How To Clean And Restore Old Wood Furniture

Alternate punny post title: Some Midcentury Microdermabrasion. Ok, so yesterday John explained how we hunted down an old thrift store table and repaired its rickety legs. And since we’re nothing if not honest when it comes to keeping things real-time in this little DIY diary of ours (if something takes two days, it earns two posts – and if a kitchen takes four months, it earns about a hundred) here’s the second chapter for our little dresser-turned-media-cabinet. The title of which could be: How I Showed A Dingy Old Wood Dresser Some Sweet Sweet Love. Or Dr $herdog And Her Scrub-tastic Tricks. You know, depending on your mood.

So let’s dive right into how I brought this 50+ year old piece back from scratched and bedraggled territory. Here are my tools. It’s a pretty simple equation.

Yup, you read that right. Ladies and gentlemen, my first weapon of choice was a Magic Eraser. I’ve found that for old beat up pieces like this, it’s great for scrubbing off years of grime. It essentially does the same thing as very fine steel wool or sandpaper does (but seems to be more gentle on the hands). The cool thing is that sometimes what you think are paint streaks and scratches actually can be buffed off with the eraser so the wood is back to looking downright sexy again. For example, see this detail shot that I took of the bottom right side of the cabinet before I did any scrubbing?

Here it is after about five minutes of buffing that area with a damp Magic Eraser:

I did the same buffing thing all over the top, the sides, and even the legs (tip: you might want to test it on an out of the way spot to make sure it doesn’t mess with your piece’s finish, but if it’s dry old wood like this guy it should work just like high grit sandpaper and just buff things down a bit).

Then it was time to clean out the inside of the drawers. Those were musty and dusty, so it was less about buffing them down to their original glory like it was for the exterior, so my approach changed. I just used an old rag moistened with white vinegar to wipe down the insides of each drawer. That removed all the dust, and since vinegar is also great for absorbing/removing musty smells in old wood, it was amazing how that tangy vinegar went on smelling strongly but then dried to have no smell at all (so those formerly musty drawers smelled like nothing at all as well). Huzzah.

Here’s how she looked after about a few hours of working the outside with the Magic Eraser and the inside of each drawer with a vinegar-moistened rag.

It’s a far cry from the muddled old finish that we saw at the thrift store, right? Now you get the post title, right? It’s like I hooked her up with some nice microdermabrasion, right? Dr. $herdog doesn’t mess around.

The next step was letting her sit out in the sunroom with her drawers all open so everything could evaporate and fully dry out (all the vinegar-wiped drawers need to full air out so the bitter smell dissipates). Then about eight hours later we finally (finally!!) brought her into the living room. Nothing like waiting over two years to find the right media cabinet.

We eventually plan to use a drawer or two for the TV components instead of sitting them on the floor (we can either hinge the front of that drawer for easy remote-access to them or use one of those cool RF remotes that work through wood) but this works for now.

And speaking of planning, we also originally planned to paint the top, sides, and bottom of the piece white (while leaving the rest of it in the same wood tone that you see now – sort of like this but wood where the white is and white where the wood is) but now that we’ve scrubbed it down and brought it into the living room we actually like it just the way it is.

We already have a white desk, a white table, and a white ottoman in the room, so the wooden media cabinet balances nicely with the wooden console that we built for behind our sofa along with the wood-framed chalkboard that we made. We even like the original hardware (although you never know if we’ll see something awesome and be completely seduced). Now that I’m sitting here staring at it, I actually think the existing hardware could look great in an oil-rubbed bronze finish since the curtain rods on both sides of this piece (as well as the dark TV on top of it) are that tone. So that’s always a possibility down the line. Either way you know I’ll keep you posted.

I’d also love to use some sort of wood restoring seal/topcoat to coat the cabinet (since it’s pretty dry and not really very glossy at all) – just to bring back even more luster. I hit up Home Depot and grabbed something that I’m dying to try, so I’ll be back with pics and details for ya about that – maybe along with a tutorial for hinging a drawer for those media components or giving an RF remote a try? Might not get around to it for a few weeks with all of our book tour travel coming up, but I can’t wait to get ‘er done.

Oh and as for securing the TV so it’s kid safe, we use this anchor system to keep it in place (here’s a picture of it with our last media cabinet from this post, but it’s the same system, we just unattached it and reattached it higher on the wall to work with the new cabinet). We’ve also had luck using similar systems for tethering desks and dressers and leaning mirrors to keep them from tipping (more on that here).

Now we’re just basking in the glory of a not-too-low TV that actually doesn’t make the whole room feel sofa-heavy (that side of the room always felt more substantial thanks to the teeny old TV table). Ooh yeah, I’m going to stuff those abundant drawers with all of Clara’s games and toys that runneth over. Momma’s excited about that. Oh and as for the old TV cabinet, we just craigslisted it for $30 yesterday!  So in the end this new $59 TV cabinet was more like $29 after you put that $30 craigslist payment back in our pockets.

Is anyone else trying to bring an old piece of furniture back to its former glory? Have you ever used a vinegar wipe-down to de-must drawers? Have you tried the Magic Eraser approach on old grungy wood? I’m not sure it would be a good idea on something super shiny (sealed/lacquered) since it might make tiny scratches in the finish, but for old dry wood that looks beat up and battered already, it certainly removed a lot of things that I thought were deeply rooted into the stain (they must have been sitting right on top). Word up to less-beat-up-than-you-thought furniture.


