How to Refurbish an Old Dresser

Furniture rehab happiness. That’s what this post is about.

It’s also a little bit about making the most of junk that you’re hiding in the attic, basement or just out of sight. One of my hidden gems was an old dresser, something I acquired from my first-ever apartment. I’m not sure who it originally belonged to (not me or my then-roommate) but all I knew is at the time, being only two months out of college, was that I was willing to take as much f-r-e-e furniture as I could find.

Today, I’m taking it from this, to this. Hello, transformation.

Before, After.

I was inspired by a few different real-life designs, but let me back this thing up for a second…

This 6-drawer dresser is in awesome shape. Strong construction (entirely hardwood), functional drawers, very stable and (from experience) can hold a lot of shirts. It had a thick manufacturer’s finish that gave it a melamine-gloss/white-washed look and chunky drawer pulls that dated it, but it had potential. I wish I had snapped a picture when I acquired it in 2006, but instead, I borrowed a power sander as fast as I humanly could and went wild baring its natural hardwood grain and texture. I refreshed it at that time with a coat of stain ($1 “oops” stain, again, take what you can get) and gave it a new, rich dark-brown lease on life. It served me well for several years.

This was my master bedroom dresser until I upgraded last year. It was then relegated to the guest room, lost its knobs to something else, and was left to serve the almighty purpose of storing my gift wrapping supplies. A demotion in the life of a dresser. And that’s why rehabbing this dresser has been another thing on my real-life to-do list. I’d like guests to have a place to tuck belongings away.

Dresser: Before.

I scoured design sites and aggregators for reference and inspiration (Pinterest is a fave). Knowing that I wanted to preserve some of the stained wood finish, this dresser by Steph from BirdHouse really struck a chord. She did an amazing job, and I aspired to have half-as-cool a finished piece as she did. (Brava, girl!)

Dresser by Steph at BirdHouse.

Landing on a similar combo of glossy white paint and dark brown stain, I dove in.

I began by repairing the previous drawer-pull holes with wood filler; the old knobs had left a bit of damage, and I decided that it would be easier to have a clean slate.  I used the wood filler generously, making sure to fill the hole as best I could, and smoothing it over with a putty knife. Truth be told, I could open and close the drawers without pulls, so new ones weren’t even going back on the dresser.

Globbing on wood putty to fill the old drawer pull holes.

Left to dry overnight, it was ready to be sanded in the morning. I used a low-grit sandpaper to buff it down, and a higher-grit to smooth it out until the filler was imperceivable to the touch.

Wood putty, sanded. Smooth.

With the surface well-cleaned, I taped off parts of the drawers; my vision called for glossy-white drawer fronts, but because some of the drawers have a lip, I decided to leave those raised accents brown to create a little delineation between each drawer. Blue painter’s tape worked well, and adhered for days as I took my time adding four coats of Rust-Oleum oil-based Protective Enamel in Glossy White to have as pristine-and-brushstroke-free a look as possible. Fair warning: use this paint in a well-ventilated area. Its fumes are vicious in the house. 

Taping off the dresser details to paint the flat part white.

Side note: Sand lightly with a high-grit sandpaper between each coat to level out the surface. It helps a lot.

My patience in applying those four coats paid off. They looked pretty.

Fourth coat of paint. Drying.

For my dresser, I opted for a two-step process involving Rust-Oleum Ultimate Wood Stain in Dark Walnut, and a glossy clear coat of Ultimate Polyurethane.

The stain went on very evenly after lightly sanding and cleaning the entire unit. This particular product is a favorite of mine, through no endorsement; I used it when I did a recent shiplap accent wall in my dining room, and in addition to being very even in application (more so than other products I’ve tried), it dries lighting fast. Well, almost lighting fast, as in, the tackiness of the stain is gone after about one hour, which is about 23 hours faster than most other stains I’ve tried.

Staining the dresser with a rich, dark walnut brown.

I am aware of the art of staining and appreciate all of the steps that go into timing absorption, wiping it down, reapplying, re-wiping it down, etc., but in this case, taking it only a slightly deeper shade of brown, I didn’t bother to engage in the art; I brushed it on lightly and evenly like paint, and left it to dry.

After it dried, I applied two coats of polyurethane and it began to look really good. Felt really good too, thanks to the glossy clear coats. I could drop a glass of milk on this thing without causing a serious issue, so hopefully it’ll be more prepared to withstand whatever future use, kicks, bumps, spills are in store for it.

