Tuesday, May 31, 2016

How to Refinish an Antique Dresser

So you've spotted the most gorgeous antique dresser ever on craigslist...well, it could be gorgeous, right now it's a dumpster fire, or more realistically, excellent kindling for a dumpster fire. How HOW do you take that dresser from hot mess to hell yes? I'm about to tell you. 
Here it is, my tell-all. All the secrets, all my tips and tricks, all the advice and shortcuts. 

I did this in one day, and so can you!

Step 1. Prep Your Case

            The case is the part of the dresser that isn't the feet or top. On this particular dresser, as is common for most empire chests of drawers, it is mahogany veneer over Eastern white pine. The veneer was in pretty good condition, but after a hundred and fifty years, there was some loss (i.e. pieces of veneer flaking off). You want to remove any veneer that's bubbled up or loose, then fill all the chips and holes. I like using wood putty on veneer loss, it takes a while to dry, but is good and hard after, and easy to apply. I slather on a thick layer (usually with my finger), let it dry, sand it with my orbital sander, then apply a second thinner layer to any places that still have slight indentations, then sand once more.

 2. Address the Top

      Lazy furniture refinishers will just paint their tops. Yea, it's easy, and it saves many steps, but come on, the top's the best part! With this antique chest I actually got a bit of a surprise. I had expected several boards of eastern white pine, as is typical for empire pieces, but instead, I found a single 21.5 inch deep solid cherry board. Breathtaking! I use a dewalt orbital sander to remove just about anything from a wood surface; 80 grit to get the old finish off (paint included), and 220 grit to make it baby's butt smooth. I then layer coat after coat of poly until the top is like glass. For a more in-depth description of how I finish wood surfaces -read this blog post

 3. Stain Away!

         This is easily one of the most satisfying parts of the process. It doesn't really take any skill, but it will get your hands filthy. I suppose if you're obnoxious and high strung you can wear gloves to apply stain, or you can just show off those stained cuticles proudly like battle scars, like I do. I always use minwax. It comes in something like 24 shades, and is pretty reliable. Old wood takes stain darker than new wood, I'm guessing because the wood has lost most of its moisture and so the grain is more open. Cherry and mahogany will always pull red and dark, no matter the color you choose. Poplar hates to take any red and pulls more to yellows and browns. Maple and Pine are pretty pliable, and generally take just about any shade you throw at them. Oak pulls lighter, as does chestnut. Long story short, there are a lot of factors that might impact the color of your stained wood, don't just go by the picture. Oh, and dust that surface off before you stain it. I apply stain and then immediately wipe it off. Letting it sit, especially in a dry environment makes it tacky and hard to remove. And never stain outside in hot direct sunlight, it causes the stain to blister up from the wood in yucky blotches as it dries.

Step 4: Make Your Paint

         This is by far the step I get the most questions about, and with good reason, choosing the wrong paint, or improperly prepping a surface can really ruin a great piece of furniture. And some people will inevitably get all huffy about painting antique furniture to begin with. Click here for my thoughts on painting antique furniture- http://heirandspace.blogspot.com/2016/01/on-painting-furniture.html
I make my own chalk paint, like, not from scratch like some pilgrim woman. I'm not out there crushing madder to make dye. I buy bright saturated colors in gallons, as well as gallons of white and cream paint. I then mix many shades to make my own colors, cause I'm a weirdo. I use eggshell latex. That can is Clark and Kensington Paint and Primer, it's been good as any. The real trick is in the additive. I buy chalk paint additive from Amazon, $20 for a pound, which is enough to do lots and lots of furniture. I can't keep track but, it's a lot. So I mix a color to my liking, then I mix the additive with water until it's soupy and chuck that into the paint and stir. It works great. Yes, you can buy Annie Sloan or Amy Howard or Miss Mustard Seed, but they're all like $45 a quart. That to me is nuts. That gallon cost me something like $28. And I've painted around 5,000 pieces of furniture, so you can probably take my word on this one.

        This is the most important step, so I'm going to obnoxiously write it all in bold. Here's the thing those fancy "furniture paint" companies don't tell you. Every piece of furniture is different. There is no logic or reason to it. It's like there's a mad furniture god above making adhesion decisions willy nilly. After defiantly shaking your fist at YE GODDE OF CHIPPED AND PEALING PAINT, you take whatever paint you've chosen, be it $45 a quart imported from England shipped in a gold box Annie Sloan, or bargain basement walmart flat wall paint (I won't judge), and you apply a bit on the case. Just like a few brush strokes, enough to coat, maybe an 8" x 8" section. Let it fully dry. Then give it the "scratch test".  If you can remove the paint by medium force scratching it with your nail, the adhesion is crap and you cannot move forward, pass go, or collect $200. If however, the paint stays put but changes color where you scratched ( a lighter shade) winner winner, chicken dinner!

