Jeff and Debbie’s ‘trash to treasure’ blonde vintage furniture makeover

before-after-retro-blonde-dresserWhile on the rounds at one of their favorite local thrift shops, readers Jeff and Debbie happened upon two beat-up retro blonde dressers in need of some serious TLC. Seeing past the worn finish, the pair immediately knew they could refinish the dressers to use in their midcentury styled home. While loading up the dressers behind the thrift store, Jeff found the set’s matching headboard buried in a heap of trash and decided it too could be salvaged. With just a little effort, Jeff and Debbie were able to see past the furniture’s worn facade to envision a whole new set of well built, retro furniture for themselves.


Jeff writes:

My girlfriend Debbie and I go thrifting at least once a week if not more and have several different “runs” that take us east-west-north and south of our home. Its something we both enjoy, but I will admit that out of the two of us she has a quicker eye than I do. Our routes through the stores are always the same. She heads for the clothes and I head for glassware-furniture. At one particular thrift store though, she is the lead on furniture (lack of quality vintage clothing is my guess).


She found a great mid century modern wall unit there and was the first of us to see the beauty in the two dressers. When we first purchased the dressers, there was no headboard, and we agreed it was a shame because it would likely have been a really cool retro-looking piece.


Debbie had great ideas about paint,decorating, and colors. It was her idea about using the off white and Tiffany blue for the drawers but was worried it would look to much like a girls room for me, so I suggested that keep the “blonde” tops and use a gold toned brown to off set the blue to keep in line with the mid century danish modern look that we have in the rest of the house. When we went to pick out colors, it took us about five minutes to come up with the ‘scheme’ that we had both envisioned.


When we returned to the store with our rusty but trusty truck for hauling the big stuff home, I had a chance to go in the back by the loading docks. While waiting for the dressers to be brought out, curiosity was killing the cat and I started to poke around in the back. I thought I glimpsed a piece of hardware on something that looked awfully familiar.

After digging a bit it was like striking GOLD. There, under some other bits and pieces of throw away items was the headboard, only it was missing one of the sliding doors……….dang. I looked down and on top of a nearby table was the other little door!  Although in rough shape, structurally, the pieces were all very sound and thankfully not a lot of veneer repair was needed. All the hardware was intact, the drawer guides were not broken and there were no huge chips or gouges. The few chips in the piece were easily fixable with wood putty and sandpaper.


As far as the finishing/painting process went, the hardest part was recreating the blonde tops. My suggestion for readers would be to strip them. Its not as bad of a process as you would think and the paint strippers of modern day have little in common with their smelly/chemical laden predecessors. I use a product made by Zinsser called “Magic Strip.” It is like a jelly and removes several layers of paint /varnish in one step. Make sure you use a plastic scrapper and not a lot of force so as not put a gouge or scratch in the wood veneer. After the stripper use the Zinsser stripper wash and follow the directions for scrubbing with steel wool. You will be amazed at how easy it is to take off the old blonde stain and paint coat underneath that was on some of the older blonde furniture.

PRECAUTIONARY PAM here notes: The layers in our houses — and furniture like this — may contain vintage nastiness such as lead. Before you start strippin’ and scrapin’ and sanding, consult with your own properly licensed professional about how to test for the presence of lead and how to then handle the project safely if it’s there. 


Jeff’s refinishing products and tips:

For the tops I used an amber finishing shellac —  another Zinsser product — their Bullseye Shellac in “Amber” — for the blonde look… That stuff is pretty durable and shiny…. I spray painted three coats of it to get the tone I was looking for. If you want a lighter tone you would just use maybe one or two coats and finish with a third or fourth of “Clear” colored Shellac. To thin the shellac for spraying, I used denatured alcohol.

{For the sides of the furniture] To make the … look I was going for, I spray painted some flat white ceiling paint that I had on hand on all the furniture, it is also what I used for primer under the other colors. Instead of using a brush, I spray painted the furniture. You could brush it on, but then you will get brush marks. For the paint we used a Latex Enamel Gloss paints for our colors. It is easy to thin for spraying because it is water based and cleans up easily. [Pam and Kate note: Yes, readers, we think that with a project like this, you are going to get waaaay better results spraying paint on, versus brushing it on…]


painted-mid-century-dresserPrep is most of the work in doing these projects as is the case in most do it yourself endeavors. [I used] 220 grit sandpaper to prepare the surface before priming and 220 again before painting to make a smooth to the touch feel. Your paint will only look as good as the work you do before hand in prep.

After the paint dries for about three days you will want to apply and sealer to the furniture. If you don’t things will “stick” to the surface. You don’t want your favorite paperback stuck to the top of your headboard or the alarm clock feet leaving impressions on any flat surface. MY suggestion is to use another water based product made by Min-Wax called polycrilic. It works just like any polyurethane that you use on stained furniture but this is water based, dries fast and is easily applied with a spray gun.

vintage-painted-dresser painted-dresser-detailOur thoughts on repainting vintage wood furniture

Golly, this topic — whether it’s “right” or “wrong” or “whatever” to paint vintage wood furniture — can get readers very hot, very fast. Pam wanted to weigh in on this topic:

When it comes to repainting wood furniture — or wood trim in your house — I see this as a very personal, aesthetic issue — not one of righteousness. That said, I encourage readers to learn about the pros and cons of each approach, including how painting will potentially affect the underlying monetary and/or historic value of a piece of vintage or antique furniture … same with original wood trim, paneling or cabinetry. If you have ever watched Antiques Roadshow and seen a piece of vintage furniture appraised for thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars including because it has its “original finish and patina,” well, there you go, that’s why you might want to go slow before fixing in on the decision to paint over an original finish wood.

Overall, though: Whether we “like” furniture and trim painted versus with a natural wood finish generally is a function of fashion. One year natural wood is “in”. The next year, painted is “in.” Ping. Pong. A wood finish can be very beautiful. A painted finish can be very beautiful. I consider either finish choice an aesthetic preference, not an aesthetic imperative or aesthetic absolute.

mid-century-bedroomJeff and Debbie, we think you guys did a fantastic job with this set. Not only did you make some tired looking retro furniture look shiny and new again, but you also saved the headboard from the landfill. Kudos to you both for having the vision to fix up these pieces in a way that works in your home and makes you happy, because heck —  making your home a happy, comfortable place that you can be proud to live in is part of what its all about. Thanks so much for sharing your project with us.


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