French Provincial Dresser “Modernification”
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I really loved Cora’s old dresser. It was an original Mid-Century Modern 4-drawer tallboy that was the first purchase we made for the nursery back when we were expecting our first baby. When we moved, it made its way into Cora’s room where it worked until she really needed more room. I sold it for what we paid to a great friend so I’m happy that it found a new home.
The trouble with my decorating is that I generally know exactly what I want and I want it yesterday. I had a picture in my head and had to find it on a budget. I sold the old dresser along with an Ikea Expedit we were using as a bookshelf. My goal was to get a “new” dresser and bookshelf to replace the old with only the money I had on-hand after selling the two “old” items. Tall order, but one I’m very familiar with. The dresser didn’t need to be exactly what I was picturing, but it did need to be 6+ drawers, preferably 9, with feet to raise it off the floor, and appropriately sized for the long wall I was placing it on.
After just missing an amazing dresser on a Facebook group when I took the time to measure (no, dummy! claim first then measure!) and then a Craigslist dresser when a seller no-showed after I drove 35 minutes with kids to meet her. I was tempted by a few other finds that were out of the budget or not the build quality I wanted, but I stuck to my guns knowing that we would have this dresser for the long-haul.
I found the perfect bookcase and got to chatting with the seller when I went to pick it up. Turns out, she knew exactly where the dresser was. It was a steal and they closed in 30 minutes. I high-tailed it down there, bought it, and had to call for reinforcements when it didn’t fit in my SUV with the bookcase by less than 2 inches. Picture me, standing on the sidewalk in front of a closed thrift shop right in the center of the most ultra-touristy spot of Austin waiting for reinforcements with a truck. It even started raining as a man in a bikini with a guitar sang me an obnoxious serenade to keep me company. What a sight it must have been. #KeepAustinWeird y’all.
It really was beautiful as-is less a few scratches and dents to the front and some rough spots on the top. It was completely made of solid wood and had dovetailed drawers. All original, even with the original hardware. Perfect! But, of course, I had other plans for this piece. I just needed something with solid bones and beautiful lines in great shape. Y’all, this one beats the pants off (or, out?) of the ones I missed. I’m so glad I held out!
After the rain cleared, it was time to turn the garage into a paint shop. I used:
- One super-long 3mm plastic drop-cloth, cut in 2 and taped to the garage floor
- Low-odor Mineral Spirits
- Paper Towels
- Sanding Sponges
- Orbital Sander (for the super-rough spots, like the top of this dresser)
- Finish Max Pro Fine Finish Paint Sprayer
- Wood Primer (optional, but recommended)
- Oil-Based Enamel Paint
- Clear Coat (optional)
- Silver Leafing Pen
- Rubber Gloves
- Respirator (not the little masks, but a full respirator)
- Painter’s pyramids
Just please respect antique furniture and if you have a piece with no-longer used quarter-sawn oak or other beautiful wood graining, please pick a different piece. There are many solid wood pieces without rare wood grains or species like this one! Show some respect for the lost are of crafting beautiful wooden furniture by not painting over beautifully crafted wooden furniture. Wood will come back!
Clean & Prep
Remove hardware, vacuums out any lint or dust from inside drawers and the dresser cabinet itself. Then clean the surface and open the pores of the existing finish with Mineral Spirits. It will remove the luster from most finishes, and that’s okay. It will also dissolve cheap gloves like I’m wearing so get nicer ones or have plenty on-hand.
I keep seeing half-finished sanding projects on Craigslist. People aren’t even doing a good job sanding then before they abandon a paint project. Why in the heck are y’all sanding furniture down to the bare wood before painting?! You only need to do this if you are staining the wood (few are these days) or if you have some serious rough spots to smooth out. Save your time, muscles, and sanity and prep the existing finish for an additional finish. It’s been on there for a long time, done by someone more experienced than you, and is already well bonded with the furniture. You just need to have your paint bond to that finish.
Sand & Clean Again
If you have really rough spots in the finish, use an electric sander (like an orbital) to smooth it out. That may mean going down to bare wood in select places. I sanded the top with the orbital sander because the finish had flaked off in several obvious places. I took it about half-way down to the wood so there was still a lot of stain showing as well as splotches of bare wood. Totally should have taken a picture. Sorry.
Then use a fine sanding sponge on any other surfaces. You aren’t working to strip off the finish, just to create a surface that paint can stick to. It should still feel smooth, but not slippery.
