This is one of those rare projects that got done in a couple of days, and even more rare, got done without one trip to the hardware store!

One day my wife announced we need a dresser for the boys. I don't like store bought furniture, and my to-make list is a mile long, so off we went to the hugest, multi-day flea market and antique sale I will likely ever see, out in Brimfield MA, that is held three times a year. We were there five minutes when we found this dresser. It is a basic ribbon mahogany bow front dresser. I doubt it is a true antique as the drawers have machine cut dovetail joints. But, it is not too new as the finish is shellac. The bottom drawer needed a new bottom. One knob was missing, but the knobs were basic hardware store wood knobs badly painted brown and were going to get replaced anyway. The finish was crackled, scratched, gouged in places, and opaque, and some edges had paint where the dresser had been bumped into walls. In short, it was perfect!


This is the sort of piece that is often fixed up by being painted, or if the owner is more ambitious, the piece is stripped and refinished. But, both are poor choices. I restored the existing finish in short order in a few steps.

1. Wet thoroughly with alcohol, and scrub gently with gray Scotch Brite pad. Dip pad in alcohol as needed to keep the finish nice and wet. Keep at this for a few minutes. Be sure to scrub off paint on edges, etc.  Then wipe the slurry out evenly with a rag soaked in alcohol, and let dry. The alcohol dissolves the top portion of the shellac, and the solution flows into the cracks, scratches, and other flaws. This will do a good job of reducing cracks, scratches and such. Keeping it wet for less time will keep more of the flaws, longer will remove more flaws.

2. I padded on a little orange shellac to some spots where the finish was too thin. If you have some crackling left that you want to remove, you can also pad on a little shellac to do that. (For more on using shellac see the articles on this page)

3. Sand with 400 no-load paper. You can sand until the finish is glass smooth or you can sand lightly. The pores are not filled on this piece (which is fine as I'm not a fan of filled wood), so I just sanded lightly to give a smooth to the touch feel. A light sanding is less likely to cause you the grief of sanding through the finish. You can also sand with higher grit wet/dry papers with mineral spirits, but I don't think that is needed.

4. Buff out with #0000 steel wool and brown tinted wax. (more on rubbing out finishes). This leaves a wonderful silky smooth feel and soft glow to the finish.

5. To highlight the pores a little, I then waxed with brown Kiwi shoe polish (which is just dark brown wax).

Because shellac dries so fast, you can do steps 1-3 one afternoon and steps 4 and 5 the next morning. When you are done it looks like a fabulously maintained family heirloom.

The last thing to do was take care of the knobs. For some long forgotten reason, I had a bunch of hardware store maple knobs in two sizes sitting around the shop. I added a bunch of medium brown Transtint dye (from Homestead Finishing) to some orange shellac, and after several coats, the knobs matched the dresser perfectly. The knobs were steel wooled and waxed to match the sheen on the dresser.

I can't believe we are going to give this thing to two little boys! I'll end up redoing it again in 20 years!