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Changing the color of a wood dresser.

I want to paint over my daughters light oak wood dresser, what kind of paint/stain should I use? I want to make it a darker type of wood color like walnut, how should I go about doing this? Is sanding really necessary?

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Posted 2011-09-13T01:14:51+0000  by fstarr fstarr

hello fstarr...


There are numerous posts on here about staining, but I will cover some basics and answer your questions.


What kind of stain to use?

How to stain from light oak to a walnut color?

Is sanding really necessary?


Let's start with the last question first. Yes.

Do I need to go on? :smileywink:

There are a couple of different ways to change the color of the dresser. You can use something like Minwax Polyshades or you can strip, stain and finish. While Polyshades represents far less steps and is supposed to be easier, I've seen far too many disasterous result using the product by people unfamiliar with the staining process to recommend it. Others may give you some foolproof steps to using Polyshades, but you will always get better results going with the traditional method. Think of Polyshades as a compromise, while you gain speed, you lose out on quality.


With that being said, where do you start?

Empty the dresser. Seems trivial, but you'd be shocked at those who don't and end up with some ruined stuff. Next remove all the drawers, doors and hardware, as much as possible. Typically, drawers will have handles or knobs that can and should be removed. Same for any doors that might be there, as well as their hinges. You're going to stain and finish the wood, not the hardware.


Next, you want to begin stripping the old finish off the dresser. You can do this by sanding, sanding, sanding, sanding and probably some more sanding. Or if that seems like a bit much, you can use a chemical stripper like KleanStrip's Strip-X (it's in a red toned can in the Paint Dept's Solvents/Cleaners bay). Strip-X will remove the finish and stain that's on your dresser. Just read and follow the directions on the can. Make sure to do it in a WELL VENTILATED AREA and wear GLOVES, safety glasses and some old clothes. After that, you'll need to sand. Any moisture you add to wood will raise the grain and that leads to not so smooth nor nice results.


If I were doing the sanding, I would start with an 80 grit paper specified for wood. If your local THD has 3M products, the packaging will say WOOD and the paper itself will have a reddish cast to it. The redness comes from the particles used to make the sand paper, they're garnet. The typical all-purpose sand paper is made with aluminum oxide particles. The difference is the shape of the scratches you put into the wood. Think of aluminum oxide as leaving a V shaped scratch and the garnet based paper as leaving a U shaped groove. Since you're going much darker, the U shaped scratches will allow you to stain more aggressively, getting to your final color quicker.


How should you sand? Well for years we've been told you always sand with the grain, but that has changed. More and more woodworkers are learning they get better results, faster, by sanding at an angle to the grain. Think about 30-45 degrees to the direction of the grain. After you have done the 80 grit, move up to a 150 grit paper and sand the opposite angle. What i mean is this, think of the grain pattern running vertically, up and down this page. now consider our friend the letter V. If I sanded in the direction of the left side of the letter V with the 80 grit, I'm going to sand in the direction of the right side of the V with the 150 grit. Each time you sand your surfaces, you're putting little scratches into the surface of the wood, opening the pores of the wood to allow better penetration of your stain and finish. As I move between grits, I'm putting smaller and smaller scratches in the wood, smoothing out my previous grit's scratches. For my final sanding, if we're talking about oak, I will sand with a 180 or pine with a 220. This sanding will be in the direction of the grain.


Once you are happy with your sanding, take a vacuum cleaner and suck off all the dust. Next, dampen a cloth with some mineral spirits and wipe the dresser down. This will remove any sanding dust left behind. Some people will use a tack cloth to do this, I prefer not to use them as they are a sticky wax. If you press too hard, you can impart some of that wax to the surface and have problems getting your stain and finish to work properly in that area. I will mention this now to make sure I cover all the bases. I recommended you use mineral spirits because you would typically choose an oil based stain (yellow Minwax Wood Finish can). If you happen to choose a water-based stain, either of the two products Minwax has (water-based stain or the newer wiping stain), then use denatured alcohol instead of mineral spirits. If you want a more traditional wood look, stick with the yellow Minwax Wood Finish products. 


