April 21, 2023  

How to Refinish a Dresser in 9 Easy Steps


Do you have an old dresser you want to refinish? These eight easy steps will walk you through the entire process to give your old wooden dresser a new look with stain.

When I was furnishing our baby boy’s nursery, one of the projects I was most excited to work on was refinishing my Grandma’s old wooden dresser. The dresser itself has gorgeous detailing and is in great shape, and I knew it would make an amazingly aesthetic changing table with a little elbow grease.

You’ll see in the before pictures below that this dresser had a light yellow finish to it and I wasn’t 100% sure what I would find underneath all that yellow. It turned out to be a sturdy, solid-wood dresser that was just waiting to be refinished!

This project took me a couple of weekends to complete. First, I sanded and stripped the old finish off of the dresser and drawers. Then it took some experimenting to come up with a stain color that I liked. Every stain I tried brought out orange undertones in the wood that I wasn’t excited about, so I ended up bleaching the wood first and that worked so well!

If you’re looking to refinish a dresser or other wood furniture piece on a budget, this step-by-step guide will show you how! I’ll share everything I did in the steps below. Set aside a weekend or a few afternoons, and let’s take those old pieces of furniture from your relatives or the thrift stores and give it a new look.

Learn more about our green boy nursery here:

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Before & After

When my grandma passed away and we were cleaning out her house, this dresser caught my eye. I was looking for a nice dresser for our future baby’s nursery and thought it would be so special to have a piece of Grandma in our home. Plus, refinishing an old dresser is a great way to save some money!

It looks a little rough here, but I was really drawn to the fluted detailing on the drawers. The interior of the drawers were in great shape, the outside just needed a little cosmetic help.

And you can see below how the refinished dresser turned out! I love that I was able to give this old dresser new life, and it works perfectly as a changing table.

Watch The Video

Check out the before and after videos linked below!

How To Refinish A Dresser

I’ve included the full tutorial with details steps below, but if you want a quick overview of how I refinished this dresser first, you can see the entire project unfold in my Instagram Highlight. You’ll see clips there of every step of this project, including some of the mistakes I made along the way! 

Tool & Supply List

For this project, you’ll need the following items:

Tools:

Supplies:

Step #1 – Evaluate the Dresser’s Condition

The first step is to take a look at the dresser and see what sort of condition it’s in. If it’s in good condition, you can get away with just sanding and staining. But if it’s in bad shape, you might have to do some repair work first – patching up holes, filling in cracks, etc.

Once you’ve determined the condition of the dresser, it’s time to start disassembling it. This means removing all the hardware (like the legs and drawer handles), removing each drawer, and unscrewing anything that can be taken apart.

Also, take note of what your dresser is made of. Is it solid wood? Veneer? Laminate? Depending on the type of dresser, the refinishing process will be slightly different.

If you’re unsure, carefully sand a small area to find out. This article is a good overview of how to tell the difference between wood, veneer, and laminate furniture.

You can see in the photo below, I took my orbital sander to the side of the dresser to see what I was dealing with under the yellow finish. I was so excited to see the pretty wood grain hiding underneath!

Step #2 – Define Your Direction

Before moving any further, you need to consider what direction you’re taking your dresser. What’s it for, and where in your home are you using it? What color and style are you going for? Are you staining or painting it?

This is the time to really think about what type of look will work best in your home. Research different styles and take inspiration from photos online or in magazines. You can stain the dresser or paint the entire piece. You could also give it a fresh look with a stained top and painted base.

I knew a natural wood dresser would look pretty against the dark green walls, but was also prepared to paint the dresser if the wood was in too poor of shape for stain.

After inspecting my dresser and sanding a few areas to get a peek at what was under the original finish, the wood looked to be in great shape and I was excited to turn it into a light color wood dresser for our nursery.

Step #3 – Make Any Repairs

This an optional step for those who need it, but if there’s any damage on your dresser, now’s the time to fix it. I got lucky with mine as it was kept in excellent condition and didn’t require any repair.