  1. NYer says

    I never would have thought to use a Magic Eraser — thanks for the tip! The console looks great and I love the storage. Safe travels to you both!

    • Carmen says

      ditto the Majic Eraser comment – never knew about that! It looks great in your space! Good job!

    • Megan says

      I “third” the thanks for the Magic Eraser tip! It’s amazing how you were able to clean up the console. It looks so fantastic!

  2. says

    WOW! That looks AMAZING! I am shocked at how beautiful the finish was!! I wish the thrift stores around here (northern Michigan) had more than old, mauve La-Z-Boys and laminate dressers.

    • denise says

      Same here in south Georgia. In all my thrifting we’ve only found one piece (a kitchen table) worth taking home.

    • Ashly says

      The trick is to visit late on Saturdays, Sunday and Monday mornings. This is when people drop off the items not sold at garage sales. Consistency is key, too! If you *really* want to find something, you have to keep looking! :)

    • Alisha says

      Jessie–that mauve La-Z-Boy may have come from my parents’ house! haha. If you ever make it to southern Michigan there is a super sweet second hand store on Blue Star Highway called Sunset Junque that has some AMAZING finds. Definitely worth the drive.

  3. Ashley in NC says

    Thank you so much for sharing how you got rid of the musty smell inside the drawers! I just inherited a gorgeous mid-century dresser from my mom, the very first piece of furniture she ever bought as a working woman back in the 1960s. I buffed it and changed the hardware out already and it looks amazing, but I couldn’t figure out how to get rid of that smell! I will be trying your method tonight after work. Y’all are awesome!

  4. Stefanie says

    I definitely agree that I wouldn’t use a Magic Eraser on something with a lacquered / shiny finish… mostly because I did that a few days ago to our lacquered kitchen table. It definitely got the paint stain off of it, but it also took away the shiny finish :(

  5. Kathy says

    I recently purchased a drop leaf table for $50 and cleaned it with vinegar/olive oil but it still looks really dry. Any suggestions?

    Also, I’m looking to purchase a mini camcorder or pocket video camera. You and John have one but I can’t remember what you have. Do you like it? Would you recommend it?

    • says

      Note on vegetable oils for polishing wood: They can go rancid. You’re better sticking with a mineral oil for counter tops/butcher blocks/furniture.

    • Stacy says

      I’ve heard not to use Olive oil b/c it will not help much. you are better off using an oil made expressly for furniture. You can buy some at Ikea or THD.

    • Jen says

      I highly recommend Howard’s Feed ‘N Wax. I redid a mid-centery dresser by first using Howard’s Restore a Finish, which is blend of stain and something (mineral spirits maybe) that allows the stain to penetrate. It isn’t a dramatic difference like staining raw wood, but if the old piece’s existing finish is dingy and there are a lot of scratches and abrasions, the Restore a Finish helps those blend in and sort of perks up the existing finish. I then followed with Wax ‘N Feed, which lubricates the wood and makes it all purty and shiny. It’s magic.

  6. says

    She’s stunning! I like using a mix of olive oil and vinegar to get thirsty raw wood nice and shiny, but I’m looking forward to your tips for this sort of thing as my secretary desk is looking a little dull.

  7. Peggy M says

    Magic Eraser is great–and Walmart makes a knockoff (Great Value generic) that’s cheaper.

    How many did you use? I ask because the Walmart brand disintegrated relatively quickly as I used it. Is that the same for the branded product?

    May I suggest that if you convert a drawer to a hinged pull-out that you do it in a way that the pull-out can be converted back to a drawer? I always feel really sorry when irreversible changes are made to old pieces. But of course the decision is yours.

  8. Paige says

    Such a beautiful piece–you found a treasure!
    I’d like to suggest painting just the legs of the unit to add a little color, and a little contrast. The wood is gorgeous but feels maybe a bit heavy to me.

    I went thrifting and came home with a new pair of fuzzy socks for my 6yo. I like your fnd MUCH better!

    • Meredith says

      Dipped legs! Only paint a portion of the legs. Planning to do that on a desk for daughter’s room with similar legs.

  9. says

    I have a mid century record player that could use a little sprucing up. After the Magic Eraser, did you have any dings or variation in the stain that needed addressing? I’m not sure how to handle that myself, so I’m wondering what you would suggest. I’m also eager to hear what you snagged to give it a little sheen.

  10. Jennifer says

    Hi, guys! The dresser looks great! Can you tell us how many components (cable box, dvd player, etc) you have, and where you plan on stashing those?

  11. says

    I love the new cabinet and your eye for the diamond in the rough. Do you have plans for the cable box, etc. on the floor? Everything else in your house/the room is so clean, decluttered, and put away (HOW do you do that with a toddler?) that they are distracting in the photo. Maybe they are less so in real life.

  12. Lauren Hill says

    I can’t wait to see you guys tonight! I’m in the A ticket group!!! I hope y’all have time to hit up at least one amazing restaurant in town. 24 diner is right across from BookPeople, and it is amazing.

    I think you’ll get tired of components on the floor faster than you think.