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. Lauren says

    Wow, I’m amazed! I thought for sure you were going to have to sand and restain that piece. It looks so great!

  2. says

    AHHH!! I LOVE this! Looking for something similar for our living room! :) Will have to keep the mr.clean + vinegar in mind!

    Happy traveling today! :)

  3. Mary says

    Looks great, I love it. I just wanted to suggest using Miss Mustard Seed Hemp Oil all over the piece to condition the wood and shine her up. I’ve used it on a lot and LOVE it! Just my two pennies :)

  4. Nina says

    Great idea. I would think it would dry out the wood (which is probably already pretty dry from age/neglect.) Any plans to treat it with some kind of furniture body lotion?

  5. says

    Let’s just start and have me admit that I’m in love with Mr. Clean. I use Magic Erasers on everything – tub cleaning has never been so easy.

    Love the cabinet, great score ……… the drawer fronts would look great painted …. maybe in a few colours.

  6. Susan says

    Magical transformation, Sherry!
    I never would have thought to use the magic eraser on wood..can’t wait to try it. I love it all wood…no paining needed! MIA is perfect just the way she is (except for…)Don’t hesitate about ORBing the hardware……it would look great!!!
    Hope your book signing is fun tonight.

  7. Les says

    This is going to sound completely unrelated (because it is *cough*) but this post got me thinking… do you have any tips for repairing scratched up and punctured leather/synthetic material? My kittens have done a number on my combination leather recliner and I would love to restore it to its original glory instead of having to trash it if I can (though I know sometimes that’s the only answer).

  8. Cindy K says

    Wow! I’m so impressed, that looks beautiful! I never would think a magic eraser would turn out such results…I may be going around my house later to scrub a few old pieces of furniture! Thanks for always Sharing your tips, even if they are super simple – sometimes those are the best :)

  9. Lindsey says

    I used vinegar on some very musty-smelling dressers I inherited…worked like a charm! I wiped down the insides of the drawers like you mentioned, but ultimately ended up having to paint them and the outsides because the wood was so thin and splintery (is that a word?); I didn’t want my clothes shredded. Now they are both a deep rich brown with polished nickel hardware.

  10. Carrye says

    Love it! Such a great find. Hope to see you guys tonight at Book People if I can get my husband to babysit our 6 month old! My book is there waiting for me! I drive by on my way to work and they have your name on their sign on the building out front–I wanted to take a picture to send you yesterday, but I was driving. ;) Hopefully this weather today won’t get too hairy. Hope you have a safe trip in!

Leave a Reply

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