In the Details

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Vintage Dresser Makeover

We have been needing a sideboard/console for our dining room for ages. We have five people stuffed into a small house and every inch of space around here counts, so it needed to be something that really worked for us. We are in sort of a transitional phase — our Ikea furniture is showing signs of wear and tear, but we can’t afford to replace it with the kind of stuff we like. Every time we need something new I swear we won’t end up at Ikea…and then three weeks later I’m there. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ikea. Their stuff is interesting and functional. I know our home will always include some Ikea. But sometimes I crave a piece of furniture that is unique, solid, does not require assembly and is built to truly last. No MDF, no allen key. But what stands in our way most is budget. The kind of furniture Mike and I like is way too expensive for us. A solid wood sideboard at Restoration Hardware is at least $2700 and a French inspired dresser at Au Lit here in Toronto can cost twice that. And even if I had that kind of money, I’m not sure I’d spend it on a piece of furniture that will undoubtedly have Hot Wheels cars running over it several times a day. So, after browsing Pinterest for some inspiration, I thought I’d try my hand at beautifying a Craig’s List dresser.

The piece I found was built in Strathroy, Ontario in the 1960’s and it is really solid. So solid in fact that Mike and I got stuck on our back stairs and had to call in a neighbour to help us haul it into our house! The Craig’s List seller was asking $300 for the dresser and mirror pictured below, plus two bedside tables. I spent many hours looking for a piece that I thought would work, so when I found this one I was really happy and managed to talk the seller into selling me just the dresser for $150. I liked the middle cupboard that opens onto three drawers and thought it gave it more of a “sideboard” feel than a dresser feel. Mike helped me cart the beast home and was encouraging when I told him about my plans to sand, prime and paint it. I had never refinished a piece of furniture in my life so I’m not sure what he was actually thinking behind that smile! Brace yourself, here’s a pic from the Craig’s List ad:

 

Can you see the potential?! No, neither could Mike.

Once we got the dresser home, I realized that it was going to need more work than I had anticipated (and would require help from Mike!). The drawers got stuck and didn’t slide as well as they should and all of the old fashioned hardware was a strange size so I’d have to fill the holes and drill new ones to replace it. I tried not to get overwhelmed by these little details and instead set to work. There are so many DIY blogs and YouTube videos online that I had almost unlimited access to “experts” on painting furniture. The people at The Paint Depot not too far from my house were also very helpful. I took some photos along the way so hopefully I can explain a bit of what Mike and I did to turn the dresser into something pretty special (just wait for the big reveal below!).

Here’s a closer shot of the dresser before I did anything to it. My ultimate goal was to have something that looked vintage and sort of French. Think “shabby chic” (but not too shabby).

I began by removing all of the hardware and sanding the entire piece. Thankfully the weather was great so I could work outside. I used a sanding block and sand paper for some areas, but also an electric sander (such an awesome tool!). My goal was not to completely strip the finish, but just to really rough it up so that the primer had something to stick to and I had some nice wood shining through at the end when I did my “shabby chic” effect. Here’s Mike lending a hand:

The drawers had to be sanded on the top and bottom of their faces to help them open and close without sticking and I also used wax to help them slide more easily. Then I had to fill all of the holes left by the original hardware. I used a generous amount of wood filler and then left it to dry over night. I sanded again the next day and then filled the holes again, since the wood filler kind of shrinks. After the second round of wood filler was dry and sanded the drawers felt smooth to the touch, but I was still nervous that the old holes would show after painting. For this and many other reasons, I knew a good primer was key for this project.

Below is a pic of the dresser during the priming process. The primer didn’t go on very smoothly — it looked pretty awful to be honest. But the primer’s only job is to give the paint something to stick to so it didn’t really matter what it looked like.

All of the grooves, column details and little carved flowers on this dresser made it a pain to prime and paint and way too ambitious for a first-ever furniture project, but once we got started we just tried to be patient and positive. We don’t have any spare space in our house so I was mostly working in our dining room, which is where we eat, work and play. For this reason I worked evenings when the kids were asleep, usually from about 9 p.m. until midnight. Thankfully I had lots and lots of help from Mike or I’d still be painting this damn dresser today!

