I'm the kind of DIY-er who imagines elaborate and wonderful furniture re-finishing ideas and is consistently too busy, lazy, or pre-occupied to execute them. But in desperate need of bedroom dressers I dropped $70 for a pair from craigslist that had good bones, but were grimy, scratched and in need of help. After a few hours of research and advice from my local hardware store, I found out that I could easily give the dressers a remarkable facelift in a few hours for less than $20 with hardly any toxic chemicals.
The internet offers a wide range of advice for cleaning and refinishing vintage furniture from complicated finish stripping to techniques that only work on certain kinds of wood — and there are enough products on the market to leave a person totally confused.
The steps below will work on any kind of finished wood, but results will depend on the shape of the original piece. The furniture won't necessarily be back to perfect shape, but it will look (and smell) a whole lot better. For an expensive antique or seriously damaged piece, you may want to consider consulting a professional furniture restorer before doing anything yourself.
What You Need
Murphy's Oil Soap
Howard Orange Oil (or other orange oil furniture polish)
Grade #0000 Steel Wool
Mix the Murphy's Oil Soap with water and wash the piece with a rag dampened in the mixture. Be careful not to get the piece too wet — wipe down with a dry rag if there is a lot of water left on the surface. Repeat until rags no longer pick up any grime.
If there is still dirt or paint stuck to the piece, rub it gently with very fine #0000 steel wool in the direction of the wood grain. You may want to rub the whole surface to even it out — it will look duller after doing so, but the Orange Oil will make it shiny again. Wash again with the Murphy's Oil Soap and water to remove dust and dirt that the Steel Wool dislodged.
Spray the orange oil on a dry cloth and rub it over the piece. Faded areas may need a little extra oil. If any oil remains sitting on the surface, rub it with a clean, dry cloth and buff to a shine.
• After step 2, you can use scratch touch-up pen or paint to minimize the appearance of scratches, or better yet use a walnut
• Results vary depending on the original condition and quality of the piece. The smaller dresser that I cleaned was made with a higher quality wood and though it was in rougher shape, it turned out better than the other one which was made with cheaper wood veneer.
Images: Sarah Rainwater