How to Stain an Unfinished Dresser


The decision to finish your own furniture can be the best thing if you are trying to achieve a specific color or if you are trying to match the piece to something you already have. Many stores and companies sell solid wood furniture right off their sales floor or from a catalog that are completely bare of any stain or topcoat finish. This leaves you open to all possibilities of creativity.

Things You'll Need

  • Unfinished dresser--any size or style
  • Oil- or water-based stain
  • Oil or water-based polyurethane
  • 150 and 220 grit sandpaper
  • 2- to 3-inch foam brushes
  • Tack cloths
  • Buffing pad
  • Phillips screw driver
  • Old white T-shirt

Prepping and Staining Your Dresser

  • Before you begin, find a well-lit and well-ventilated area with lots of air flow. Basements with large windows that can be opened or a clean garage when the temperature stays around 65 degrees work well.

  • Remove all drawers from the dresser and number them on the backs so that you can ensure they are placed back in the same position. Remove all knobs from the face of the drawers with a Phillips screwdriver.

  • Find an old piece of cardboard or a shoebox lid. Punch the screws from the knobs through the cardboard then screw the knobs back onto the screws. This will allow you to finish the knobs and dry them without them rolling and getting dirty once they have been stained and polyurethane has been added.

  • If the dresser you are finishing is a hard wood such as oak or maple, use 150 grit sandpaper and lightly sand the dresser, only going in the same direction as the grain. If the dresser is a soft wood such as pine or alder, use 220 grit to sand, always going with the grain. It is not necessary to use a sander because this sanding only needs to be a light one, but if you choose to use one, make sure you stay in the direction of the grain to avoid sander marks.

  • With a tack cloth, go over the entire dresser generously, picking up all the sawdust from the sanding. This is especially important because you do not want to stain over sawdust particles--it will cause your dresser's final look to seem bumpy.

  • Using a 2- or 3-inch foam brush, apply a coat of stain, still going in the same direction as the grain. With part of the old T-shirt, wipe the stain clean, going in the direction of the grain. You will want to do the entire dresser in sections. For example, stain the top of the dresser then wipe it clean. Then stain one side, wipe it clean, and so forth. When the dresser is completely stained, let dry 24 hours if you are using an oil-based stain and 12 hours if you are using a water-based stain.

  • When the dresser is dry, using another foam brush, apply a thin coat of oil- or water-based polyurethane (depending on which stain you used) over the entire dresser. Remember, the polyurethane does not get wiped off like the stain. It gets brushed on and then dries. Allow 24 hours to dry the poly.

  • When the first coat of polyurethane is completely dry, buff the dresser to smooth out the grain that has been brought to the surface from the poly. Again, remember to go in the direction of the grain, even when buffing. After the buffing is complete, use a tack cloth to go over the dresser to clean up the sawdust.

  • Apply another coat of polyurethane. Dry 24 hours. Buff. Clean with a tack cloth.
    Add one more coat of polyurethane. Dry 24 hours. Buff one last time and then with a damp cloth, wipe down the entire dresser.
    The repeating process of the polyurethane is so your dresser will come out silky and smooth.

Tips & Warnings

  • If your dresser is one that you bought directly from a shop or retailer, the sanding and prep work will be very minimal. If it is a dresser that is unfinished, chances are there are a lot of oils on the surface and deeply rooted into the grain that need to be sanded out. In this case, the electric sander should be used.
  • Always wear a mask when working with chemicals.

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