1920's Dresser Rescue....The Saga of the Peeling Veneer

$250 or best offer. This dresser is in perfect condition and solid mahogany. It's a solid piece. The drawers pull out and work great. The dresser and mirror are painted in a creamy off-white Miss Mustard Seed milk paint and sealed with hemp oil. It would be a beautiful addition to your decor. I thought I'd keep this one forever, but decided to go a different direction.
Dimensions: 37" H X 23" W X 46" L Located in West Elgin.
Cross Posted

Last week I started working on a dresser I picked up at Goodwill two years ago.  I had contemplated selling the dresser unfinished since it had been sitting around so long, but I just couldn't part with this one.  It was really beat up and needed a lot of work.  I wasn't even sure if I could save this one, which is probably why it sat so long waiting for me to get the courage and time to attempt the rescue.  

Here's the before picture.  I wish I had more pictures up close of what was going on with this piece.  
In this picture, if you look on the left hand side where the two bottom drawers meet, there is a warped spot.  The wood veneer was peeling and looked like there was some water damage.  It was similar on the other side as well, but not to the same extent.  Both ends of the dresser, at the bottom, the veneer was peeling and breaking off.  The top of the dresser was a mess with water stains, scratches, gouges and peeling varnish.  

I wanted to save this dresser and give it new life.  In my mind I thought I would be able to repair and refinish the piece and have it look like it did in1920.  Once I got to work,  I quickly came to the realization this wasn't going to happen once.  

This is how the side looked after I pulled off broken and cracked veneer.  I didn't get a good picture of the other side, but it was even worse than this one.  I thought about taking all the veneer off, but decided to use some heavy duty wood filler to fix the spots instead.

For the drawers, I tried a technique I'd seen on TV using wood glue and painter's tape.   I applied wood glue to the back of the veneer, trying my best not to pull if off in the process.  Once I had it coated in glue, I took my painter's tape and pushed the wood down and applied the tape as tightly as I could.  I did this across the whole drawer.  In the spots where the veneer was still buckling I attached a clamp on top of the tape and let it sit for an hour.  I moved the clamps around a bit as the glue was drying to make sure everything was lying flat.  Once the glue was dry I removed the clamps and the tape and much to my surprise, the veneer was lying flat on the drawer again.

Here you can see the veneer is 'fixed', but there are lots of cracks and places where the veneer had already fallen off.

It was time to fill the cracks, scratches and holes left from the peeling veneer.  I decided to use a heavy duty wood filler....however the filler I picked out was so smelly!  Word of advice, do not use this in your basement!  I had never used this brand before and thought it was going to be fine.  I felt woozy after using it and then the whole house smelled of toxic fumes!  Not a great way to start a project.  Next time, if I use the product again, I'll make to only use it outside.

After I got all the cracks and spots with missing veneer covered, I let the wood filler dry overnight.  Thankfully, once it was dry the fumes were a lot better!  I had the hubby help me carry the dresser outside so I could get to work sanding.

The wood filler dried very hard, almost like cement.  This was what I was hoping for!  There was no way I could sand by hand so I used my electric sander.  I put on my mask and protective eye wear, then began sanding process.   I started off using a 100 grit sandpaper and worked my way up to a 220 grit until everything was smooth and even.  This piece needed a lot of sanding so it took me about two hours to finish.

This is how the dresser looked when I was done sanding.

My hope was this wood filler would take stain well and blend in with the wood.  However,  I've yet to find a filler that takes the stain as well as wood.  No matter what I try the filler still stands out.  Here you can see what the top looked like with dark walnut stain and how the filler didn't blend in.

Clearly there was no way to save the top from paint, so I went on to plan B.

Before I started painting I tested a small patch to see if the stain would bleed through the light color paint I was using.  Just like I suspected, the stain bled through.  Time to bring out my trusty Zinsser Shellac.  I applied a coat of shellac to seal the before I started painting the rest.  The shellac seals the wood so the stain no longer bleeds through.  I love this stuff.  It's also great for getting rid of odors in old furniture!

Once the shellac was dry, I applied two coats of Chalk Paint@ by Annie Sloan in Old White.  
Remember I had hoped to save the dresser from paint?  Well, after I examined the it further,  I found a section that would look perfect stained.  The middle section of each drawer I decided to leave unpainted.  I stained this part with dark walnut stain and it looked beautiful!  Once the entire dresser was stained and painted I sealed the whole thing with wax.  I used the Annie Sloan soft clear and dark wax on the stained portions of the dresser and on the painted portions I used clear wax alone.  Once I was done waxing, I lightly distressed the areas that were raised or carved to help them stand out.