However, if you do need to patch up any holes or cracks, or deep scratches, use wood filler and follow the instructions on the package. Bondo can also be helpful if you have areas that are more severely damaged.

If you’re planning to replace the hardware with something new, the easy way is to choose new hardware that can use the existing holes. But if you need different holes for the hardware, now’s the time to fill in the old ones with wood filler.

Step #4 – Sand The Whole Dresser

Before refinishing your dresser, we need to get the surfaces ready for the products you want to use. And this means sanding everything down and making sure there are no imperfections. It’s basically a process of clearing the slate and giving yourself a blank canvas. I highly suggest wearing a dust mask for this!

If you’re painting the dresser, you can usually get away without sanding off all of the existing finish. Go over everything well with an orbital sander to remove the shiny top coat and rough up the existing finish. From there, you’ll be ready to prime and paint.

If you’re staining your dresser like I am, you’ll want to remove all of the existing finish so you can stain the bare wood. Use your orbital sander to sand away all of the finish – I started with 80-grit sandpaper.

Be careful to hold it flat and steady so you don’t accidentally sand too much off. I got a little heavy-handed and rounded the corner of one drawer so be careful you don’t get too crazy!

Sand as much of the dresser as you can with your electric sander, including the dresser top and sides plus as much of the drawer fronts as possible. If you have a finish sander or another power sander that can get in the corners/small areas, use that next.

Then tackle the nooks and crannies by hand with a sanding block. I also used a paint stripper with a scraper and wire brushes on the grooves on the drawer fronts. Steel wool can also be helpful here, but the wire brushes worked great for me.

Follow the directions for the specific chemical stripper you use, for mine I brushed on a thick coat and let it sit for about 20 minutes before scraping. You’ll need at least one coat of stripper, but two may be necessary to completely remove all of that finish from your old piece of furniture.

Take your time as you work and don’t be discouraged if this step takes a while. As with a lot of DIY projects, the prep work isn’t the most glamorous part but it’s super important for getting a polished final look.

Once you’ve removed the existing finish, go back over the entire thing again with a finer grit sandpaper to get a super smooth finish. I went over the whole dresser with 150-grit and then 220-grit sandpaper to make sure the wood was extra smooth and ready for wood stain.

After you finish sanding, wipe the whole thing down with a tack cloth to remove the dust particles so it’s ready for paint or stain.

Step #5 – Bleach The Wood (optional)

Now, this is where things get interesting with my dresser project. After testing out a few stain colors, I discovered that all of them brought out the red undertones and made the wood look a lot more orange-ish than I was going for.

This is when I decided to try bleaching the wood. I’ve seen other DIYers do this before as a way to lighten up their furniture and remove some of the red/orange undertones from the wood. I remembered my friend Liz from Within the Grove doing this on a past dresser project so I went and found her wood bleaching tutorial.

You can purchase bleach specifically for wood/furniture projects, but I opted to try regular old household bleach first since I already had some at home.

Put on some old clothes that you’re okay getting bleach splatters on, wear plastic gloves, and pour some bleach into an old container. Use a cheap disposable paintbrush to brush the bleach onto your dresser. Fair warning, the bleach literally ate away the bristles on my brush as I worked so I went through a few of them during this project.

Brush on a thin and even coat of bleach over the entire surface of the dresser and drawers. You don’t want to over-saturate the wood or let the liquid pool, just a light coat is good. Then let the wood air dry, ideally in the sunshine. It was pretty incredible to see the bleach working its magic, the wood got a lot lighter as it dried!

You can do as many coats of bleach as you want to get the look you’re going for. I ended up doing two coats on most spots and three coats on a couple of areas that seemed darker than the rest. I set everything out on the driveway to dry in the sun between coats.

Step #6 – Neutralize The Bleach With Vinegar (optional)

Important: Once the dresser reaches your desired lightness, a very important step is to neutralize the bleach. Don’t skip this! The bleach will continue to eat away at the wood unless it is neutralized with vinegar.

Mix 1 part vinegar with 3 parts water in a bowl and use a clean paintbrush to apply a light, even coat of vinegar over the entire dresser.

