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. Ashley says

    $herdog, you never cease to impress me. I am AMAZED with how good this turned out with just a little elbow grease! I’ll definitely keep this in mind for all those less than stellar pieces I see. Would almost be worth it to carry a magic eraser around in your purse to test out how worn/damaged something is right on the spot!

  2. Miranda says

    Looks amazing! I big-fat-heart magic erasers!! Do you plan on keeping it the same wood tone when you go darker with the floors? I’m always apprehensive about mixing wood tones but you guys seem to do it so well…

  3. Blair R says

    I so excited to see you guys at Book People! It almost never happens, but it’s raining here, so don’t forget the umbrellas. :)

  4. Katie says

    Looks great! Love Magic Erasers, they are the best cleaning tools – especially with children in the house! Question: Do you plan on putting anything on the wall above the TV? I have a problem with empty wall space…I stare and stare at it and eventually hang something up only to then stare at it again and obsess about it looking too cluttered!

  5. Chelsea says

    It looks amazing! I’m glad you didn’t paint it, personally. If you do, I’m sure you’ll make it work, but I think the piece is so lovely as is that I think leaving it alone is going to be the best option.

    I’ve used Magic Eraser for little knicks in the wall and whatnot, but the funniest story I know of someone using it is my brother-in-law’s story. He was a bit of a party guy in college and hosted a big goodbye party before his graduation and someone wrote on his fridge in Sharpie (I think it was “Class of 2008” or something, I forget what it said). Thing is, it was a campus-owned apartment, and he had to get it off. So he got the Magic Eraser. Worked like a charm! But I think he stopped speaking to the girl who defaced the fridge. ;)

  6. says

    Mia looks great! Magic erasers never fail to surprise me. And I love using white vinegar! I spritz it on my floors before I mop and it makes them super shiny!

    PS. As the wife of an electronics engineer/nerd, I feel obligated to say make sure that your cable box, etc. has a way to breathe to prevent them from overheating. There. I made the hubs proud.

  7. says

    Love you guys for all that you do & share, and esp for bringing life back to such a timeless piece like Mia! I hope to stumble upon one of her siblings (or cousins?) myself in a thrift shop as well someday.

  8. says

    Total score on the dresser! Did y’all see West Elm’s similar version for $800 (

    Thanks for sharing your tips on getting that old, musty smell out of thrift store finds. That smell alone has scared me away from a few potential purchases in the past.

    I’ve also found that the Magic Eraser is good for cleaning handprints off of our stainless steel fridge doors. I just follow it with a rub down with a dry microfiber cloth.

  9. Katie says

    oh my gosh, I bought one almost exactly like that last year on Craigslist for $20! Glad you mentioned the Magic Eraser might not work on lacquer, since that’s what mine is… almost bought one of those bad boys! Our living rooms are looking oddly similar these days, with the Karl and now this! Looks great :o)

  10. says

    Great job! I’ve been hoping to find an affordable MCM console table one day. So sorry I missed you guys in Austin! The website says 1/8 not 1/7.

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