Now that the surface is nice and clean, take your stain color of choice and apply it evenly across the surfaces of your dresser with a rag. Some people will use a brush to apply the stain and that's fine, I just find that most people have more control wiping the stain on than brushing. Whether it's the back of the dresser or the bottom underneath or the side of a drawer, test out your technique. Wipe some on, let it set for a few minutes and wipe it off. The longer you leave it, the more it will penetrate and the richer the color. Experiment a bit. You may find that you'll need to do more than one application of stain to achieve the color you want. Here's a potential gotcha that you want to avoid. Do not try to get the stain really dark in one application by applying a lot of stain to the surface. When people try that, they'll usually find that even after 24 hours the stain will still feel tacky to the touch. At that point, you're stripping and sanding again, starting over. So, wipe some on, wipe it off. Be consistent. Same amount of stain on the same amount of surface area for the same amount of time before you wipe it off. When doing the top of the dresser, do it's sides first then the top. That way, any little drips you might have down the side of the top piece won't be so noticeable and can easily be blended in. Once you're happy with the color, walk away and let it dry; at least 24-48 hours. 


You're now in the final stretch to a beautiful new piece of old furniture :smileyhappy: 


Most people will apply a polyurethane at this point, but you can apply lacquer or Polycrylic instead. I won't get into the details of each at this point as this post is getting quite lengthy. Since polyurethane is the popular choice, I will cover that one.


This will be one of the few times I will tell you to deviate from the directions on a can. Polyurethane is a plastic, as is today's lacquer, but unlike lacquer, polyurethane doesn't stick to anything all that well, let alone itself. So why is it so popular? It's relatively easy to apply and it's thick. Read that as I can brush on a couple of coats and get a reasonably protective finish. Lacquer would require many many coats to achieve the same thickness of finish as a couple coats of polyurethane. When I say that it doesn't stick to anything very well, that's the reason you have to sand between coats of polyurethane. You need to give the surface more tooth, more area to grip. But here is where we deviate from the instructions Minwax provides on their can of polyurethane. Assuming you buy a quart of polyurethane, you're going to pour the quart into a 2qt container. Now, you're going to add four capfuls of Flood's Penetrol. You can find Penetrol with the paint sprayers. Penetrol's addition to the polyurethane increases the adhesion of the poly to the surface it's applied, whether that's the wood or itself. An added benefit is that it lengthens the drying time of the polyurethane. This gives us a self-leveling product. What that means to you, fewer or no brush marks and the little bubbles you may get have a chance to disipate on their own. It also means sanding with a finer sand paper grit between coats (read that as less work/effort). Once you add the Penetrol, gently stir it in, avoiding adding any bubbles in the poly. Now pour some of your mixture back into the poly can and put the lid on it.


Using a natural bristle brush, you'll want to apply an even film of poly across the entire surface of the piece. The more you brush out the poly, the more chance for brush marks and bubbles, the quicker it dries and the more likely you will be sanding out those imperfections. You want an even coat. Let it dry about 6-8 hours or even a day (it shouldn't be tacky), lightly sand with a 320 grit paper in the direction of the grain and apply another coat. Usually, two coats will be fine. You may find that instead of brushing the top of the dresser, using one of the Shurline paint pads with the foam grip will work better than a brush. You can cover more surface area at one time than you can with a brush over that nice flat surface. What I typically will do for the top, pour some of my poly mixture onto the top and float it around my surface with the pad. Adding more until I get the top consistently and completely covered.


That's it in a nutshell, I'm sure others will have more to add. If you have questions, just ask. 

Posted 2011-09-13T05:14:07+0000  by Paul

Hi fstarr,


There is an amazing product out there that is fairly new in the last couple of years that you can purchase online and in various stores around the nation that allows you to stain over existing seal without having to sand.  It penetrates through the existing seal and there is virtually no prep work needed.  They carry a bunch of color options and it will save you so much time.  I restained my entire kitchen cabinets in about three hours with a spray gun and they turned out beautifully.  I also used it on a dresser as well with painting it on.  So easy.  You can check it out and purchase online at:


Have fun!

