DIY Dresser Makeover

Over this past Presidents Day three-day weekend, I finally did a DIY dresser makeover project I’d been thinking about for a while. I never needed a dresser in my old place, but as it turns out, I lucked into a great project with plenty of sentimental history.

diy dresser makeover
Before – a dresser with a long history

Every do-it-yourself furniture project is, on a certain level, a labor of love. You saw the piece somewhere – a garage sale, Craigslist, a thrift shop, grandma’s basement, your own house – and you thought it had enough potential to become something else. Something more. Something you’d use again, something you needed, something you would love. You spent the time thinking about what it could be. You spent the time prepping, sanding, stripping, nailing, painting, waxing, cutting, screwing, staining. And when it’s all done, well, your vision came to life. Or not. Either way, it was a crapload of work. So you’re keeping it, damn it. Forever.

Maybe after doing enough pieces it becomes different, more of a curiosity project than a real labor. Maybe that’s how people do this for a living and sell their pieces off when they’re finished. I don’t know. All I know is that I look at things I’ve done and still get the little thrill of, “I did that. That’s mine. And it used to be so ugly/broken/wrong for that space/not my style. And now it rocks.”

That’s why this particular DIY dresser makeover project is extra special. The Before is a very common pine dresser with a blah orangey finish and very common brass fixtures. You’ve probably seen a million of ‘em. I have too. But this particular dresser was my childhood changing table. My parents drove around suburban California to buy it used, hauled it home and used it for the next 25 years – first as a changing table and later as the gloves/hats/scarves dresser in the front closet. When I look at the After now, I get a little thrill of, “My parents used this for years. I used to be a tiny bundle of poo that could fit on top of this. And now it’s mine. And it fits my decor. And it looks awesome.”

diy dresser makeover
Me and Dresser, circa the late 1980s

So here’s how it went down (going to be a long one):

1. Gritty. There is no way around a ton of sanding on a project like this. None. No amount of crying or hoping or taking an excessive amount of time on prep items like unscrewing the pulls will save you from the fact that you will have to sand away all of the crap to get to real, stainable wood. I honestly think this is why so many people just say “whatevs” and paint wooden dressers (thereby earning the ire of the “I’m so aghast you painted over wood grain on a dime-a-dozen dresser that you own and now I will denigrate your taste and your pedigree in this public-but-anonymous forum” crowd).

Disclaimer: I have never used nor attempted to use any kind of chemical stripping agent. Maybe that would make my life easier. In a sick way, though, I kind of like sanding and how much of a pain it is…

I started with the drawers, and they were deceivingly easy. Getting down to the wood is so satisfying.

diy dresser makeover
“Soon you’ll be gloriously naked too,” said left drawer to right drawer.

Thinking that I lead a charmed existence and that I could knock this project out in a single afternoon, I moved on to the actual dresser frame itself. Needless to say, completely different story over here. The 80-grit sandpaper I used so effectively on the drawers barely even made a dent in the finish on the top and sides.

After my hands had gone numb from the incessant vibration of the sander, I had made exactly this much progress:

diy dresser makeover

Refusing to admit defeat and finally conquering my own laziness, I went out and got some 40-grit sandpaper sheets. It worked so well that I kind of hated myself for being so lazy and not going out and getting some 40-grit sheets as soon as I realized the 80-grit wasn’t cutting it. Lesson learned? Probably not…

I still had a lot of sanding ahead of me, though. I sanded the entire dresser down with 40, then worked my way up with progressively finer grits until I had sanded the entire thing and the drawers with 220-grit sandpaper. Do not skip the fine-grit sanding. It makes the difference between “nice dresser” and “oh my god, touch this dresser – it feels so amazingly smooth and I can’t stop petting it.” Trust – you want the latter.

I finished off the sanding phase with some #0000 gauge steel wool.

2. Body modifications. I was still persisting in my fantasy that I could finish this in one afternoon when I realized that I really wanted to remove the decorative pieces along the bottom. The square-corner legs underneath would be a much better, cleaner look.

diy dresser makeover
Can I just saw it off? ugh.

Figuring out how to get them off was another story. The bolts in this dresser are square-holed, not Phillips or slothead. I used an Allen wrench in a smaller size that fit into the square holes, but there were so many bolts at random awkward angles, that taking off the wood pieces took far longer than expected.

