Restoring Old Wood Furniture

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Old wooden furniture can easily be brought back to life with a little TLC. See how this vintage sideboard got another chance at life in 8 restorative steps.

Old wooden cabinet with Melissa (Hymns & Home blogger)

I always enjoyed road trips with my dad when he would take me to visit colleges or when he’d drive me back up to school in the Fall. We’d listen to all our favorite music, stop for iced coffee, and talk while I worked on my latest crocheting project. Well we brought the tradition back recently with a mini road trip to go pick up my latest Facebook Marketplace find – this old vintage sideboard for my basement studio! Thanks, dad!

old beat up vintage wooden sideboard
(Listing photo from Facebook Marketplace)

I got this diamond-in-the-rough for $35. I decided I would try cleaning her up and see how she looked – I could always paint her as a last resort. She was missing a door and a drawer knob, had most of the top veneer chipped off, and was downright dirty. She even came with miscellaneous items inside including a spilled box of carpet tacks and an old metal spring. But boy did she have CHARACTER!

Dirty, chipping, old vintage wooden cabinet with missing door and missing drawer knob.

Here are the steps I took in cleaning up this old beauty:

1. Remove the back mirror.

I knew before purchasing that I wouldn’t need the mirror, so we removed it and set it aside in case we ever want it. It’s totally reasonable to remove part of a furniture piece if it doesn’t work for your needs!

2. Strip off broken veneer.

Most of the veneer on the top was already gone, leaving giant splintery chunks like this along the edges:

Chipping veneer on top of the cabinet

I used a large flathead screwdriver and a hammer to chisel off the chunks and pry the veneer off the sides of the top piece. It came up pretty easily for the most part, with a few little stubborn sections that we got off using a hand plane (which worked quite well!). Be sure to wear eye protection and gloves while doing this – those little splinters go flying everywhere!

Prying up veneer with a screwdriver

The veneer on the inside floor of the cabinet was also in rough shape – buckling and bubbling from water damage – so I stripped off all of that as well.

Removing inside veneer

3. Smooth down the top with a belt sander.

My husband volunteered to use the belt sander to smooth down the top for me. I gladly accepted his offer since he’s experienced with that tool and got the job done a lot more quickly than I would have (plus my brother recently borrowed and burned out my little sander, so I currently don’t have one…boo). The top was so splintery before that it definitely would have given me splinters while working, but now it’s nice and smooth!

Sanding the top of the cabinet with a belt sander.
Oh hey, hubby! We’ll see if he reads my post and says anything about this photo. 😉

4. Clean, clean, clean!

Now that all the chiseling, sanding, and general dust-making were finished, it was time to clean this dirty piece! I started by brushing off all the sawdust with a whisk broom, used a dust buster to get up larger bits of grit and grime, then gave the whole piece a good wipe down with rags and a diluted solution of Simple Green.

I love this product for cleaning and prepping furniture! It’s non-toxic and biodegradable, plus it’s amazing at removing grease and odors! You can either use it full strength or dilute it. My mom’s been using it for years to clean her house, including greasy kitchen cabinets.

Cleaning the cabinet

See how much better it’s looking already with a good cleaning! Let it dry completely before moving to the next step. Wish I moved that quickly in real life…haha.

5. Modifications

What I mean by this is that I removed the lone door from its hinges and set it aside in case I want it later. From the start I planned to remove the door rather than try to replace the missing one. It made me a little sad to take it off, but I knew I had a plan for those openings – large, pretty baskets! While cleaning out the cabinet I found the missing drawer knob (yay!), so I replaced it using a larger screw since the original had been stripped. At this point I also went through and tightened all the screws in the cabinet. Don’t be afraid to be creative when modifying a vintage piece – you’re not going to “ruin” it by removing something that doesn’t look right to you or work for your space. The whole point is that the piece is enjoying new life in its new home with you!

6. Boiled Linseed Oil

What is boiled linseed oil? Linseed oil moisturizes and deepens the existing finish of a piece. It is derived from the ripened seeds of the flax plant. It comes in both raw and boiled varieties – the boiled kind has gone through a treatment process and has a considerably shorter curing time than raw (we’re talking hours/days vs. weeks or months!). It’s great for restoring furniture that is bare wood or wood previously treated with oil (not recommended for oak). Painted and/or waxed wood will have to be stripped before applying linseed oil as the paint/wax will prevent the wood from absorbing the oil. (Linseed oil is also used for improving the flow of oil-based paints.)

I would not recommend using boiled linseed oil on a piece that you may later wish to stain with a water-based varnish, as the oil will close up the pores too much to absorb a water-based product. An oil based varnish or a gel-stain would probably work okay (possibly not as deeply) and you can certainly paint over an oiled surface once it has completely cured, but may need to rough it up with some fine sand paper and clean it first.

It is absolutely amazing what a difference boiled linseed oil can make!

How to use boiled linseed oil:

Once your wood is clean and dry, apply a small-moderate amount of the oil to a lint-free cloth and gently wipe onto the wood. Let it stand for a few minutes, then use a clean lint-free rag to gently buff off the excess. Let dry completely. It’s that simple!

That being said, it’s incredibly important to use boiled linseed oil safely, as it is highly combustable. This article from The Craftsman Blog has a great overview on using linseed oil safety!

7. Wax the drawers

The drawers on this piece did not slide smoothly – in fact they were quite stuck! To assist them, I simply used a chunk of paraffin wax rubbed along the edges of the drawers. It made a huge difference!

Waxing the drawers
paraffin wax
My husband is so organized…

8. Paint the inside of the cabinet

The inside of the cabinet was very dark and water-stained. Since I planned to use it sans doors and display pretty baskets in those openings, I decided to paint the inside white to brighten it up and help the baskets pop.

painting the inside of the cabinet

When it comes to hiding water stains, a stain-blocking primer is the best bet. We’ve been pleased with Zinsser Bulls Eye over the years and that’s what I used on this project. You can easily add any other paint/color you desire over the primer. I’ve also come to realize that I much prefer using Frog Tape for my painting projects over the original blue painter’s tape I grew up using. It’s just “meatier” and easier to pull off in my opinion.

That’s it! Then came the fun of styling my refurbished cabinet!

Refurbished vintage cabinet in tiled craft area

You can find all the details and sources for this space in this blog post on my studio makeover, part 1.

Is it perfect? No, of course not – it’s old and vintage! But it’s so much better and more functional. That’s the beauty in this – getting to enjoy a vintage piece that has been made functional and enjoyable once again.

Sometimes all a piece of furniture needs is someone to see the potential in it. To quote Linus from A Charlie Brown Christmas, “Maybe all it needed was a little love.”

Blessings, Melissa

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