Updating a 1920's Art Deco Dresser

I’ve been itching to get crafty, lately.  To paint or build or make something with my hands.  And, it comes as no surprise that precisely when I’m in that mood, things start popping up in ads on my computer or social media with Pinterest boards of updated dining chairs, revamped vintage tables, etc. ( all that overboard, privacy-invading marketing that really freaks me out).  Now, I’m no Pinterest perfect crafter.  In fact, I’m no Pinterest worthy anything and I’m totally okay with that.  But, I’ve been eyeing these vintage dresser remakes with more than a little interest.  So, I’ve kinda sorta been scouring craigslist to see if I can find a total hunk of junk of a dresser that could use a fresh face. 

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I’m a Mid Century kind of gal, so I mostly look for pieces from that era.  These are never cheap unless the seller has no idea what they have on their hands.  That being said, Mid Century furniture never quite fits my DIY budget of well, $15.  So, when I found this ad on craigslist, I switched from Mid Century minded to 1920’s Art Deco and went and scooped this up out of someone’s yard 30 minutes before the trash haulers were going to take it to the dump. 

This needed ALOT of work.  Maybe, just maybe, I got a little too excited at the word FREE in the ad and ended up biting off a little more than I could chew. Needless to say, this dresser landed in my garage.  If anything, I could just put it right back on craigslist and make a couple bucks, right?  Right. 

What follows in this post is a few DIY triumphs and a lot of DIY snafu’s.  Hopefully you can learn something from both and don’t let those snafu’s bring you down.  I problem solved my way through every single one and learned a lot in the process.

1. Pick your piece

I got lucky and found a piece of history that was on it’s way to the junk pile.  I may have saved an old woman from rolling in her grave and I may have saved the planet from one more tree being harvested.  Can’t guarantee either of those, but I definitely saved the junk pile from one more item.  What’s one man’s junk is another woman’s treasure.

Some people loathe these 1920’s + 30’s waterfall dressers.  They were for commoners.  Every home, apartment or hotel had them in some fashion.  Some were fancier than others with chevron or tiger lined veneer + detailed corners and bases.   Some were unadorned.  Either way, they were practical.  They held your stuff. 

(And that’s what I intend on it doing in my house too.  And I like it, so poo poo on those who say waterfall dressers are boring.)

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I have a crush on pieces of furniture that have historic merit.  I look for items with good lines, interesting details and loads of character.  I picked this dresser because it was free and because I was totally in love with the waterfall front and the lion drawer pulls on the top drawer.  No other reason.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Pick something you need for your own home or something that ‘speaks’ to you.  Furniture really does speak, you know that, right?  Inanimate objects can take on very animate qualities when you let them…or when you have a 3 year old shopping with you and she says something like wanting to ‘save that dresser from being so sad’!

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2.  Assess your piece

Every piece of furniture will need something different.  My dresser really was in ‘sad’ shape.  

Which is where I hit Snafu #1: Desire vs. Ability

My desire to make something beautiful out of this old thing far surpassed my abilities to actually do it.  This dresser needed a lot of work, real work, not just a new coat of stain.  The drawers were totally warped, didn’t slide well, covered in multiple layers of contact paper and completely fell out when pulled; the frame was cock-eyed and uneven; the veneer on the drawers was badly chipped and the stain faded and worn.  I realized that I didn’t have the time or means to completely sand, refinish and rebuild despite how much I knew that’s what this piece needed.

So maybe step 2 and step 1 should be combined.  Go figure.

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3.  Map out a plan for your piece

Do your homework. 

Look up the history of the piece, ask Siri how to rebuild a drawer or fix chipped veneer.  There is a plethora of information on the internet for just about everything you want to do to a piece of furniture.  Figure out what you need to do and find the information you need. 

Figure out your workspace

My workspace was my garage.  However, my garage also doubles as a gym for my 16 year old football stud, our laundry room, my husband’s workshop, our ‘office’ with printer, files, etc., a playground for my preschooler and our storage unit for things I really need to be going through and purging.  So, it was a little cramped and I sorta pissed off the male side of my family when I cramped the already cramped space with a ratty old dresser, splaying my drawers and tools all over the place.

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Which brings me to Snafu #2:  Time + Space to get’er done

This was my project that now had to be everyone’s project because it required expertise I didn’t have and space that was not just mine, but shared.  I’m not a builder, but hubby is.  I thought I could rely on him to help me with fixing the drawers.  I was wrong.  Dead wrong.  He was super irritated that I took on the project and vowed not to help me with it, no matter how ridiculous I looked trying to figure out how to get the battery off the nail gun and no matter how much of a piecemeal, amateur job I did of getting the drawers to not tip out.  And the space issue, dictated in the previous paragraph just irked everyone, including me, because I had to completely clean up every time I needed to take a break to let things dry.  Pain in the, you know what.  And the time for things to dry?  Double the factory recommended time amount due to living in SoCal humidity.  This project took twice as long as it should have.

Figure out your tools. 

Being that we are still in remodel mode, we have a lot of tools around, including a battery powered nail gun (that I was super excited to get to use to give my drawers a little more stability) and also a plethora of leftover stains, paints, sandpaper, and other products from previous DIY’s or failed attempts at a DIY.  I thought we were all good on tools and shouldn’t need to buy anything.