I also filled in all the exposed bolt holes with stainable wood filler before staining.

3. Stain, Your Honor. While picking up some of my beloved Minwax Red Mahogany at the big orange box, I saw Minwax’s relatively new “Classic Gray” and got a can of that on a whim. My roommate convinced me that the gray would look much better than my classic reddish stain in my deep blue bedroom. And oh, how right she was.

Minwax Classic Gray isn’t a replacement for the vinegar-and-steel-wool method of fake “aging” wood. It’s not a driftwood stain, either. At least with pine, it sort of just tints everything a little gray (I know, I know – shocking for a stain product).

4. Oops! to Ooh! I decided to paint the front of the dresser (just the frame between the drawers) partly because I thought it would look nice and partly because I didn’t want to sand all the way to the wood in those small spaces. My roommate had some extra of her bedroom wall paint (Behr Ocean Pearl), a pretty gray-white-beige color, so I borrowed a bit of that.

I know, I know – I painted wood! The sacrilege! Whatever. I feel like the sheer amount of effort I went through to get down to the wood of the rest of it (instead of just painting over the whole thing) has earned me the right to do whatever I want with the dresser. Plus, it’s mine.

diy dresser makeover
Only a leeeeetle paint

Naturally, I got some on the wood I had just stained. If I was a real pro, I’d have sanded the paint off and re-stained, but because I wax optimistic always, I just tried to wipe the paint off. Needless to say, it didn’t come off. It did, however, do a cool sort of whitewash effect that looks sort of like chalk.

The stripe on the left has the paint effect, the rest doesn’t. Isn’t it great?

diy dresser makeover
Accidental awesome.
diy dresser makeover
It’s not ruined – promise!

So I did it to the whole thing. Wahoo. I brushed the paint on lightly with a regular paintbrush and then buffed it out with steel wool. I have no idea if this is a real thing, but it worked well for me.

5. Wax on, wax off.

Final step was to decide between polyurethane and wax. I adore a waxed finish, but the downside is that it’s not as durable as poly and less-advisable on any piece that will receive a lot of use (like a dresser…), plus it will likely need to be reapplied much sooner than a poly finish. In the end, though, my love of wax won out.

diy dresser makeover
Minwax Paste Wax brings the pretty.

6. Admire at will.

I thought about painting the brass pulls, but in the end I just cleaned them and put them back on. I like the look of them with the color of the wood.

And then it was finally done!

diy dresser makeover
Could not love this more if I tried.
diy dresser makeover
diy dresser makeover

Remember the Before?

diy dresser makeover

diy dresser makeover

I looooove it. You can’t see in these pics, but it is super silky-smooth to the touch and the almost marbled effect of the gray stain, wood and whitewash thingy I did looks amazing.

Round up

Time: 11 hours, spread over the three-day weekend. It was a lot of sanding and a lot of time spent figuring out how to remove the scrolled wood pieces at the bottom without damaging the whole frame.


  • Dresser – free! Have to love family hand-me-downs.
  • Sandpaper – $15 (sheets of 40-, 80- and 220-grit)
  • Steel wool – already owned
  • Power sander – already owned
  • Stain – $7 (Minwax Classic Gray)
  • Wood filler – already owned
  • Wax – already owned
  • Allen wrench – already owned

Total: $22. Can’t get a dresser for that at Pottery Barn.

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4 Responses to DIY Dresser Makeover

  1. Jenifer says:

    i love your dresser. thanks for sharing. i am giving new life to my bedroom furniture and may try this.

  2. Megan says:

    Found your Before / After on Apartment Therapy. Love the full post – thank you for the details (very helpful to someone like me attempting my first refurb!) AND especially love the humor with which you approach the situation. The dresser is beautiful and (you’re right) it’s ALL YOURS. You get to do whatever the heck you want! Well done!

    • Claire says:

      Thank you, Megan! Your kind words are so appreciated! I really need to get back on the blogging wagon… thanks again and best of luck!

  3. LeeAnn says:

    This is just what I was looking for. Just purchased an old dresser for my daughter’s college apt. We already created a headboard out of scrap wood and lightly stained it gray. I’m going to follow your lead and use the same stain for the dresser. It’s a different wood so it won’t match – yea! We’ll replace the wooden pulls with faceted glass and she will have a shabby chic bedroom.
    Your finished product is beautiful & inspiring!

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