Then wipe down with mineral spirits again.
I use Zinsser Oil-Based Wood Primer. Don’t use a primer meant for metal, it won’t stick as well. After much trial and error, this is what works for me time after time. It’s oil-based which does mean that clean-up will take more effort, but for me the extra 20 minutes is worth a project turning out right. Technically priming is often optional, but it’s a great chance to create a great bond and smooth out imperfections (see next step).
To use primer in the Finish Max Pro Fine Finish Paint Sprayer, it will need to be thinned. I use the built-in timer on my iPhone and the handy tool that comes with the sprayer to measure the thickness of the paint. The directions that comes with the sprayer have a handy chart so you know how long it should take for different types of paint to completely empty from the little cup. For oil-based paints, add an oil-based thinner. For water-based, use water. Many recommend Pro-flo, but I don’t. It makes your project take 10 times longer to dry and it’s not necessary when you are using a sprayer. It caused the paint to dry slowly so that it smooths out brush marks as it slowly settles. You don’t have this issue with a sprayer. Professionals use Mineral Spirits, so I use Mineral Spirits. It’s less expensive, works better, and is easy to use. Add a little at a time until you get the right consistency for the paint to completely drain out of the cup in 30-35 seconds.
For this (large) dresser, I used less than a quart of primer and barely put a dent in the jug of mineral spirits. I filled the paint jar twice to paint the front, back, sides, and top of the dresser plus the face and inside of the drawer fronts. Since I was using a high quality enamel and the drawer insides were bare and rough (read grippy for paint), I didn’t bother priming them. Oh, also because I didn’t have enough primer on-hand.
Set furniture and drawers up on painter’s pyramids or wood scraps so that paint doesn’t puddle around it, causing the drop cloth to stick to it and an ugly ring of paint around your work. Gross.
I’ve had a few casualties, but have most of 2 sets of these which generally serves my purposes. For this project, I used some wood scraps to supplement since I had 9 drawers to prop up. These don’t cost much and make a huge difference.
I wrap a bandana around my hair, wear designated painting clothes (old jeans + an old t-shirt I save just for painting) plus my “project shoes” which are just an old pair that I would never wear out. Those little paper face masks aren’t made for spraying paint. They are meant for keeping dust out, but invest in an actual respirator if you plan to be spraying paint. It’s also much easier to do a nice job when you aren’t high AF. Trust me.
Then, assemble and turn on the paint sprayer and go for it. Keep the sprayer fairly close, 4-10 inches from the project. The photo above isn’t a great example because it’s tricky to photograph yourself painting, but practice strokes on the back of the furniture or on a scrap board first so you know what speed to go to avoid drips. These sprayers are great because you can adjust the flow. Professional sprayers often have one speed: super fast. The Finish Max Pro Fine Finish Paint Sprayer is great for DIYers because you can keep the flow at a lower rate so you can take your time and spray more carefully.
Always paint back and forth in slightly overlapping rows or columns. Otherwise, splotchy spray marks may appear. Keep a steady pace and you should get into the groove rather quickly. You will need to adjust your angle to get into all angles and corners.
Standing drawers upright to paint makes it easier to avoid drip marks on drawer fronts. You can put a bit more paint on horizontal surfaces than on vertical surfaces, so it’s a great tip for beginners as well –– even when hand-painting.
With the Finish Max Pro Fine Finish Paint Sprayer, the surface may look a bit splatter when wet. Don’t panic. As the paint dries, this will vanish. Don’t add more paint and don’t mess with it. Walk away and let it dry completely. On a spring day in Texas, this took about 6 hours.
Clean the paint sprayer and any tools with mineral spirits. I wipe everything down with paper towels first to get as much paint/primer off first. Then I wipe everything down with mineral spirits. Next, I pour a bit of mineral spirits into the paint sprayer and spray the mineral spirits for 30-60 seconds onto a pile of paper towels. Then, more wiping down with mineral spirits until everything is clean. HomeRight includes a cleaning brush that fits inside all of the nooks and crannies including the sprayer’s straw and the viscosity-measuring cup. It takes me about 20 minutes to do all of this clean-up, which is more than if I was just cleaning a paint brush, but the quality of the finish is worth it. I’ll have this dresser in our home indefinitely. I’d rather spend 20 minutes cleaning than years resentfully staring at brush marks.
