This Old House, Our New Office: Upcycling Furniture

dresser after from front

It’s happening!

We have secured the necessary approvals, created a master plan, and hired a wonderfully talented contractor to help us, (we call him Miracle Bill), and the “little brown house” down on 2nd street in Old Town Helena, historically known as the Nunnally House, is well on its way to being rescued and repurposed as our real estate office by the end of the year. If you drive by you may see sawdust flying and hear the ring of hammers; and you may see a couple of grubby looking family members swinging a paint brush. Many before and after photos will be posted soon; we can’t wait!

In the meantime, whoever started this latest craze to repurpose everything from furniture to toilet paper rolls is a genius. With a little imagination, a hammer, and a can of paint, a lot of fun can be had. When our oldest son took our old bedroom suit with him to college this year, we were left with a lonely Cherry wood triple dresser that had a broken drawer and a ruined finish. Revealing how much we have caught Helena Fever, the treasure that we created from that old dresser, to be used as our conference room console, celebrates the town with its new decor.

We love being in an area with such a colorful history; a visit to Ken Penhale’s Helena Museum is highly recommended for anyone wanting to know more. We wanted to pay homage to Helena with the subway-style lettering on the console, and also with the image of the steam engine on the top.
Here are the before and after pics:
dresser before and after composite
For any do-it-yourselfers out there, included below are the details of how we upcycled our old dresser into our new Helena Conference Room Console. Feel free to share!

Step 1. Preparation

I emptied our old triple dresser, vacuumed around the drawers, and quickly cleaned the surfaces with vinegar. Because I didn’t want to be stuck with shopping for the exact size drawer pulls (2 ½” distance between screws), I removed the hardware and filled in those holes with wood putty. I also decided to get rid of the bottom two drawers, one of which was broken anyway. I hammered out the wooden bar separating those bottom drawers, which left a gouged-out area that also had to be filled in with wood putty. After letting the putty set up, I sanded the filled areas smooth and also lightly sanded the entire surface to be painted, with 240 grit sandpaper… just enough to rough it up a little bit. Because the finish on the dresser top was compromised, I decided to seal it so the stain wouldn’t come creeping back through later—for this I used American Décor Stain Blocker Sealer, quickly applying an even coat with a sponge brush across the top of the dresser. The rest of the stained wood looked as if the factory clear seal was still intact, so I didn’t seal anything except the top.

Painting Steps
Painting Steps

Anyone who has chalk painted knows you probably don’t have to prime first—in fact, most of the chalk painting companies sell that as a feature. However, I decided to play it safe and prime the piece anyway, knowing this project would have some work into it and not being willing to risk a problem later. I painted the entire piece with gray Zinsser 1-2-3 Latex Primer for All Surfaces.

While the primer was drying, I created my master plan for which words I wanted to use, all with a local flavor of the town of Helena, Alabama.dresser console word plan

Step 2. Creating Lettering Stencils

I decided to use stencil vinyl, which has great adhesive quality but is easily removable—you can find it in the craft stores, with thdresser stencil materiale personal cutting machines. I used a roll of Silhouette stencil material from Michael’s; their 40% off coupon is a favorite.

I knew I wanted the words to have the general feel of subway lettering, with a combination of fonts; I spent way too much time mulling over font choices for each word! I would hope others are way more decisive I was, but if I had it to do all over the same trap would get me again. My words fell into two categories: those I would have to cut out by hand, and those I had the ability to cut using my old, barely used Cricut machine, for which I don’t own many font cartridges. I ended up with about half and half.

For the hand-cut letters, I printed the words onto paper, and then using a tape runner, I stuck those letters onto the dresser cutting out letterstencil material and cut it out precisely as possible. Believe it or not, cutting out these letters by hand went much quicker than expected; a good Netflix binge watch can make that time fly by. I highly recommend the little scissors by Cutter Bee.

For the Cricut-cut letters, I used Cricut Craft Room to plan dresser cricutthe arrangement that would yield the most letters per page, and just had to push a button to have the letters cut out beautifully. If only I had one of those new Cricuts where you can use any font or your own designs! I would be dangerous.

Step 3. Painting

Back to the furniture, it was time to paint; I used Valspar Chalky Finish Paint from Lowes, which can be tinted to match any color you choose. I selected two Sherwin Williams colors: Urbane Bronze (a grayish neutral) and Dover White. As expected, the chalk paint went on beautifully! I painted the entire body of the dresser with the Urbane Bronze, and the front of the drawers with the Dover White, and left it all to dry.

dresser with solid underpainting
Once completely dry, the next step was to afix the letters onto the drawer fronts; knowing thisdresser drawer with lettering stencils before paint was supposed to be rustic, I just eyeballed the placement of the letters to make the words fit. Here it is important that the letters are sealed down tight; in fact, I went over them with a brayer to make sure they were good and flat.

Once all the letters were down, I painted the drawer fronts, right over the stencil letters, with the Urbane Bronze, being careful not to swipe the paint from side to side, but instead using the brush at more of a right angle in something of a jabbing motion—the main thing is not to let too much paint get up under the letterdresser pulling stencil letter offs. It was ok for me if a little paint leaked in because I was going for “messy” but in most cases this wouldn’t be desirable.

