I've finally finished my next restoration project! I'm working in Minneapolis this summer and settled in my house in Saint Paul with my three lovely roommates Sara, Kat, and Hope. Living here is great because there's such a variety of antique stores, salvage yards, thrift stores, and other places to explore and find treasures at. A luxury I've enjoyed! In addition to checking out these neat places, I scoured Craigslist for the ideal first project.
I lucked out with Craigslist and found a dresser in the metro area! It just so happened that I was in need of a little extra storage to keep my folded clothes tucked away, as I didn't have a dresser already. I decided to find one for my summer project! And boy, was this one a doozy! Here it is in all of its beaten up glory:
As you can see, this one was kind of a beater when I acquired it, however I was drawn to its intricate detail and good bones. It definitely needed extensive work, but I saw a lot of potential. The previous owner told me that he was getting rid of this piece because he had too many other projects to work on. He had stripped most of the white paint off of it and started staining it, but realized he didn't like the color he chose, so he stopped staining it midway through. I purchased the piece as is, with remnants of paint and stain still lingering. Looks pretty sad, if you ask me.
The backside of the dresser has a stamp with the name of the original manufacturer, a clue to the piece's history! This dresser was manufactured by the Northern Furniture Company in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I did some research on the company and discovered that it was founded in 1881 by a George B. Mattoon. It was initially named the Mattoon Manufacturing Company but was called the Northern Furniture Company beginning in 1904. The company was bought out and renamed to the R-Way Furniture Company in 1949 and operated until 1993.
Based on this research, I’d reckon that this piece dates back somewhere between 1904 and 1949 - My guess is the 1920s (neat!). While researching the northern furniture company, I found an online magazine from 1927 with all of the furniture offerings they had back in the day. I didn't find this exact piece in the catalog, but it's still fun to see the matching sets that were built by the company. I like to imagine what other furniture was created to accompany this piece. It was my goal to restore this piece to what it would have looked like when it was first built, and this catalog helps to give me a clue of what that might look like. Something important to note is that most furniture from this era wasn't painted - it was stained, so that's the direction I took with this piece.
I was also somewhat excited that the drawers were missing drawer pulls when I acquired the piece, because that provided me with the opportunity to hunt for some really beautiful knobs. I decided to find some knobs before I began stripping, sanding, and re-staining the dresser, so I went out looking as soon as i could! I checked out a few places in the Minneapolis area: Bauer Brothers Salvage, Guilded Salvage Antiques, and Architectural Antiques.
As it turns out, it's pretty difficult to find 11 matching antique drawer pulls (and especially not on a budget), so I decided to go for some reproduction knobs that were within my price range. The man I purchased them from affirmed that they would be period-consistent with my ~1920s dresser, which was an important consideration for me. Vintage reproduction pieces, such as drawer pulls, are made to similarly resemble hardware that would have been found in homes and buildings of a certain era. If you're concerned about truly maintaining the historic integrity of a piece, it's in your best interests to avoid using modern hardware. Here's a look at the knobs I chose:
I was drawn to the intricate floral design on the face of these knobs. If you look closely near the legs of the dresser you can faintly make out a similar beautiful floral carving underneath all the gunk. I thought the knobs were reminiscent of this detail, so that's what really sold me on them.
My next step was stripping the dresser of its existing paint and stain. I started with a stain stripper specifically formulated for restoring antiques and other old furniture. I brushed liberal amounts of the stripper all over the stained portions, let it work its magic, and then scraped it off. Then I used steel wool (and a bit more stripper) to really scrape the grime out of the wood grain. This first round was a long process that took about 2 or 3 hours (and about 2/3 of a quart-sized can of stripper), all within the cozy comfort of my old garage. There wasn't a ton of stain to remove, but I still had a tough time getting it all off in one night before it got dark outside, so I just did what I could. My garage doesn't have electricity, so I'm confined to working on my projects within the daylight hours after I get home from work.
This lack of electricity brings me to the next step of the process - sanding! I wasn't able to remove all of the stain with the stripper, so I decided to see if sanding the dresser with an electrical circular sander would remove more of the paint and stain that remained. The lack of electricity in my workspace isn't exactly conducive to the use of an electrical sander, so I had to innovate a bit to get electricity to the garage. My house is also pretty old - old enough to not feature the luxury of exterior outlets, so I siphoned some electricity from the kitchen. My sister Abby, who lives down the road from me, was kind enough to lend me an extra extension cord (and the sander!) to use. As shown in the photo series below, I ended snaking a series of extension cords and power strips through a hole in the kitchen window screen, across the entire backyard, over a fence, down a hill, and onto the driveway to plug in my sander. I don't think i could've gotten a more perfect cord length. Lucky and comical.
