn't hurt to keep it covered that long). You can see my plastic stripping tool. It pretty much just took off the paint like "butta"...
Those mid-mod handles were a pain in the neck! SOOOO annoying to work around through every step of the process. This is what the drawers looked like after peeling away the paint. You can see that there is still black gunk on different parts, and that is where the TSP Substitute comes in. 

If you are like me you wonder what is TSP Substitute? The P stands for Phosphate and TSP used to be the go to for a great cleaner for lots of things including prepping furniture for paint or stain. However phosphate is harmful to the environment and thus has been removed. Some people say TSP is more efficient than the Substitute version, however other say they can't tell the difference. This was the only option I saw at Walmart, but other stores might sell TSP still.

Anyway, TSP Sub. is a-mazing. It is like Magic Erasers in liquid format (which if you have never tried Magic Erasers, they are magical. They even clean upholstery!) Anyway, I got some very soft steel wool pads and dipped them in an old pie pan filled with TSP and scrubbed the drawers in the direction of the grain. For small nooks and crannies I used an old toothbrush. It removed the black paint as well as the top coat of stain. Magic.
You can see the areas it brought the drawers down to the raw wood. I then needed to use my hand sander (and I used my Dremel small sander for the hard to reach areas thanks to those dumb doo-dads in the middle). I started with 150 grit then finished with 220.
I then mixed up a solution of a small part of General Finishes Brown Mahogany gel stain (because I already had it) with mineral spirits (probably 1:2 ratio). I got a rag and wiped it on to the drawers as you can see above. The wood soaked it up and I did two coats. If I had kept the ratio 1:1 I might have got away with 1 coat, but was afraid the stain would be too thick and hide the wood grain. You can buy regular stain and avoid the mixing of the mineral spirits...I only did that to thin the gel stain since gel stain is well, gel.

I let it dry overnight and then sprayed polyurethane over them to give them a richer color, sheen, and protection. If I had had polyurethane in the gel topcoat version I would have used that. It gives more even looking results and I like applying it that way better since the end result looks more professional. I am impatient so I used what I had on hand

I then sanded down the dresser just to even out uneven levels of black paint (as well as help the new paint adhere better). In the past I have used Kilz primer because I thought that was the go-to brand for primer. Then a friend told me that Zinsser is better for furniture...not sure if that is true, but I find I like it better. I bought a big can since I will use it again and I have a paint sprayer to put it in. I bought the Zero version cause it was better for the environment and the same price as the other kind. (I know, I know, I should look at saving the whales too while I am on this environmental kick).

After letting the primer dry for about 30 minutes, my son and I had to drag the dresser back in our garage because the rain came. Colorado sure has been getting wayyyy more rain than normal lately. I then changed out my primer in my sprayer to paint, which was Pure White by Behr (copycatting Benjamin Moore's color). Unfortunately the version I had on hand was a flat and I really wanted a high gloss. Normally I like a satin finish for furniture, but I wanted this dresser to be shiny and the drawers more of a matte. 

To try and add more sheen I sprayed the now dry painted white dresser with polycrylic which made the paint smoother to touch and more protected, but still not enough shine. I then sprayed with lacquer, but still not enough shine. In the end I accepted the satin finish, but was a little bummed. I was out of product and didn't want to make myself even more high than I already was from all of that poly and lacquer in the air.

Here are some of the pictures I took to sell it on Craigslist (which it sold within a couple days, woohoo!):

Surprisingly those little legs were actually very strong. They also made vacuuming under the dresser super easy. If you look in the Before picture there was a random piece of wood that had been placed near the right legs. No idea why it was there... but before I did any restoring, it was removed and the right legs were put in the right place ;).
 See those glossy splotches? Darn, you weren't supposed to. 
But that is why I prefer working with General Finishes gel topcoat. 
So much easier to avoid spraying too much in one place and too little in others. Ugh.
Such cool little details.

And that is it. This dresser from the 1960s provided a lot of learning opportunities, (and patience) but I loved how it turned out (even with its imperfections).

Have you ever worked with a heavily painted furniture piece that you had to strip? What did you use and what were your experiences? I'd love to learn what to do and not do for future projects!


  1. What a GREAT tutorial! What a beautiful and inspiring job!!! I've been hesitant to tackle a restoration project, but I also don't want to pay the $2-5k that the Etsy sellers charge for MCM pieces. Now I can move forward w/ the restoration option w/ confidence--thank you! Curious to know more about your choice to paint the base white rather than bringing out the underlying wood. Was that an aesthetic preference, or was the underlying wood somehow not restorable? If the latter, how were you tell w/o stripping it down too? Thanks so much!

    1. Nancy, thank you so much for your kind words! I am so happy that this tutorial is inspiring someone else to tackle a tricky project and bring back natural beauty to something that has lost it. Very good question about why I painted the piece (other than the drawers). It is hard for me to remember EXACTLY why I did so, but these are some of the reasons why I THINK I did---I am very comfortable with painting, that is what I often do, so to restore this piece wasn't what I originally planned on doing. Because there was so much black gunk all over this, I planned on stripping some of that down so I could do a nice even paint coat over it. When I saw the beauty of the drawers I knew that I couldn't paint over them, but had to go the restore route. Because the rest of the piece wasn't in the best shape (its structure had totally been beaten up), and stripping and sanding had taken such a long time, I knew I could get the job done faster going with paint. When I resell furniture, I don't have a customer base that pays in the $1000k range, and being a mom to 4 little boys I went the quicker safer route. Plus I had seen some mid century pieces with the white and restored stained sections and liked it. Now that I know how to restore better, I might tackle my next piece and truly restore the whole thing. How is that for a really long-winded answer? :)

  2. Nice job ! I think you did great. I've been restoring furniture for 25-30 years now. In the summer I use STRIPEASE solvent based stripper because I can set it up OUTSIDE to avoid the fumes. It works fast but needs a final wipe of acetone to remove the residue. Ib the winter I'm in the garage shop and using Citrus Strip. I think it's the best of the safe strippers. I use plastic wrap from our kitchen to slow evaporation. I'll remove residue with water and scotchbrite pads. Ace hardware carried real TSP last time I bought some and it is strong. You need good gloves with that. Minwax is the stain that I use but I will say that General finishes is a good product. You might be able to even out your gloss by using 4/0 steel wood and paste wax like Johnsons or Minwax. BUff it all over with the steelwool and wax and then microfiber it.

    Again, nice job. Once you start rescuing pieces of well made furniture it seems to become a mission!

  3. I have the exact same dresser in its original wood tone. I was toying with the idea of painting part of it white to match my other chalk-painted furniture (I use it in my living room as a console table). I'm so happy I came across your post! It's convinced me to go ahead and paint it. Yours looks amazing and fresh!

  4. Did you use a top coat on top of the white paint? Also, what did you seal the stained wood with?


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