Refinishing A Mid-Century Modern Dresser: Mistakes & Lessons

Hello friends. Before I dive into this Mid-Century love fest I want to chat briefly about my posting schedule. I decided to tackle some new projects this year and they’re taking longer than I expected (you’ll see one example in this post). As a result the blogging side of things has slowed down. A lot. Hopefully it will pick up again as I learn more and can work faster. Until then, I’m still sharing, just less often.

Now that that’s out of the way, get a load of this.

Refinishing A Mid-Century Modern Dresser: Mistakes & Lessons |

Refinishing A Mid-Century Modern Dresser: Mistakes & Lessons |

I. Can’t. Even.

The Mid-Century Modern lover in me wants to whisper inappropriate things to it over cocktails in a dark, smoky bar.

Sure, it’s got a broken leg – a new one has been ordered and will be here soon – but it’s still so damn sexy I just couldn’t wait any longer to share.

Refinishing A Mid-Century Modern Dresser: Mistakes & Lessons |

So for now we’ll do some cropping to hide the “stump” and show off the gorgeous legs it does have.

Refinishing A Mid-Century Modern Dresser: Mistakes & Lessons |

You might also notice there’s no fancy staging or styling – the paint job on the wall isn’t even done. That’s because this room is (eternally) under construction. This dresser and another one I plan to share soon are the only finished things in the space. Gotta start somewhere.


You can probably guess from the title of this post that the refinishing process did not go smoothly. I’ll start at the beginning with this not-so-exciting “before” shot.

Refinishing A Mid-Century Modern Dresser: Mistakes & Lessons |

Not in bad shape but there were some scratches and dings that needed attention. Worst of all, this ugly laminate top.

Refinishing A Mid-Century Modern Dresser: Mistakes & Lessons |

So I started by stripping the drawers with Citristrip. Then I hit them with a few coats of General Finishes Java Gel Stain. Everything looked beautiful so I finished them off with General Finishes Gel Topcoat, patted myself on the back, and went to bed.

The next morning I found this on all nine drawers.

Refinishing A Mid-Century Modern Dresser: Mistakes & Lessons |

What the what? What happened? And more importantly, how do I fix it?


I asked everyone I knew. Instagram friends. Facebook family. General Finishes customer support. Everyone. In the end no one was exactly sure why it happened but most seemed to agree on the solution: re-strip, re-sand, and re-stain.

But I wasn’t convinced. Repeating the same steps and expecting different results seemed ridiculous. I wanted to find out what actually caused the spots so I decided to do more investigating.

My plan was simple: Follow the same exact steps but on a different dresser. If the spots appear again then I know it’s something I’m doing. If not, then it must be something on the wood. Maybe a spill or splatter from the previous owner?

Here are the discouraging results.

Refinishing A Mid-Century Modern Dresser: Mistakes & Lessons |

It’s a different kind of wood so it doesn’t look the same but there are definitely spots.

So what the bleepity-bleep was I doing wrong? I had just finished another dresser last week using the same products and it turned out beautifully – no spots, no problems, no drama. Why was I having so much trouble now?

Then I remembered something! I had done one tiny thing differently on that spot-free dresser from last week: I used a liquid deglosser to remove the paint stripper residue. On the spotty dressers I used a 50/50 mix of denatured alcohol and water that I had on hand. If that mix wasn’t strong enough to completely clean off the thick, waxy stripping goo it could prevent the stain from soaking into the wood evenly, which would result in spots. Mystery solved!


The Citristrip label clearly states, “use a paint stripper wash or odorless mineral spirits to loosen remaining residue”.

I used something else and it was an epic fail.

So today’s furniture refinishing lesson is: FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS ON THE PRODUCTS YOU’RE USING.

It’s so simple that it’s embarrassing. Let’s move on.


Now that I knew what to do – and what not to do – it was time to finish this thing up. I scrubbed everything down with a Scotch-Brite scour pad and deglosser, then sanded and stained. The top coat went on beautifully with no spots to be seen. Success!

With the drawers finally done it was time to tackle the dresser frame. I started with a light sanding, followed by a coat of Bulls Eye 1-2-3 Primer (my go-to product for laminate surfaces). Lastly, a few coats of Benjamin Moore Cloud White and it was done!

Refinishing A Mid-Century Modern Dresser: Mistakes & Lessons |

Refinishing A Mid-Century Modern Dresser: Mistakes & Lessons |

Refinishing A Mid-Century Modern Dresser: Mistakes & Lessons |

I’m not gonna lie. This one was slow and painful and aggravating. But I definitely learned from it and I absolutely LOVE the results. Now I’m just waiting on that leg to show up in the mail so I can officially call it finished.

Have you conquered any painful projects lately? Was the challenge due to a simple mistake like mine? Or something more complicated?


10 thoughts on “Refinishing A Mid-Century Modern Dresser: Mistakes & Lessons

  1. Learned a lot from this project as I have had troubles with refinishing. Am stripping a coffee table from the 60’s and it is an awesome job. I love the dresser. Glad you are posting again. I will check more often. Maybe even some or one picture of 1 thing you made or redid every day. Ann

  2. I LOVE your dresser and am looking to refinish a very similar Mid-century piece to a similar reddish-rich-brown hue, so a few quick Q’s:
    What material was the drawers? I’ve got a walnut veneer on mine, fingers crossed same as yours?
    How many coats of the Java gel stain did you used? I’ve usually seen it give a really dark espresso hue, and I wanted something with a bit more warmth, and it looks it you’ve got it. Wondering also if that’s because of some of the stain left in on the wood prior to java-ing, or just less coats than all the cabinet staining of oak on pinterest?
    Would love to know how to replicate that gorgeous color.

    • Thank you Annie! I’m so glad you’re asking about the color because I had the same concerns as you when I started refinishing this piece. I didn’t want a brown/black color but didn’t want the “orange” finish that was on the original piece either.

      I used a paint stripper to remove the protective finish but it didn’t remove 100% of the old color since it was a stain and had penetrated the wood. As a result, there was still a warm hue to the wood when I applied the Java stain. I’m not a General Finishes expert but I think the blend of the old, leftover stain and the new Java stain is what created the final color. I used three coats but almost stopped at two for fear of getting too dark.

      My recommendation would be to use one drawer as your test. If you don’t like the way it’s turning out you can use the liquid deglosser to “erase” and try again. That’s what I did to get rid of the spots I wrote about and it worked like a charm.

      Unfortunately I have no idea what kind of wood my piece is. I don’t know much about that end of things yet. Hopefully I’ve been some help. Please let me know if you have any other questions. I would love to see how your piece turns out!
      laughing abi recently posted…Refinishing A Mid-Century Modern Dresser: Mistakes & LessonsMy Profile

        • Thanks Abi!
          You’ve made me realize that I should strip the beast before I choose the best stain color. Your shot of the post-strip pre-stain will be useful! At the moment it’s hard to tell if the colour is in the varnish ageing or the wood stain itself. No citristrip available up here in Canada but seems like soy-gel is the way to go (even better than citristrip by some reports). This is my first full-out wood refinishing project so I’m spending about half my time reading blogs and DIY articles to get some advice. Your piece will definitely be my model! I’ll keep you posted.

  3. Love the beautiful color. My only question. Did you use a protective coat on the body and if so, what product did you use? I am finishing a dresser for my teenage daughter and i am afraid it would not hold with time.

    Thank you!

  4. I have a question about a mid century piece my daughter bought the top is that formica like surface can it be removed or sanded and painted love the piece not the top though

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