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How To Save Antique Furniture From The Paint Brush

Most of the time, you find me painting old furniture or even painting antique furniture. Well, today I’m saving antique furniture. I bought an antique dresser at a local online auction for $38.50. Pretty good price even though, at first glance, the dresser looks a mess. 

dresser before restoring finish

My original plan for the dresser was to give it a two layered distressed paint finish. I was thinking maybe off-white with a hint of green for the bottom layer of paint.

Saving Antique Furniture From Paint Makeovers

I’m glad I didn’t follow through with the paint plan. It would have been sad to cover up this beautiful original stained finish. I didn’t return the dresser to its original glory, but it looks pretty darn good.

how to refinish or refresh the finish on antique furniture

The piece is called a wig dresser, and I found photos of similar pieces online and more information about the type and style of the dresser.

nineteenth century wig dresser

The piece above is an Antique American Empire Gothic Burled Walnut Wig Dresser with Marble Insert. It is very similar to the piece I bought, except the details on the dresser and body are a bit different.

The piece I bought at auction was just the lower dresser part without the ornate mirror. It did have a few broken pieces from the mirror surround but not enough to work with. The cabinets on the sides contain shelves, and that’s where the wigs were stored. 

marble top on an antique wig dresser

The top of the dresser had a marble insert on the front area, with a piece of the beautiful burled walnut covering the back area.

vacuum cobwebs and dust from antique furniture

While I was cleaning and prepping the dresser for paint, I admired the pretty walnut wood and the carved details. I also noticed that the original finish had very little chipping, veneer peeling, or stains. That’s what got me thinking about just refreshing the original stained finish.

spider eggs and cob webs on old furniture

But first, it needed a good cleaning. The photo above is a look at the bottom with split wood, dust, lint, and spider eggs….ugh!

real wood antique furniture


The solid wood backside of the dresser was in great shape too. It just needed cleaning up too.

how to clean antique furnitureThis is a look at the inside body where I removed the drawers, all solid wood. The dresser is very heavy.

After vacuuming and a good cleaning with Simple Green, I used regular old spray furniture polish to shine up the inside wood casing.

clean inside the cabinets of wood furniture

The cabinets still had the original shelves and the wood inside the cabinets just needed cleaning and shining up.

missing veneer on wood furniture

There was some missing veneer and you notice on the top of the rectangular detailed foot area that part of the scrollwork is missing. I found that piece later and nailed it back in place.

Minwax stain marker covers scratches on old furniture

A Minwax stain marker took care of the missing piece of veneer.

use Gorilla glue to repair veneer on furniture

While using the stain marker, another piece of veneer popped off. I just stuck it back on with a bit of Gorilla Glue.

how to refresh the furniture finish on antique dresser using Howards feed n wax

Once the vacuuming and clean-up were finished, I used Howard’s Feed n Wax to renew the stained finish. For all of those detailed areas, I used a small stencil brush to get the wax into the scrollwork or wood trim. 

how to use small paint brushes to clean furniture details

A regular paint brush would work too. The stencil brush was the first thing I grabbed.

wood stained finish cleaned with Howards Feed n Wax

The photo above is a revelation. The drawer on the right has been polished with the Howard’s Feed n Wax, and the one on the left is still sad looking after a simple cleaning. An amazing difference, right??

original wood knobs

When I opened the small boxes on the top of the antique dresser, I found the other knobs. What a great thing to have. The two drawers have the original knobs all shined up and back in place.

waxed and refreshed walnut Empire style antqiue furniture

Both of the drawer fronts were in fantastic shape. Even the wood trim was intact.

before and after antique dresser

The knobs are very distinctive. I have a lot of wood knobs in my reclaimed knob and drawer pull stash but none like these.IMG_3843

On both cabinet doors, the wood was split vertically right in the middle of the inside wood trim detail. Yes, it’s noticeable but I don’t think it takes away from the beauty of the piece.

save antqiue furniture from being painted

I’m on the hunt for a marble top to replace the original. 

missing marble top

I didn’t even realize the original wig dresser had a marble top until I found the photo of a similar dresser online. I just thought the veneer on the top had been pulled off.

ornate details on antique wood dresser
I found part of the missing trim around the detailed wood piece in one of the drawers but not all. I cleaned that piece up and nailed it back in place.

how to refresh an antique furniture finish (1)

I mentioned having several pieces from the original mirror and side wig cabinets that have identical trim. I could cut a replacement piece, but not wanting to get into that right now. 

walnut wood antqiue Empire style dresser

The wood is too beautiful. So glad I didn’t paint over it. It’s hard to believe this piece could be 150 years old, give or take a few years. They sure knew how to make furniture back then.

