Refinished Oak Dresser

A fine example of giving old furniture new life.

SHOP OWNER: Rick Van Schoick
LOCATION: East Fallowfield, PA

    I inherited this dresser from my late grandmother and it was in poor condition when I received it. The finish was damaged and uneven in tone, with multiple and sporadic dark areas where the top coat finish had failed. A third of the drawers had either failed dovetail joints, broken bottoms, or both. The metal locking mechanisms were severely tarnished and would likely have been difficult to move had there been a key with the dresser. Two of the brass bail pulls were broken, and another missing entirely. All of the brass had tarnished from years of use and exposure. Forged staples held the locking mechanisms in place, which I removed and kept. I did not replace the staples, since the fit of the mechanisms seemed sufficient to hold them in place, but I may change my mind later.

    There were four steps to restoring this dresser. The first was to repair the structural damage. The second was to replace broken hardware and restore what was not. Third was stripping the finish, and fourth was the finishing prep and actual finishing (maybe that's two steps). The first two took place at the end of 2002 / beginning of 2003, a couple of years after I received the dresser. I re-glued the loose dovetail joints with yellow glue (if it were a prized antique I would have used hide glue). I removed the brittle bottoms on all of the drawers and used them for kindling (but not before making a pattern for their replacements), as the wood was too dry for use in the dresser. In its place, I used aromatic cedar flake board because I didn't have the funds to use solid aromatic cedar at the time. Half of the drawer stops that fasten to the frame and limit travel were missing. I made new stops fashioned from solid oak.
After Stripping

    I removed all the hardware, and sent it to a local hardware restoration company called Ball & Ball. They did a great job of fabricating new bail pulls, restoring the brass finish on all pieces, as well as cleaning up the locking mechanisms to a like-new condition. They also threw in two keys!
    While I waited on Ball & Ball, I stripped the finish, which I deemed irrecoverable. For this process, I skipped the harsh fast-acting strippers for an environmentally friendly one. Although it didn't act as quickly, requiring an overnight application if I recall, it adhered well to vertical surfaces and did a great job. It was only important to cover it with cellophane to prevent it from drying out overnight. Then with a taping knife and toothbrush, I removed the stripper into a can, laid out the slough in the sun until dry, and then into the trash it went. I rinsed the dresser and let it dry.
Sanding The Casework

    The next step was a lot of tedious sanding, and I kept repeatedly putting this off until this summer, when I just decided it needed to leave my shop and provide a function. I started sanding with both my Porter Cable palm sander as well as my Bosch 6" ROS. I finished the sanding using a sanding block with 220-grit, going with the grain. I took care to sand the end grain one grit higher along the top, as I was planning on some type of stain and didn't want too much absorption around the edges.
    By the way, the back of the top has a " square rabbet along the back edge. I wonder if at one time a mirror accompanied this dresser. Also, and not surprising, the back of the dresser is rough wood and not finished.
Foot Detail

    After I completed the sanding, it was time to apply the finish. I looked up a variety of finishes for oak, but in the end I chose two coats of a cherry Danish oil finish to add some color under two coats of garnet shellac to add warmth (three coats for the top).

    After scuff sanding between coats, the finishing was soon complete. Then it was only a matter of reattaching the hardware. Interestingly, the nuts that attached the hardware were square, not hexagonal. For some, the shape looked as if they were hand forged, or at least made before we had the quality control we enjoy today.

Keyhole  Small Bail

Large Bail

. . . Rick Van Schoick



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