How to Refinish a Wood Dresser

Paint's great, but it may not be right for every piece. Give your old wood furniture an updated look with our step-by-step guide to refinishing.

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Stop passing up perfectly good thrift store finds. Refinishing a piece of furniture—like this beautiful oak dresser—isn't as difficult as you think. With the right tools and a little elbow grease, you can go from blah to beautiful in just one day.

Our dresser, for example, was  stripped of a dull coat of blue-gray paint so its lustrous graining and elegant lines could shine. Then, turquoise hardware was added to lend a contemporary twist to the decades-old heirloom. Follow our how-to steps so you can refinish your own furniture. 

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What You Need

  • Drop cloth
  • Nitrile gloves
  • Respirator
  • Wood stripper (we used Citristrip)
  • 2- and 4-inch foam brushes
  • 2- and 3-inch putty knives
  • Scrap bucket
  • Small wire-bristle brushes
  • Steel wool
  • Mineral spirits 
  • Medium (80–60) and fine (200–100) sandpaper
  • Tack cloths
  • Stirrer and stain
  • Staining pads
  • Paintbrushes
  • Cheesecloth
  • Water-base polyurethane
  • Spray paint

Step 1: Apply Wood Stripper

Remove hardware from dresser and place in a safe spot. Remove drawers. Place dresser and drawers on a leakproof drop cloth in a ventilated area. Then, wearing gloves and respirator, use an inexpensive paintbrush to apply a 1/8-inch- thick layer of wood stripper.

Step 2: Scrape Off Paint

Once the entire surface has bubbled, use a plastic putty knife to scrape off paint; discard paint remnants in a scrap bucket. If additional paint remains, if the wood is deeply grained, or if the piece is particularly ornate, you may need to apply a second coat of stripper and repeat the scraping process. Use a small wire-bristle brush to remove any paint from crevices.

Step 3: Remove Residue

Using a piece of steel wool and rubbing with the direction of the grain, wipe the wood down with mineral spirits to remove stripper and paint residue. You may see bits of paint on the surface still, but that's OK. Allow the wood surface to dry about 15 minutes.

Step 4: Sand Dresser

Sand the dresser using a medium-grit sandpaper, moving with even pressure and in the direction of the grain. Sand thoroughly, including all details. Wipe down with a tack cloth to remove dust. Sand again with a finer-grit sandpaper. Wipe with a clean tack cloth again. If you are not satisfied with the wood's appearance, sand again, using the finest-grit paper. Wipe down again.

Step 5: Stain Dresser

Thoroughly stir stain and, using a paintbrush or staining pad, apply stain, working in the direction of the grain and completing small areas at a time. After applying stain in one section, wait about 5 minutes and then wipe section with a cheesecloth to remove excess or until you achieve the desired color. Continue applying stain over the rest of the dresser. Repeat staining steps if a darker color is desired. Let dry according to the manufacturer directions, from 8 to 24 hours.

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Step 6: Apply Polyurethane

Wipe down the dresser with a clean tack cloth or cheesecloth. Working first on the horizontal surface, drizzle a light line of polyurethane onto the dresser. Spread in the direction of the grain using a bristle brush, working quickly and brushing over the same area only as much as needed to avoid bubbles, streaks, or imperfections. Cover the entire dresser. Let dry completely, about 12 to 24 hours. 

If a second coat of polyurethane is desired or imperfections appear, lightly sand with very fine grit sandpaper; wipe with a tack or cheese cloth. Repeat the polyurethane process.

While the polyurethane dries, spray-paint the hardware. Allow to dry completely, then reinstall.

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