While the paint dried, I sprayed the original hardware with Rustoleum Oil Rubbed Bronze spray paint.  I wanted to keep the hardware, but give it an update and make if 'pop' off the Old White paint.

Here she is all dressed up for some pictures in the yard.  I loved this dresser before I put any work into refinishing, but now I absolutely adore this one.  I like how the details stand out now.  The gorgeous carving in the middle of the drawers is now the star of the show.

I know there are a lot of wood purists out there who will be upset that I painted this piece.  However, I tried my best to save what I could and give this dresser new life.  I bought her when she was ugly, peeling and dirty from a thrift store and brought her home in hopes giving her a makeover.  I gave her a new lease on life by fixing and hiding her scars, while bringing attention to all of her beauty.  

Before this dresser, I hadn't painted a piece of furniture for quite some time.  It felt great to get back to doing what I love.   Even if my body didn't agree!  I was so sore and felt like I'd ran a marathon instead of sanding and painting a dresser!  Now that it's summer, I'm hoping to get to all the pieces that are patiently waiting for me in the basement.  

Thank you for taking the time to read about this transformation.  I hope you're enjoying your summer  and you're able to spend some time outside relaxing.  I'm enjoying not having to rush to get Hunter ready for school in the morning or getting him to do his homework at night!  

Take care,


  1. Turned out beautiful!! Love that you left some of the wood grain showing. Great job Melody!

  2. I love this Melody. My favorite part is the stained wood that now "pops" when you look at this piece.

    1. Thank yo uso much Vicky :-) I'm really happy I was able to save part of the old wood

  3. Great work! Outstanding finish. I really adore how you treat your furniture.

  4. I am in the process of refinishing my kitchen table and while it wasn't in as poor condition as yours I also had places that wouldn't take stain. So frustrating!!! I ended up using polyshades in an Espresso color and it worked great to hide those crazy unstainable places!!! I'm not sure how the polyshades would work on a dresser and if lighter shades would cover as well, but figured I'd shared if you want try it out sometime. Btw, my kitchen table is also half paint/half wood. I love painton furniture shhh don't tell any crazy wood purists! :)

    1. Thank you Brie. I haven't tried the polyshades, but maybe I will give it a try. There are so many products out there now! I moved at the end of April and the moving/packing company wouldn't move all my stains, paints, etc. Now I'm slowly buying everything again. I just used what I had on hand for this project. Thanks again for the tip!

  5. Melody I do love the look! (Someone on Hometalk misunderstood my comment-or maybe the beginning of it--to think that I didn't, and suggested that I was being negative. Not my intent.).
    Had you considered any other ways to emphasize the Art Deco-looking carved lines, besides distressing? I thought it might look even better if those lines were contrast-painted with a dark color (as I said on the other site.) I must say, you have really gotten me thinking about trying to find a furniture refinishing project: maybe even including some judiciously applied paint.

    1. No worries about the comments on Hometalk. Every time I post there, I am expecting a wide range of comments....from positive to negative and somewhere in between. There were lots of things I could have done to the piece for sure, but I moved at the end of April and the moving/packing Co. wouldn't pack or move my paints, stains, etc. I'm slowly replacing all my supplies so for this piece I used what I had on hand. Also, the pictures are very deceiving. Everyone keeps calling the color stark white, but it's actually an off white. The lines in the wood are actually very noticeable in person. I didn't want to accentuate them with a darker color because there was already so much detail and contract going on with the front panel. No worries about not loving or agreeing with everything I do. I put my work out there knowing that some people will love it and some will hate it. I did this piece of furniture how I wanted to and I'm happy with how it turned out. Thanks for stopping by and commenting :-)

  6. wow you had your work cut out for you, and it turned out beautiful, i would love to feature it, if that would be ok please let me know,

    1. Lauren! Of course you can feature this! Thank you so much and sorry I didn't get back to you sooner.

  7. Melody, You have a great eye for using the original finish and paint together. Love your pieces and style!

    1. Thank you so much Petticoat Junktion! That means a lot to me coming from someone as talented as you!!! XOXO