Saving Antique Furniture From The Paint Brush

What do you guys think? Glad I didn’t paint the dresser. Have you ever seen a similar piece? I have another antique piece I cleaned, refreshed, and saved from the paint brush.

antique furniture to clean and refurbish

I cleaned and refreshed the chest of drawers a client inherited from the grandmother. You can see how great it turned out here.

how to clean antique furniture
If you have time, leave a note before you run off. Thanks for being here, Kathy

Kathy Owen founder of Petticoat Junktion
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Author: Kathy Owen
Kathy Owen is the founder of the home decor blog Petticoat Junktion where she shares tutorials on painting furniture and upcycling thrifty finds into unique home décor. Her DIY projects have been featured on the Home Depot Blog, Plaid Crafts, Behr Designer Series, and in numerous magazines. Kathy’s newest website is HappyHomeDIY.com


  1. I cringe every time I see a painted antique. No matter how well it has been done. This is the best article I have ever read. I think every piece of furniture I own is antique or vintage. Never have to see a piece of furniture like mine in any one else’s home. Old furniture is real.

  2. You did a beautiful job reviving gorgeous wood. I’m so glad you didn’t paint it. I used one of the Howard formulas on a wooden bench painted with a lighthouse scene. I was ready to sand and just paint it but thought about Howard’s formula for mahogany wood. Oh my goodness…it revived the wood and the painting.

  3. You can have a marble piece made from a scrap at a place that has stone counter tops. It turned out beautiful.

  4. How beautiful is this dresser. Love, love this. Thankyou for restoring it, you did an amazing job.
    So enjoy your sight, very informative and full of such great stuff. Loved the info about the flee market in Tennessee. I live in Windsor on Canada and hope to take a trip to the glee market in the summer.
    Thanks again.

  5. The detail and wood grain are beautiful on your wig dresser. Glad you didn’t paint it.where the marble goes on top looks to be smaller than a sink cutout.l wonder if a place that does countertops could find a small piece reasonably for you.Also many years ago my dad had marble tops cut for a couple of dressers from a place that cut headstones and grave markers. Still beautiful even without. Your work is great!

  6. Where did you find the feed and wax? After seeing this piece, I may go this route instead of painting a dresser I have.

  7. Kathy,
    That was the smartest choice not to paint. You did such a beautiful job! I think it’s a real keeper!
    Smiles, alice

  8. To paint or not to paint is always the question. You let that piece of furniture tell you what it wanted and what a fabulous job! Chipped veneer always throws me into thinking I need to fill and then of course paint becomes the option, but this showed me another way! Thank you Do!!

  9. You did a wonderful job and I’m so glad you didn’t paint it. I really love this unique piece.

  10. I have a serpintine dresser I got off the curb… The more white paint I strip off… The more I want to keep from putting paint on it!!
    It is a beautiful piece… You did a great job!

  11. I was a maid to put myself through college. The woman I worked for only used lemon oil. The furniture was just lovely! But took all week to get the smell out of my hands

  12. Oh kathy thank you for leaving this piece alone. So many jump on the paint band wagon and dont realize the rarity of certain woods! The cut/precision has to be just right. I have a 100yr old buffet I was going to paint-so many beautiful ideas! But the wood….I just cant do it.love what you did- er, didnt do!

  13. Hi Kathy!
    Great job on the wig dresser! I’m wondering if it is older than you think…perhaps dating to when men also wore wigs? Why else would a piece of furniture be made and dedicated to such a specific purpose?
    Frequently antique wood gets dried out if it hasn’t been nourished over the course of time. FYI, coconut oil is a thin natural oil that can bring old wood back to life. Also help oil and of course linseed oil.

  14. “Imperfection is Beauty” – Marilyn Monroe. Glad it wasn’t painted, the wood grain is divine. The cracks and chips add character.

  15. Yes. Too many old pieces are being RUINED by paint. I have a side board that is similar in wood and marble. I hope to get it cleaned and polished. NOT PAINTED.

  16. Great job on both refinishing and repairing all at the same time. Looks really great. I use to refinish all my pieces but now I paint quite a few. Depends where & how I want to use them.

  17. Beautiful job saving this wig dresser. I am SO glad you chose to go the restoration route instead of painting it!!!! It makes my heart happy to see this. Thank you!!!

  18. The wig dresser is amazing and the other is equally lovely. Sometimes painting is the best solution but these beauties just needed a little TLC.

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