Once the wood dries, you’ll notice that the wood probably feels rough again. This is because getting the wood wet and using the bleach technique exposes the wood fibers. Sand everything smooth again with 22-grit sandpaper and wipe off the dust with a tack cloth so you have a super smooth surface that’s ready for paint.

Step #7 – Stain Or Paint the Dresser

Now that you’ve removed the old finish, sanded everything down, and bleached the wood (if desired), the next step is to paint or stain your dresser! This is the most exciting step because you can finally apply the final color you’ve been imagining. 

Painting Your Dresser

If you’re painting the wood, use a high-quality bristle paint brush or paint sprayer to apply a light, even coat of primer followed by 1-2 layers of paint. A small foam roller also works well, especially for rolling a smooth coat across the top of the dresser.

Lightly sand the primer and paint with 220-grit sandpaper in between each coat for the smoothest finish on your painted dresser.

Staining Your Dresser

If you’re using wood stain, simply dip a clean rag in the stain and rub the new stain into the wood in a circular motion. Foam brushes are also a good way to apply wood stain. Wipe away the excess stain with a clean rag.

It’s a good idea to work with light coats of stain so I have more control over the resulting color. You can always apply a second coat if you want to go darker with the color but keep that first coat light so you can see how it looks.

I tested a couple of popular stain colors including Flagstone by Varathane (see above) which I love on a lot of other refinished dressers I’ve seen.

I’m not sure what kind of wood this is, but the stains I tried brought out too much of the red undertones (the ones I worked so hard to remove with the bleach!). So I sanded off the stain test spots and tried again.

I found this new-to-me Mixwax Wood-Sheen product at the hardware store and liked that it’s a stain and finish all in one. The natural color ended up being the best option for this dresser refinishing project. It warmed up the wood a little bit and gave it a really nice look. I wiped on one coat and it was good to go!

Step #8 – Apply a Protective Top Coat

Once you’re finished staining or painting your dresser, apply a protective top coat to seal your furniture. This is important for protecting your refinished dresser from damage such as water marks, scuffs, etc.

There are quite a few products that can be used for this, my favorites are this Minwax Paste Finishing Wax in the color Natural on top of stain and Minwax Polycrylic on top of paint (though if you used a durable enamel paint, you don’t really need a separate top coat). Both of the products I’ve linked provide a clear protective finish and, in my experience, don’t change the color of your paint or stain.

I used Minwax Paste Finishing Wax in the Natural color and applied it over the entire dresser in a circular motion with a clean rag. Let it sit for 15 minutes, then buff it with a clean rag. This clear wax gives it a protective top coat.

Step #9 – add Hardware

And, for the final step, it’s time to add the hardware to your dresser drawers! You can either add new hardware or put the original hardware back on the dresser.

I soaked the original handles and knobs in a bowl of vinegar and scrubbed them clean, then gave them two coats of satin black spray paint. This was the perfect way to give them a modern look without needing to spend money on new hardware.

Reattach your hardware and that’s it!


I’m so happy with this dresser makeover! It looks gorgeous in our modern boy nursery and I love that I was able to give a whole new look to my Grandma’s vintage dresser. 

I just love a good furniture makeover, don’t you? Refinishing an outdated dresser takes some hard work and it can take a lot of time, but it’s not as difficult as you might think! 

Now that this furniture makeover is done, I’m excited to tackle another piece of old furniture. I’m thinking I’ll refinish an outdated dresser for our master bedroom and I also want to refinish our honey oak dining table.

Learn more about our green boy nursery here:

Have a fantastic day!

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About the author

Emily Counts is the founder of Small Stuff Counts, a home and organization blog she created in 2013. Her goal is to help moms make home life easier so they can create beautiful, organized, and thriving homes. She shares life at home as a mom juggling two young kids and being a working mom with a corporate job. The Iowa-based blogger lives in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, with her husband, two children, and rescue dog. Emily has collaborated with brands including The Container Store, Cricut, Command Brand, Bissell, Sam's Club and Rubbermaid.

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