Makeover for mahogany dressers?
November 29, 2010 3:34 PM   Subscribe

How to make old mahogany furniture prettier and less oppressive?

I have some mahogany bedroom furniture passed down from family that I'd like to keep, but it needs a makeover. There's a dresser, lingerie chest, and matching nightstand, all finished in dark red stain and maybe shellac (age is uncertain---perhaps 1930s?). All three pieces are rather battered and scraped.

Here are some photos of the dresser, which is representative. The right side has been cleaned and polished and the hardware removed. There are still some ghosts from the pull plates and even a generous application of scratch-covering Old English cannot hide the scratches for long. The extremely dark stain also makes them dominate any room in a somewhat unpleasant way.

Any ideas for hardware replacement to spruce it up? Is an expensive refinishing job the only way to make these look nice? Should I just say screw the wood grain and paint the lot a lighter color?
posted by amber_dale to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Oh, man. Wood that dark is hard. If it's not critical to you to keep them in original shape, I would totally paint them and put mod fixtures on - design sponge features a lot of before and afters of this kind of scenario if you want to get an idea of possibilities.
posted by peachfuzz at 3:37 PM on November 29, 2010

You could strip the varnish/shellac and lime the wood - that way you can keep the grain but it will be a lot lighter. Personally, I would just paint them. That hardware is lovely, btw. Maybe have a look here for inspiration.
posted by Wantok at 3:38 PM on November 29, 2010

An aside - you *could* bleach the wood if you wanted a serious project and really wanted to preserve the wood grain. You'd need to strip the finish as you normally would for how your wood has been treated, and then bleach it with acid, and then re-stain (since the bleach will remove the natural color of the wood as well). The bleach is sort of nasty and dangerous, but it works.

Here's what I would do - strip it (you'll need to do this anyway if you paint) and see where you're at. Much of the color may come out when you take the varnish or shellac or whatever it is off.
posted by peachfuzz at 3:42 PM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

This series, also from Design*Sponge, may give you some ideas.
posted by grapesaresour at 3:43 PM on November 29, 2010

What I would do is:

1) replace the handles with something prettier-- when there are handles on, maybe the handle ghosts won't be so noticeable.
2) get a big piece of glass cut to cover the top of the dresser and sandwich some crocheted lace/vintage handkerchiefs/a vintage map/photographs between the glass and the dresser so the top is colorful and interesting.
posted by oinopaponton at 3:47 PM on November 29, 2010

My bedroom furniture is this color. What makes it work is white walls and white/pastel colored rugs and bedding. The contrast lightens up the feel of the furniture. Also, what oinopaponton said. Draw the eye up.
posted by bearwife at 3:54 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wish I still had my old mahogany set.

First investigate the value of these. My favorite episode of Antiques Roadshow was one where they told some momentarily ecstatic guy his armoire was worth ~$100,000.

Then they told him it would have been $200,000 if he hadn't refinished.
posted by jamjam at 3:55 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

What bearwife said. Try yellow walls.
posted by rhizome at 4:01 PM on November 29, 2010

Response by poster: There actually were glass tops for each piece, but they've all broken over time.

Here is a photo of the inside of the center drawer, which shows the unfinished wood and the stamp "Mengel Permanized Furniture," which was apparently a Kentucky manufacturer of post-war bedroom sets. Doesn't sound valuable, at least not in this condition.
posted by amber_dale at 4:05 PM on November 29, 2010

I know it's evil to say this because oh my God it's mahogany but you know what else it is? Furniture you have to live with until you die. You can strip and paint it. Seriously. For real.

Your grandkids can strip them when they have to live with them.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:18 PM on November 29, 2010

Mahogany is dark, that's the way it is. If you don't like that, get something else.