Voila! Electricity! And so begun another series of long 3-hour sessions of work on the driveway. I started with a fairly coarse, 80-grit sandpaper to really smoothen things out and remove the lingering stain and paint. I finally started to see some tangible results. This is when I thought things got really exciting because the true color of the wood started to return. Here's a look at the progress I made after one round of stripping and sanding the piece.
I still had a good portion of the stain to remove, so I went at it again with the sander - another couple rounds of 80-grit. I was hoping to get it all off with the sander but had to resort to even more stripping. I repeated this process numerous times - it was a lot of work.
I also had to attend to the more detailed parts of the piece with handheld sandpaper and some good ol' elbow grease. Progress! Surely but slowly.
I was starting to wonder if I'd make more headway if I just filled a bathtub with stripper and plopped the dresser in there to marinate.
I spent another couple of hours (over the course of a few days) being more meticulous about getting the paint and stain out of the detailed parts of the dresser - the beveled edges, floral, carvings, and the legs. So, in other words, more stripper, more scraping, and more sanding. I finally splurged on some heavy duty stripping pads to sand with - this really helped me get the existing finish off. I definitely lost track of how many hours I’d spent on the piece at this point and how many exact rounds of stripping and sanding I had been through. It was likely close to 40 hours. I was pretty determined to get it as bare as I could before moving onto the next step.
And finally, here's what she looked like (nearly) bare naked! I really liked her blonde. It was so satisfying to get to this point!
Another cool thing that resulted from this project is the way that it connected with my neighborhood. At one point in the process, I was out in the garage sanding and my next-door neighbor came over to introduce himself and see what I was up to. He'd seen me out there a handful of times and was curious about my project so he came to check it out. He told me that he used to work on projects like this and would often have a garage full of old and restored furniture. I’m thinking that definitely could be me in the near future if I keep this up.
I ended up taking a few week hiatus from working on the project for a variety of reasons - visiting family and friends, taking camping trips, etc. - so progress was at a halt for awhile. But eventually I got around to staining it!
But before i stained it, I gave the whole piece a once-over with some fine 150-grit sandpaper to really make sure it was smooth before the finish went on. This is when it's crucial to use the sandpaper to remove all visible scratches and imperfections in the wood.
And now for staining! I used a warm-colored stain for the first two coats - it came out looking like this! I simply applied each coat with a cotton rag, let it sit for a few minutes, and then wiped it off with another clean rag.
I realized that i was going to need to apply a darker stain to blend the grain of the wood more effectively - some remnants of old stain lingered despite my best efforts to remove it all. You can see the darker portions sticking out pretty blatantly.
Here she is cloaked in four coats of stain - looking beautifully rich and warm (and might I add suntanned?!). I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist, and I was really tempted to keep adding coats of stain until it was completely even. I decided to fight this temptation when I was reminded by my wise older sister Abby that 'done is better than perfect.' So I went for it - and sealed her off and wrapped her up in a coat of varnish. This keeps the piece from getting scratched and gives it a nice-looking finish.
And - finally! She's finished, filled with neatly folded clothes, and looks mighty fine if you ask me!
This project took me much longer than i initially expected it to, but it was worth the three months of work I put into it. I believe that things that take time are usually worth it, and I did my best to honor this piece by being meticulous.
This project was a lesson in loving the process and commitment of care, creation, and restoration. I'll long remember the string of nights that I skipped dinner to run directly to the garage after I got home from work, coating myself in sweat and sawdust so I could work until the sun had set.
Turning to the details - I'm so pleased with the way the knobs paired with the piece! I love them.
And again, look at how exquisite the detail work on this piece is! I was most challenged by the amount of elbow grease and time that it took to attend to properly restoring the intricate details. My patience was definitely tested on a number of accounts when it came to the nooks and crannies!
And I'll admit that staging the piece in my room was allllllmost as fun as restoring it! I felt that this collection of items does a pretty good job of encapsulating who I am and loved showcasing it in order to display just that.
It's beautiful to remember that this piece is nearly 100 years old. The three-month journey that I've just detailed is only a small fraction of the life this piece has lived. So many people before me have used and loved this dresser - what a treasure it is to lengthen its lifespan and to continue to appreciate the piece of art that it is.
And I happen to think we make a perfect match! I'm proud of my work and am so grateful for the time I was able to spend this summer pursuing one of my passions.
Click here to view more photos of this project on Ravivé’s Instagram!
I can't wait to show you what I get my hands on next!