How to restore an antique dresser

Devote a weekend to coaxing an old pine dresser back to health and reap the rewards for many months to come. Helaine Clare’s step-by-step guide starts with simple maintenance tasks and finishes by showing you how to rejuvenate tired, dry wood

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Vintage and antique furniture was made to last, so it’s well worth going to the time and trouble of making a few running repairs – you won’t find that wonderful patina of age listed in the contents of a flat-pack.

Over time however, changes in temperature and a lack of care can leave your antique wood looking lack lustre. Central heating is the greatest enemy of wood. Excessive heat of any kind dries wood out and causes it to warp and buckle. Drawers become ill fitting and cupboard doors refuse to stay closed. Turning down your boiler thermostat by a few degrees will reduce your energy use and save on household bills, while doing your antique furniture a big favour.

Never put furniture near a radiator or an open fire and don’t suddenly turn your heating on full in the autumn. It’s much better to increase and decrease heating gradually at the beginning and end of the colder seasons.


Some people are worried about bringing antique furniture into the home in case it harbours woodworm but beetles are unable to thrive in warm, dry, well-ventilated houses. If you do notice holes, chances are they are old exit marks of a long-gone infestation.

You can make sure of this by placing sheets of newspaper under suspect furniture. The beetles tend to emerge in July so any telltale tiny mounds of sawdust (called frass) will indicate current activity. Treat affected wood with borax wood preserver.

This antique pine dresser has been sitting on my landing for some time and has become a convenient dumping ground for goods in transit. A few running repairs can be tackled and the parched wood cleaned, fed and polished up.

Get what you need here…

  • Screwdrivers
  • Hammer
  • Drill
  • Screws
  • Release oil
  • White vinegar
  • Abrasive paper
  • Sanding block
  • Liberion black bison or other silicone-free beeswax preparation
  • Steel wool
  • Soft lint free cloth

Refix loose hinges

1. Removing entrenched screws

The hinges on the cupboard doors have worked loose so they need to be taken off and rehung. Use a screwdriver to remove the old screws. Always match the screwdriver tip with the size of the screw. Clean the slot free of paint, glue or rust and spray with release oil. Grip the screwdriver, press down hard, and turn your whole body from the waist. If a screw still won’t budge tighten it clockwise to break the seal of corrosion. If this doesn’t work insert the tip of the screwdriver into the screw and knock the handle with a hammer.

2. Replacing the hinge

Once the hinge is ready to be replaced the old screw holes may be too large. In this case pack the opening with matchsticks dipped in wood glue and trim flush with a chisel.

Repairing shelves

3. Tighten up shelves

The screws securing the shelf supports have worked loose on my dresser. If this happens to you, first try just tightening the screws. If they fail to grip remove them and check whether they have become rusty and lost their thread. Some metals have an adverse reaction to different types of wood; for example, it’s best to use brass screws in oak as steel screws will corrode quite quickly.

4. Add extra support

This shelf has been holding some heavy pots and has begun to sag. Give it some additional support by fixing a batten along the back. Measure and saw a length to size. The matching at the back is not as thick as the wood on the sides so we fix the batten by glueing and pinning in place. Knock the pins into the batten before applying glue and fixing it to the back boards.

Finishing and polishing


5. Replace knobs

The existing catch is utilitarian and does its job, but it doesn’t do justice to a rather impressive piece of country furniture. Remove the old catches and replace them with some cream porcelain knobs. Once you’ve decided on the best position drill a hole through each door. Push the fixing screws through the holes and attach the knobs.

6. Neutralise wood

Painted furniture is often stripped by immersion in a vat of caustic soda. Afterwards it should be treated to neutralise the chemicals or the wood becomes dry and a white salty coating is evident. To remedy, dilute half a pint of white vinegar into half a pint of water. Use a cloth to wipe over the wood. Don’t allow water to remain on the surface or it will raise the grain.


7. Apply beeswax

Once dry lightly sand the wood with fine abrasive paper. Make sure the surface is clean and free from dust. Apply beeswax paste with fine steel wool. Use a circular action and push the wax into the wood until smooth. Wait 20 minutes and apply another coat. Build up the layers until you achieve the finish you want – six layers will give a lustrous result.

8. Buff up wood

Wait until the next day and buff the wood to a sheen using a soft lint-free cotton cloth. You should always do your best to follow the direction of the grain when you polish. The wood will absorb the wax over a period of time, so to maintain a burnished finish and keep it looking good apply further coats of beeswax at least twice a year.