If you want to keep it, live with the character of the pieces. I've restored (not refinished) several of these with good results. I don't know what that Old English stuff is, but what I would do is this:
-- use superfine steel wool and turpentine (paint thinner) to clean the surface. Soak the steel wool pad in the thinner, rub with the grain, dry with rags. What this does is clean all gunk, strip off previous layers of wax and whatever, and creates a smooth surface.
-- then apply a rubbed oil finish using tung oil. Several layers is best.
posted by beagle at 4:52 PM on November 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'd go with painting it white, but then again that's the look for all the furniture in my house I'm biased. It's not very hard to do either. Failing that, white walls and surrounds will do a lot to balance the darkness.
posted by Jubey at 5:16 PM on November 29, 2010

I do this for a living so just bear with my sparse comments please.

It is stained that dark, mahogany though a "red" wood doesn't have to be that dark, chalk it up to the style of the time.

If you do not care about any inherent value you could strip it to bare wood, that finish, even on the right side, looks like crap. If I owned the stuff thats what I'd do, then a good sanding and re lacquer with out stain, choosing a satin finish.

Or you could as beagle says use 0000 steel wool and clean it, although I would suggest using denatured alcohol, with the goal being to smooth the, apparently brushed on, lacquer. The idea is not to remove the finish but to smooth it out. After its has dried you continue to rub it out with 0000 steel wool to achieve the sheen you want.

People write books about this stuff so it's hard to give an easy answer, my best advice is DON'T PAINT IT. DON'T THINK IT IS VALUELESS and relax and take your time.

is the finish crackling or 'alligatored?"
posted by Max Power at 5:20 PM on November 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

I've had good success with a mix of turpentine and lacquer thinner 1:1 to clean, and to strip off the top layer of finish. Use fine steel wool. Then turpentine and boiled linseed oil 1:1 to clean, shine and finish.

Painting it white will make it massive, and white. There's a popular look right now, kind of hotel-style, that is dark wood with off-whites. I think that would work well. And I agree - the "Early American" handles are not doing it any favors. If you paint it, I'd do a bright color, and consider leaving the top natural wood.

You could get a pretty table runner for the top, and let it hang off the sides. I did that with a crappy dresser. I have the mate to this dresser, in pine. It's lighter in color but I don't love it, so I understand your point of view.
posted by theora55 at 6:04 PM on November 29, 2010

Response by poster: Max Power: The parallel marks in this picture are not alligatored but do look like cracks in the finish. (I did just check it and the top has already absorbed most of the lemon oil rubbed into it a few hours ago---so dry!)

It sounds like my first preference would be to strip, sand, and either oil or lacquer it, if that's something manageable by hand at home. Downside to that is that it would probably clash with any other wood furniture unless I re-stain. Painting would get around that. Any recs for specific products to strip it?
posted by amber_dale at 8:02 PM on November 29, 2010

Best answer: The stuff we use is caustic and hazardous to your health unless used properly. The good news about your furniture is that unless it has been refinished in the last 20 years the finish on it will degrade fairly easily with any commercial ( read eviro- friendly) product. After applying the stripper according to directions you should see it start to slough off in curtains down the side of the piece. If thats the case you will have an easy time removing it, although older finishes can be sticky/gooey.

Even after applying/removing stripper you will have to rinse the piece to remove residue etc. we use lacquer thinner and 00 steel wool, it will also start to pull out the old stain, making sanding easier. Once you have it cleaned the lacquer thinner will also give you an idea of what the wood will look like finished ( to show clients what their furniture would look like just sealed and lacquered we often get it wet with naptha or mineral spirits.)

Remember when sanding always sand in the direction of the grain especially if you are going to stain it, other wise the stain will pick up all the cross grain sanding marks. Also BE THOROUGH or you will get a blotchy look when staining. There will be old stain in the wood so you should be able to see where you need more sanding.

The top and sides of the dresser look like solid planks so you shouldn't have to worry about sanding through veneer, the drawer fronts may be veneer however, so you will have to be careful around the edges so you don't lose any veneer.

If you choose to stain it avoid oil based stains, they tend to mute the figure in the wood.

i can go on and on, memail me if ya want.
posted by Max Power at 6:05 AM on November 30, 2010

Response by poster: I ran an experiment on the underside of the nightstand shelf with Citristrip, lacquer thinner, and steel wool. Results. Lots of stain came out!
posted by amber_dale at 9:05 AM on December 2, 2010

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