Here’s a pic of all the drawers being primed, and taking up all of our dining space!

The woman at the paint shop predicted I’d do one coat of primer and two coats of paint so this is about what I expected (and prepared Mike for!). I knew that it was better to do more thin coats than fewer thick coats, so that the brush strokes would be camouflaged (I used a smaller roller on big areas but there were a lot of areas where only a brush would do). But after two coats we knew that there was no way we could call the sideboard done. Here’s the sideboard beginning to take shape after about four coats (I was starting to get excited!):

I did a light sanding between coats to improve the finish. I wanted it to look and feel really smooth. In the end we had to do one coat of primer and five to six coats of paint to get a finish we liked. That part of the reason this week-long project took well over a month!

Once we were satisfied with our paintwork, I started working to get that “shabby chic” look. I used sand paper to rough up some edges on the dresser. I did a bit of reading and browsing around at fancy shops like Au Lit and Crate and Barrel and realized that the nicest pieces were distressed in a sort of symmetrical way. Even though I wanted the wear to look authentic (i.e. on places that really would wear over time, like the edges of the drawers and top), the eyes like symmetry. I was really nervous to start sanding after all of that painting, but right away the piece started to look alive. It is a vintage piece after all, and we wanted it to look that way. Here’s my daughter Noelle lending a hand just after we started adding the hardware:


I bought three different sets of hardware at Home Depot before I finally gave up and realized I was going to have a spend a little more money than I had budgeted. It seemed a shame to spend so much time and energy on sanding, priming, fixing and priming this piece and then use cheap hardware. A friend recommended Upper Canada Hardware here in Toronto and of course I checked Restoration Hardware, but both places were way too pricey (although their stuff is gorgeous!). Eventually, I found something I liked at Lee Valley Tools. Their “spa” hardware is really pretty and is sort of “mid-range” in terms of price (I think we paid about $120 for everything, including the hinges and taxes). Mike drilled the holes for me in the drawers and hung the middle door for me too. I have to get over my phobia of drills. Getting new hinges for the door turned out to be lots of trouble as nothing was available in the same size as the old hinges. But wood filler and new hinges to the rescue!

Here’s the dresser with just a few finishing touches to go:

Oh, I almost forgot to show you my favourite detail of all! I really wanted the three drawers in the centre cupboard to be a special spots for each of the kids. I found a wonderful seller on Etsy who makes custom monogram decals. I thought of painting them myself or having Mike create something for me on the computer (he’s a graphic designer) but SingleStory's designs and prices were too good to pass up. Three decals (one for each child: Evan, James and Noelle) cost $9 plus shipping and arrived within a week. Now everybody has a spot for their special items and I have somewhere to stick all of the little treasures I find all over the main floor! Don't they look cute?

So after the painting was done, the hardware was in place, the door hung with new hinges and the decals were stuck, the only thing left to do was order a piece of glass to protect the top. While the sideboard looked great without glass on top, I just wanted to be free to serve food from it, put a cup of tea on top and do whatever else we pleased without worrying about the finish. I had a piece of glass cut at Gerrard Glass for about $75 and it does the trick.

Are you ready for the AFTER?! Here you go…

Oh, I wish I was a better photographer! Here’s another one just because I’m excited:


Of course having a new piece in our dining room motivated us to do some styling. We put together a gallery wall with pics of the kids and a few sentimental pieces (the invitations Mike designed for our wedding in 2003, my paternal grandma’s necklace, some stonework from our year in Korea, etc.) and unified them all with white frames (thank you Ikea and Indigo!). We got some inspiration from one of my favourite blogs, Young House Love. Having a graphic designer for a husband is a wonderful thing — I commissioned Mike to do a monogram of our initials for above the sideboard and I love the way it turned out. The plan is to add more pieces to the wall over time (as a matter of fact I already have quite a few but doing a gallery wall with your spouse can be hard on the marriage…lots of measuring, assessing, hammering, reassessing…so I thought it better to take a month or so off!).

And so that’s the story of my first-ever vintage furniture makeover! I hope you like it. Feel free to ask questions — if I can do it, you can do it!

Here’s one final BEFORE and AFTER shot:

Filed under furniture painting vintage shabby chic dresser refinishing DIY