Lightly sand again
Use a sanding sponge to gently rough-up the surface and smooth out and imperfections. Primer is a great sanding medium and it how the pros create those beautiful ultra-smooth finishes. Use a high grit sanding sponge, I used 220, and go over the entire surface lightly. You may rub the primer off in small spots, but it should adhere well at this point and you don’t want to sand too hard.
Then wipe it down again with mineral spirits to clean off the sanding dust.
This is the most exciting and nerve-wracking step of all. You will need to thin the paint to the point that it runs out of the cup in 30-35 seconds. I used a high-quality oil-based enamel. The guys behind the paint counter always give me weird looks when I specify “oil-based” and I always have to assure them that I know what I’m asking for. Don’t let them talk you out of it. Wall paint is for walls, not furniture. You won’t get the lasting, beautiful finish that you see in nigh furniture stores with wall paint. When builders have professional painters come in to paint kitchen & bathroom cabinets on new homes, the painters are spraying with oil-based enamel because it holds up much better to abuse and is a higher quality finish. Wall paint is for walls, people. Stop ruining furniture with it.
I got a much better picture of the sprayer in action this time. I purchased a gallon of oil-based enamel for this project since I wasn’t sure that a quart would be enough. It wouldn’t have been since this is such a large dresser and I painted the back and the insides of the drawers. A quart may be enough if you are painting the front and sides of a dresser only.
Paint in overlapping rows or columns, one section at a time. So here, the bottom of the drawer is a section, then the sides, then the back, etc. I painted the back first to get in a groove with the speed and thickness of the paint, then moved on to the rest of the dresser first, then the drawers. This color is a pale pinkish-purple since it is going in my daughter’s room. She wanted “purple and blue” which could very well change in the new few years (or days) so I went with a soft, crowd-pleasing lavender. The silver details (next step) counted as blue to my 3-year old.
I followed the same clean-up as above.
The next step is so hard. Waiting…
We park in our garage so I had to do this project with as little garage down-time as possible. I started priming in the late morning and finished painting in the early evening. That allowed the paint to dry overnight while only taking the garage out of commission for one night.
While waiting for paint to dry, I cleaned and painted the hardware. I know that the trend online right now is to clean everything with 409 before painting. I don’t get it. It’s a chemical (we keep as few as possible in the house) and it would be left sitting on whatever you cleaned. I used good old-fashioned de-greasing dish soap and warm water. I left everything to soak for about 30 minutes, then cleaned with an old toothbrush and set out to dry.
I painted everything with 3 coats of Martha Stewart paint in Polished Silver. I originally used this to paint the textured wallpaper in the girls’ bathroom and had plenty left over. I bought it at Home Depot, but Martha products are no longer in Home Depot stores so I’m not sure where to get it now. Does anyone know? We’d love your comment below.
I usually use oil-based spray paints for hardware, but wanted to try something new with a different look. I brushed this paint on and it’s water-based so I was able to do this inside while supervising the kiddos. It gave a more antiqued finish and I’m pleased with how it’s holding up. I sealed with a clear sealer in matte finish.
After the paint had fully dried on the dresser, I also added silver leaf details with a leafing pen. It turned out beautifully, but I’ll save that for the reveal below.
No matter what paint you use, a great clear sealing coat will give your project longevity. It will take the shine off of oil-based enamel as well if you’re going for a matte or satin finish. It give a paint project a professional look, even if you use spray paint. I’ve used this trick on many projects and it give the piece dimension. It doesn’t scream “PAINTED”, rather, it politely shows off it’s beautiful finish.
Not all clear coats are created even. Water-based clear coats will often go cloudy if they get wet (although this usually resolves itself eventually) but is very clear, so great for cool colored furniture. Urethanes and varnishes have a bit of a warm, brown tone to them even if they are clear, but they hold up extremely well.
I went with satin Spar Urethane, which I generally use on stained furniture. I had to keep the coats very thin to avoid pools of yellow-brown. You can see a bit of it in some spots, but for most people I’d have to point it out. I had it on-hand, but probably should have used something else.
I sprayed the clear coat on with the HomeRight Finish Max Pro Fine Finish Paint Sprayer. No thinning is required for clear coats (yay!). Clean up is much the same as with paint, but takes less time as it cleans up more easily.
Now that you’ve seen how I did it with the help of the HomeRight Finish Max Pro Fine Finish Paint Sprayer, her is the finished product!