Dresser frame, glossy!

The drawers received a similar staining and polyurethaning treatment as the dresser. Each exposed hardwood edge along the already-white front panels received a dark walnut touch-up.

Drawers, refinished.

Once drawers were back in place, I got my first real look at how the newly rehabbed piece looked reassembled. That’s me, happy, on the deck, with the dresser. This is where I begin to wonder what my neighbors think of me posing in the yard with the tripod next to plants and furniture by myself. They’ve never asked, I’ve never explained.

Refinished, glossy, mod.

Back in the guest room, it looks great. It definitely went from being a dingy piece to something I wasn’t embarrassed about, and it is sort of lighting a fire under my behind to get the other sloppy elements of the room pulled together. Guests like a little oasis, no? We’re getting there.

Finished dresser!


Catching the home improvement bug at an early age, Emily Winters is a now a devoted DIYer living in Rochester, NY. The projects she covers on her blog Merrypad range from painting a wall to building a deck, so it’s only natural she landed at You can follow Emily on twitter at @merrypad and like her on facebook at


30 Responses

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  12. Mikej says:

    The piece looks good, but I'm sorry because it's all a little too toxic for me. There are many safer finishes that could be used.

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  14. nana says:

    I just purchased an old dresser for my grandson's bedroom. I started decorating a spare bedroom in my house for any "overnights with nana" in the Cars theme. I'm not sure if I should sand and stain or if I could paint it. Being the room is "Cars" inspired, what color(s) would you suggest I use? I absolutely love what you did with your dresser (black and white) and I'm hoping you can offer me some suggestions!

    • emilywinters says:

      Cute! Are you using lots of red in the theme? If so, that color usually looks really slick all glossy on furniture. Staining it or painting it a neutral color for him to "grow up with" is always a safe option, but then again you can always choose to repaint it something other than red, or bright yellow, or blue down the line. And maybe I'm getting crazy, but what if you painted it gray with a little roadway looping along the top in black paint with yellow lines and letting him play with his toy cars in his Cars-themed room?

  15. Sparkle says:

    Any suggestions for refinishing a piece that has a wood base but has a plastic/acrylic type finish? It's one of those not so fine pieces of furniture made in the 70's/80's.

    • emilywinters says:

      Is the acrylic-like surface something that can be removed? If not, I bet it can still be painted to look great. I use a high-adhesion primer from Zinsser (called Smart Prime) that is formulated to adhere to more surfaces than traditional paint; I was originally referred to it because I was looking for something to cover melamine, and it worked well. Once it's primed, it should be in good condition to paint. For the final finish, I always prefer a high-gloss coat of oil-based because it's less likely to peel up if a vase or a cup sits on it for awhile. Good luck!

  16. [...] via: How to Refurbish an Old Dresser Category: Home Tags: Dresser, [...]

  17. Katrina says:

    Your finished dresser looks amazing! Definitely inspiration for all the neglected pieces I come across – love what a little TLC can do. Great project Emily, looking forward to your future posts

  18. Carrie says:

    Love to restore- reuse dressers. It's amazing what some paint can do!

  19. Jules says:

    Any hints for repairing an old dresser whose drawer-fronts are falling off? It's a big, solid piece of furniture, but the drawers are glued, not nailed.

    • emilywinters says:

      Yikes, do you think that you could nail them back in place solidly with a nail gun? Popping it a few times might do the trick, and usually those nail holes aren't super obvious if you didn't want to refinish, but you could always patch the holes lightly and refinish from there. Alternatively, you could predrill a hole and sink in a screw until it's just below the surface of the wood to reinforce the drawer front really well, then patch over that with wood filler. Glued drawers sound like a pain!

    • Julia says:

      I used to work on boats. Epoxy will "glue" it forever. It's a 2 part mix and you can buy "small task" kits at Home Depot or Lowes.

  20. Emily says:

    This looks awesome! I just bought a $5 dresser from Habitat ReStore today and plan to do a similar finish on it! Thanks for the inspiration!

  21. [...] Th&#1077 Pegboard Posted in DIY | Tagged as: Dresser, Refurbish | Leave a comment [...]

  22. [...] wrote about the transformation this week for DIY Network’s blog, The Pegboard, so head over here to see the whole project from beginning to [...]


About Emily Fazio 


I caught the home improvement bug at an early age, and now I'm a full-time DIYer living in Rochester, NY. The projects I cover on my blog Merrypad range ...

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