And now this guide becomes a choose your own adventure.
IF your paint is adhering nicely, move on to Step 6. If, however, that paint came right off when you scratched it, do not despair, find you furniture salvation in step 5.5

Step 5.5: So You Have an Adhesion Issue
          Hey, it happens, and it's common for many adults. Adhesion is an issue often ignored and hard to broach. It's ok, I'm here for you. Your surface is too slick and your paint won't stick. That's what it comes down to in a nut shell. Sand it. Paint needs something to grip in order to adhere. Some people like de-glossers, but I've had 'meh' luck with them. I've found priming a slick surface with an oil based primer, Kilz and the like, to work well. So fix the problem (sand, prime, or sometimes both) and then apply a new test patch. That should do the trick, if not, try lighting the piece on fire and running for the hills, it might not help, but at that point it's damn satisfying.

 Step 5.75 Help! It's Bleeding!!

           Also if you have bleed through (where the old stain is seeping through the new paint, apply any oil based top coat to block it before applying paint. Sometimes I'll just give the trouble spots a few swipes with polyurethane or kilz, always does the trick! You can even do this between coats if you apply your first coat and then hit trouble.

Step 6: Paint Some More
          Again, every piece of furniture is different. Sometimes you only need to paint two coats to get perfect coverage, sometimes it takes three hundred and forty four, in which case I also recommend lighting the piece on fire and running for the hills. Yellows are notorious for thin coverage.

Step 7: Distressing
          I never get any questions about distressing, and it's a step where the best laid plans so oft go awry. You are not trying to make your dresser look like it's been attacked by a wolverine, or like it's wearing camouflage. You have two goals when distressing: To make your paint surface look old (and thereby natural) and to bring out the architecture of the piece. Or don't distress at all. If you hate the look of distressed furniture, ignore this bit. For those of you who like it, here's how to get the right look-
 Sand by hand. You DO NOT distress with an electric sander. You are trying to mimic the wear patterns of thousand of hands touching this painted surface for decades, so ask yourself what parts of the furniture would naturally get the most wear. It's the edges, raised surfaces, and around knobs and keyholes typically. But I like to artfully hit any carving or detail work especially, the wood that is brought through will make it stand out. I use an 80 grit to remove paint, and then I go back and sand the entire piece (except the top) with 220 grit to make the paint satin smooth.

Step 8: Waxing!

         You're almost there! Now to seal that beautiful paint surface so nothing ruins it! Lots of the furniture paint suppliers also sell finishing wax, but (surprise, surprise) I make my own, and it's better. I use Johnson & Johnson clear paste wax, it comes in a yellow tin and it's $10 in the cleaning aisle at Home Depot. I then mix the wax with minwax stain, usually dark walnut, though you can use any shade you like to get the color you want. It's soft, pliable, and makes the paint surface fully washable and ultra durable. It's the bomb.

Wax on, wax off. Work in small sections removing any excess dark wax as you go, it hardens quickly so don't let it sit.
You can see the difference it makes in depth and tone. Always remember to take the take wax into account when choosing your initial paint color! You can see how much it changes the shade.

It looks disgusting, it works like a dream
Step 9: Hardware

          I could write volumes just on what hardware suits what forms and why you should choose one color over another, but my husband has just pointed out that I've been typing for far longer than the 45 minutes I told him this would take, so I'll keep this brief. Knobs and pulls come in all different shapes, sizes, and price points both new and vintage. It comes down to taste, and sometimes to the other pieces in the room you're planning to put the dresser in when it's finished. Just remember that drawer front depths vary greatly and the screws the pulls came with will often not fit at all. You're totally allowed to swear and stamp around at that point, I almost always do. And then just grab one of the pulls, or hell, one of the offending drawers too, and dash to your local hardware store, mess about until you find the screws that will fit best. After years of mad dashes I've learned to save every screw from every pull I've ever removed, so I have quite the disorganized cache. I can usually find what I need by digging through it, but sometimes I still have to do the dash to Ace Hardware.

Step 10: Brag

        Because you've saved something wonderful and old and made it new and beautiful again. You've worked hard and you should absolutely sip wine and text pictures of your new masterpiece to everyone you know.

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