Enter Snafu #3:  

The tools and products I did have were not quite the exact tools and products I needed.  The stain didn’t match the current stain, our sand paper was too fine, the refinisher I knew we had had evaporated since the last project and the wood putty had hardened due to a half opened can.  I spent close to $100 on new products.

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Prioritize your steps and workload. 

Items on my To Do list included: fix drawers, fix frame, clean out drawers, fix chipped veneer, strip, remove previous finish, sand, stain, apply topcoat, re-line drawers, polish hardware.  My only problem with this was that I changed my mind about a thousand times as to what I actually wanted to do with this dresser.  Completely restore it?  Paint it?  Do a less invasive refinish and stain?  I flopped back and forth so many times I ended up doing some things twice because I decided to slightly restore then stain with a gloss coat and hated it, so I had to then remove all the work I had done and re-do with other materials.  

Decide and stick to your decision

Or, like I did, end up doing and redoing and doing and redoing and finally just being done with the whole thing even though you should have done and redone it again.

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4.  Get to work

I followed my To Do list in no particular order and got to work on everything I thought I needed to do and everything I didn’t actually think I needed to do, but did need to do.  Sand, stain, paint, top coat, repeat, repeat, repeat.

I painted the frame with GF black milk paint, which I really liked + stained the drawers with GF gel stain in Antique Walnut, which I also really liked.  However, I didn’t like my staining ability and realized that I would have done a much better job if I hadn’t rushed through everything and if I would have watched the ‘How To Stain With Gel Stain’ tutorial ahead of time.

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Snafu #4: Impatience

I decided I was only going to do a ‘less invasive’ refinish of this dresser, mostly because I’m impatient.  I didn’t want to completely sand, stain and refinish because I wanted it to be done and in my house immediately.  Instant gratification has it’s drawbacks, for sure, and I’m not super happy with my staining job on the drawers mostly because I rushed through the whole process.

Working with wood can be challenging, especially working with antique wood.  It is rewarding, but I think my dresser would have benefit from someone with a little more talent than myself.

I took the drawers out and fixed them to the extent I could without completely rebuilding them.  It was obvious that I was not the first person updating this piece.  There was previous wood glue and nails all over these things.  The drawers were really warped and the dovetail joints just exploding apart.  I used some more wood glue, some nails from that awesome nail gun and a some fingernail power to rip off that old contact paper.  Pretty much everything I did was in an unconventional manner, so you probably don’t want to copy my exact moves.  But you get the gist of it.

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The drawers were nasty inside so I had to line them.  I wanted to buy some super dope Art Deco stick on wall paper, but my pocketbook wouldn’t let me, so I tried some left over fabric I had laying around then craft paper (failed on those) + eventually decided to go with good ‘ol fashioned contact paper in a really bad pattern.  It worked.  I don’t really like it that much, but by that point, I was just really done with the whole thing.

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Being that this dresser is nearly 100 years old, the drawers were made to glide on side rails, which I’m sure worked at the time. Now, they stuck, tipped and got all wonky when trying to move them. I went to the woodworkers store and bought two wooden center rails and secured them in the middle two drawers. Still a little wonky, but definitely better then before!

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I filled in chipped veneer and holes from previous hardware with plastic wood. I didn’t do that good of a job and my patches stick out like a sore thumb. But I decided since I wasn’t doing a complete restore, I was gonna have to be ok with it.

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I polished those awesome lion drawer pulls with Brasso until they shone like the noon day sun. It was obvious that this was not the original hardware, the style that was on the dresser when I got it was from a different era. But, I liked the lions and had faux brass pulls I didn’t use for our kitchen cabinets left over in the garage. So, I drilled new holes for those and put those on. I’m keeping the floral looking ones that came with the dresser for something more feminine and fancy.

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And… the big reveal at the end of it all?! A very handsome and functional piece of furniture with a story to tell for the next few generations. The cool thing about this sturdy antique wood furniture is that it will continue after I’m long gone. Maybe the next owner will completely un-do everything I’ve done thus far and completely take it back to it’s original state. Or maybe paint it bright orange or something. Who knows?! But the fact that more and more people can still use this is a win in and of itself.


To my surprise (and quite possibly to yours, also), at the end of it all, I decided that the scope of this project was far bigger than I was prepared to take on.  I was totally unhappy with my work and decided to sell it instead of keep it. 

This dresser had issues to start with… I was ready to cancel my subscription to it’s issues.

However, I learned a ton and will definitely be taking on another dresser makeover soon. 

AMENdment to the Dresser DIY

Shortly after writing this blog and posting this dresser back on craigslist, I did a little more research on staining wood with gel stain. Yes, I should’ve done that research ahead of time. Resounding yes. That being said, I decided to give it one more go. I re-did the entire process one more time. Remove old finish, sand, patch, stain, top coat + reline drawers. Aside from my patch jobs (that stand out like a sore thumb on the lighter stain), I’m a lot happier with this version. The drawers are still a bit wonky, but I love the fabric in the drawers and the lighter stain is much more in tune with the original ‘blonde’ color of the veneer. Now that I’m happier with it, this one might be sticking around the house a bit longer.

I totally anticipate doing another one. Less invasive, for sure, but I love the manual labor of sanding, etc. Dresser therapy!!