Posted 2011-09-16T20:02:15+0000  by angiedenson

While yes there are products that penetrate through a finish to color a piece, they are a compromise. Yes, the concept is relatively simple. Wipe on a product and allow it to penetrate and add color to a watermark or heat mark, etc. and it's relatively quick. But with any compromise, there's a negative. If the color under the finish isn't even, and you're applying something that is like a stain to recolor that area, how will it know to even the color between the darker area and the lighter area? Water and heat marks aren't in the stain, they're in the finish.


As an example of this, shellac has been around for longer than any of us and was used extensively before plastics came on the seen. But over the years it has gotten a bad rap for its resistance to moisture. At the same time, it has been used for years and continues to be used as a sanding sealer, because it can be used under any topcoat, as long as it has been dewaxed. There in lies a dilemma. When you remove the wax to allow it to be used as a universal sanding sealer, you remove the part that makes it fantastic to sand. While still great, dewaxed shellac is not as good as regular shellac when it comes to achieving perfection when sanding. At the same time, dewaxed shellac makes a better finish than waxed shellac. Why? Well the bad rap that shellac has gotten with watermarks on a table top, for example, is from the wax trapping in the moisture, creating the discoloration. The wood under the shellac isn't discolored, the finish is. You can use dewaxed shellac in a bathroom and never have a watermark.


So how does all this tie into recoloring a piece of furniture? If I have uneven coloration of my piece beneath the finish due to something like sun bleaching, I will still have uneven coloration when I apply the penetrating formulas. Why does it work on a watermark then? You're using it in a very localized fashion. To make sure you have consistent coloring of your piece, strip, stain and finish.


Anytime you have a compromise, you have to take the good with the bad. I was taught a simple lessen by a master painter years ago. You can have a good job, a fast job and a cheap job. Pick any two, but you can't have all three. A good job, fast isn't going to be cheap. A fast job, cheap, isn't going to be good. A good job, cheap, isn't going to be fast.

Posted 2011-09-21T20:25:01+0000  by Paul

Paul, thanks so much for all that information.  Very well written and easy to understand.  I just discovered flotrol for latex paint and loved it.  Next, I'll try the penetrol with polyurethane.  I just redid some closet doors and the penetrol would have made for a nicer finish, although they came out fairly well.  I would have liked the better self-leveling and more time for any little bubbles to dissipate.  I have more doors to do so will try it.  Your explanation of sanding, using the "our friend the letter V" description, was perfect.  The tip about garnet paper for sanding when going for a darker stain is going to help me with an upcoming project, as well.  I also want to try your technique with the Shurline paint pad when applying poly to a large flat surface.  Great post.  Thank you thank you thank you! 

Posted 2012-09-27T02:09:16+0000  by violet




I would be very cautious about putting Penetrol in a urethane varnish. There is a lot of chemistry involved in today´s finishes. You don´t know how it will affect the urethane. At a minimum, I would test the mixture before committing to varnishing the whole piece. In general, I don´t even intermix differen brands of urethanes. I also only use fresh urethanes and varnishes. Their solvents evaporate very fast once the can has been opened and the solvents have flashed out, they no longer work well. Indeed, unless I was doing a large job where I knew that the entire gallon would be used up, I preffered to buy quarts, even though they were more expensive, but I did not waste varnish which had gone bad.


I tend to use the term varnish and urethane somewhat interchangably, but they are actually two different things. Natural varnishes where made from various resins from trees or linseed oils. Urethanes are creations of the chemists art, made from all kinds of chemicals. They are not generally interchangable.


The main  attribute of a urethane is its strength against water and chemicals such as alcohol. The main complaint by fine woodworkers is that urethanes make wood look somewhat plastic. Where durability is not the main concern, other finishes such as Danish Oil , tung oil and teak oil bring out the warm wood tones better. However, for table tops or bar tops, stay with the urethanes.

Posted 2012-09-27T09:06:16+0000  by ordjen
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