How to Paint a Dresser


Design: Emily Henderson Design, Photo: Tessa Neustadt

Painting a dresser is one of those DIYs that looks difficult and impressive, but is actually easy enough that even the least crafty of us can do a great job. The key? Don't rush it. Patience is definitely a virtue when it comes to painting a dresser. And while we wouldn't always suggest painting over a beautiful wooden piece of furniture, sometimes the best restoration is one that includes a lovely coat of bright red paint.

While the actual labor-intensive aspect of this DIY takes only a few hours total, expect the job to take about three full days from start to finish. This includes your much-needed drying time between coats of paint and varnish, and enough time to ensure your dresser is in perfect condition before you put it back in your bedroom.

Supplies for Painting a Dresser

Here's what you need before you start:

  1. A dresser. Check your local flea markets and thrift stores for a beautiful wooden dresser that needs a little love.
  2. Old "okay if they get destroyed" clothes
  3. A drop cloth
  4. An old rag
  5. Murphy Oil Soap
  6. Sandpaper: Coarse, medium and fine grit
  7. Tack cloth
  8. Primer
  9. Wood filler (if needed)
  10. An angled paintbrush
  11. A small bristle paintbrush
  12. A mini paint roller
  13. Blue painter's tape
  14. A quart (or more!) of paint
  15. Polyurethane varnish or finishing wax

Gather Your Supplies

If the supply list for this DIY scared you a bit, don't worry—everything required is affordable and easy to find. But rather than digging around your shed at every turn for the right paintbrush or that can of varnish, make sure you have everything laid out before you start.

Figure out where you will paint the dresser (somewhere with a lot of ventilation but not a lot of dust is key) and lay a drop cloth to protect your floors or driveway.

Prep the Dresser

Now that you've picked out that perfect chalky shade of shabby chic paint, remove all of the drawers and hardware. If you have nicks or holes in the piece, use wood filler to carefully plug them in. If you want to change where the hardware will live (think hands to pulls), you can also fill the existing holes in with wood filler and drill new ones later.

Whether you picked up the dresser from your thrift store or it's been sitting in the basement since 1996, there's probably some grime and gunk to remove. Take a bottle of Murphy and a rag and clean any obvious spots.

oil soap
Murphy Oil Soap $4.00

Sand it Down

The real secret to a beautifully painted dresser is sandpaper. Okay, maybe it's not a secret, but this step is definitely important. If you bought an unfinished piece of furniture from, say IKEA, then you can skip this step.

Use a piece of coarse sandpaper to sand down all of the areas you'll be painting over. Use a circular motion to cut through all of the old varnish on the dresser and leave it as matte as possible. After you've roughed it up, take some medium-grit sandpaper and sand it down once more in the direction of the wood grain.

Finally, remove all debris and dust with a tack cloth.

Prime it for Painting

Now that your dresser is sanded and ready, it's time to prime. First, take your painter's tape and cover any areas you don't want to paint. Then, using your can of primer and a brush or foam roller, paint on your primer. Don't worry too much about making it even—the purpose of this step is to help the paint stick a little better and to cover up any discolorations in the wood.

Let the primer dry for the recommended time (usually between 3-6 hours) before you move on to the next step.

Sand (Again!)

We highly recommend taking a piece of fine-grit sandpaper to your dresser after every single coat of paint. This will help you achieve a more even, professional look without a lot of elbow grease. Don't forget to use your tack cloth to wipe down the dust after each sanding as well.

Paint It

Now is the part you've been waiting for: painting the dresser. We recommended using a small foam roller to ensure even strokes. Using your paint of choice (ideally any finish but flat), apply between two to four (depending on the color of your paint) light coats of paint over all surfaces. Apply with firm strokes and avoid going over any area twice. Then, take an angled paintbrush to carefully paint any crevices or cracks that your foam roller can't reach.

Let every coat of paint fully dry before moving on to the next one, and lightly sand the dresser down between every single coat. Each coat typically takes around four hours to dry, but trust us: The wait is worth it.

Add a Coat of Varnish

After you've sanded, primed, painted and allowed your dresser to dry for about 24 hours, it's time to varnish. While you don't have to add a coat of varnish, this helps to protect your work and makes it easier to clean. Using a soft paintbrush and long firm strokes, apply 1-2 coats to your piece. You can also try a finishing wax instead,—just apply with a rag instead of a paintbrush.

Once you've coated your piece and it's as shiny as you want it to be, let it fully dry according to your product's directions.

Assemble It

Before you can fully appreciate your work, you have to put it back together. We recommend waiting for at least 24 to 48 hours before reassembling to avoid any scuffs or nicks in your paint job. If you opted to add new hardware, measure and drill holes where you want your new pulls to be. Apply a bit of wax to help lubricate the wheels to make it easier to use your new-to-you dresser.

Swap the old pulls for something a little more modern, eye-catching or unique. Think leather, wood or brass, depending on the color of your dresser.

The key to any great DIY is preparation and patience, but hard work definitely pays off. Whether you decide to go with a classic white or mix it up with a bold color, a painted dresser done well can look professional and classy in any room.