Once the paint dried, the letters pealed off easily—for any of them that seemed hard to get started, I used a straight pin to get a good grip on the vinyl and they all cooperated nicely.

At this point, I had a stark gray and white piece of furniture; two big things were still left to do. First, I wanted to do an image transfer to get a huge steam engine chugging across the top. Second, I really wanted to age the piece to have it fit in with our old house. Then I would be down to finishing touches.

dresser with words uncovered

Step 4. Image Transfer

Transferring an image onto furniture can be a blast. Since our house is a few hundred feet from a railroad track, I knew we wanted an old steam engine picture. Using Photoshop, I created a black and white, high contrast image from an old scan of a small print we had, and resized it to sixty inches long at 300 dpi. To do an image transfer with this technique, you have to have it printed using toner, and not ink jet, technology; the good news is that the local Kinkos/Fedex offices can print using that technology and it is very affordable! Our 18×60” print, which they printed dresser printed out steam engine shown on dresser before gluing downon their toner-based plotter, cost less than $5 and was printed on thin white “plain” paper, which is perfect for the image transfer. Keep in mind that your image will be applied face down, so you will need to reverse it before printing if it has a “right” direction.

I would recommend that you choose something smaller for your first image transfer; but unless you choose something very small, it helps to have someone help you with this part so you can work quickly enough. I had a great assistant named Greg Arcara; we tacked the steam engine print to our garage wall so it would stay flat while applying the glue—the glue goes onto the “front” side of the print.

For this step, we used Liquitex Matte Medium, which has the consistency of glue, and a large, soft natural bristle brush. Working rapidly, we applied a very generous coat of the Matte Medium onto the entire front of the print, and carefully placed it face down onto the top of the dresser before it began to dry. I first smoothed it down with my hand, and thendresser opaque paper glued down, starting from the middle and working toward the outside, flattened it with a brayer to remove all air bubbles and to ensure a good seal. It is vitally important not to get a tear in the paper… a wrinkle is better than a tear. Also, it is important to not get any of the glue on the back side… the side you are pressing on needs to stay dry and fibrous. Once the image is glued down it needs to cure for a long time; knowing how large this image was, I gave it four days to cure fully before moving to the next step.

The next part is where the magic happens.

dresser wetting paper on trainWorking in one small area at a time, I lightly sprayed water onto the paper and let it soak in. Using my fingers, I started rubbing the paper away—the magic is that as the paper is dissolved, it leaves behind the image! This step is long and tedious; using your fingers to rub the paper fibers away is the best technique, but it takes a long time; I worked on this intermittently for several days. Every time I walked away thinking the image was completely uncovered, I would return the next day to see paper pulp had magically reappeared overnight. The good news is that the end result was worth it!

dresser paper partially rubbed off
Once the entire image was finally clean and free of paper pulp, I decided I didn’t like the hard edges of thedresser scratched image edges borders; a little steel wool worked great to distress the edges and blend them better into a nice transition. Finally, the image looked exactly as I had envisioned. I applied several coats of my favorite varnish to protect that image.

Final view from above:
dresser after from above


The first step to aging the console was quick and easy; using medium sandpaper and steel wool, I sanded the edges down to the primer and in some spots down to the wood, and I also sanded over the letters to get them smooth and blended; I also added a few random scratches, most of them on purpose. I applied one thin coating of my favorite new varnish all over and let it dry.

What is my favorite new varnish? I can’t say enough about how much I love the clear satin wax finish varnish by Polyvine! This varnish has wax in it, and I can say I will NEVER AGAIN fight with clear or dark wax typically used over chalk paint. This stuff is amazing. It dries to a perfect, fine furniture sheen.

dresser before and after glazingTo further age the piece, I applied a coat of my favorite glaze, Sher-Wood Glaze by Sherwin Williams, in the color Van Dyke Brown. Using old white t-shirts, I wiped the glaze off immediately, only letting it collect in the crevices; in spots where it needed to come away more cleanly, I used a little mineral spirits to get more of the glaze pulled back up. This glaze gave the piece the exact finish I was looking for, the before and after to the left.


Finishing Touches

dresser shiny binI found a few perfectly sized galvanized metal bins at Michael’s that would work well in the console; the only problem was they were too shiny and new looking. My one big epic fail of this project was the entire day I spent trying to age those bins, using amazing techniques offered up by “Pinterest people”; after a day of using chemicals, heat, powders, and scrubbing, I washed the bins to reveal their new found antique appearance—only to be left with shiny, perfect bins that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow if returned at Michaels just as they were! Turns out—those techniques don’t work if the metal bins have been factory clear-coated with something protecting them. Five minutes with my Sher-Wood Glaze and those bins looked as old and dirty as I wanted them to. I wish I could have that day back! Live and learn.
dresser aged bin

For the rim around the dresser top, I used AMACO Rub N Buff silver wax, applied with my fingers and rubbed to a sheen. To age it, I wiped it down with a rag that still had some Sher-Wood glaze on it, just enough to tone it down.
The round, clear drawer pulls were repurposed from a friend’s project. Voila!
dresser after from front
I am so excited about how this project turned out! Let me know what you think! Like us on Facebook for more fun projects as we tackle This Old House: Our New Office, Helena style.


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