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. Nancy Evans says

    I have a great Art Deco bar that has seen better days. I found it on Craiglist and was hoping to find a way to clean it up without having to completely refinish it. Now I can’t wait to try a Magic Eraser and see what happens. Thanks!

  2. Nancy says

    I have seen lots of media cabinets like this where they take out the middle column or top row of drawers for open storage. Maybe your other components could go there?

  3. says

    Magic Erasers truly are magic–especially with an (almost) 3 year old in the house! Never would have thought to use it on furniture, though. It looks beautiful! And score major points for all that extra storage space!

  4. says

    What a find! Great job restoring that beautiful piece of furniture. I also enjoyed reading about the wooden console. Great idea! I’ll be sure to bookmark it for future woodworking.

  5. WM says

    Love those Magic Erasers! I recently brought my son into the office with me on a weekend, he drew on the wall with a dry erase marker! It literally happened in about .4 seconds. I was mortified, and my Mom who lives nearby came to our rescue with the Magic Eraser!

    Quick question – You mentioned how you secure the TV to the wall. Do you have any recommendations for securing furniture to the wall in a child’s bedroom? I have an old dresser that should be secured to the wall – but I admit I cringe at adding more holes to the wall. I tend to rearrange furniture often. All the big box stores sell the ones you screw into the wall, any alternatives either of you might be aware of? Thanks!!

    • says

      Oh yes, I would definitely use one of the cable systems from (many of them only call for one hole, and it’s so worth it and not too bad to patch if you ever want to move it). Hope it helps!


  6. Steph says

    That looks like the perfect size for your TV, what an awesome steal!
    I’m SO glad you posted this. I just got a (ridiculously cheap!) gorgeous old antique desk/bench at an antique shop the other day. I was originally going to paint the top of it a glossy white but I love how it is so much. I scrubbed it out with vingear, but it didn’t do anything for the scratches. I’m so happy to try the magic eraser! I also picked up something at Home Depot to help shine/seal it, but it wasn’t a stain or anything. I wonder if it’s the same thing!

  7. Lena says

    Love it! Such a steal and exactly what your living room needed!

    Crazy to think those Magic Erasers are capable of cleaning an old dresser.

  8. Kathryn says

    Wow! Talk about balancing out a space. Everything looks so much more proportionate (proportional? Proportioned? In proportion?) The size of everything works much better together is what I’m trying to say! And I personally love the projects that involve simple TLC and elbow grease.

  9. Peggy says

    A great post! The Magic Eraser is a good (less invasive) place to start on a piece that doesn’t really need a full strip-and-refinish. Another product I’ve used with success is Restore-A-Finish. They also have an oil finish that might be good for your piece. Or you might want to consider paste wax.

  10. says

    I wouldn’t have thought to use a magic eraser on furniture either! I did use it on my older white MacBook. It was amazing at buffing scuffs off of that!

  11. Matt Rogers says

    Hi Sherry and John–

    Long time lurker, first time poster. My wife and I love your blog! Great work on that dresser-turned-media-cabinet. What an amazing find.

    As far as putting the video components inside the cabinets, you shouldn’t need to go all crazy with an RF remote (which can get really expensive) — just this affordable IR repeater:

    I used it when I put built-in cabinets in our living room, and now all our video components — receiver, TiVo, Blu Ray, Apple TV — are completely out of sight. That particular IR repeater is very fast and responsive, so if you’re thinking about hiding the equipment I’d recommend giving it a look.

    Just make sure you ventilate the back of whatever space you put the video components in. Good luck!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *