Thrift Store Highboy: Elegant UpDo

June 22, 2009

For years, I’ve wanted to bring some glamour and elegance to my foyer.  It’s the first impression for guests, and it has been nothing short of dull for quite some time.  Since our entry is only ten feet wide, I also wanted to bring reflective light and shimmer to the space as well.

Last week I hinted at the fabulous highboy dresser I picked up at the Goodwill for $35.  Lucky me, it had only been on the floor for thirty minutes before I snatched it up.  SCORE !  With a bit of stain and some new hardware, I brought this wonderful vintage piece into the modern age, and gave it a special new glow.

Here’s the foyer Before and After:

Here’s how it all happened.  As you know, I frequent the local thrift stores looking for treasures.  I chanced upon this solid wood new arrival and hustled – no I seriously ran – to the cash register to buy it before anyone else could, with my poor little boy shouting “Mooooommmmiieee waaaaiiiit” as I dragged the poor little guy behind me.  I spent part of my weekend giving this piece the TLC it needed.

Re-staining Previously Stained Furniture:

Step One, Sanding:  Give your piece an all over good sanding, removing all varnish that may exist.  Wear a disposable mask so as not to inhale any microscopic dust.  In my case, I sanded the highboy by hand with coarse, and then medium, grade sandpaper.  (My electric sander, although faster, would have been too rough on this delicate piece.)  Work with, not against, the grain of the wood.  It took over an hour to fully sand this dresser, but hey I look on the bright side:  I got a great upper arm workout.

Step Two, Conditioning:  I’m a Minwax fan, so if you want to create better absorbency in your wood, you can consider using a wood conditioner like Minwax Wood Conditioner.  Grainy or gnarly woods like oak or pine should definitely be conditioned beforehand.

Step Three, Staining:  To stain this piece, I used a staining pad and Minwax Gel Stain in Walnut.  I truly madly deeply love this stuff.  The gel formula is thicker, unlike regular stain, so you don’t need a brush, and it doesn’t drip.  I recently used it to re-stain my entire two story oak staircase (reveal coming soon).  How convenient is it to be able to stain upside down without drips?  Brilliant !

The imperfections in the dinged up dresser soaked up this stain and were transformed into those ‘distress’ marks you’d pay so much for at a top retailer.  This gel stain buries itself in the ridges, and translates into deep character, just like a glaze on painted wood.  One caveat: this gel product dries a bit more quickly, so you must work fast to get your stain strokes right.  And don’t forget to wear gloves, cause this stain really stains !

Step Four, Reapply:  If you desire added depth from your stain product, then reapply a second coat 24 hours later.  Here’s what two out of three drawers looked like after just one coat (I applied two coats).

Step Five, Protectant:  If you’ve used a regular liquid stain product, then you will probably need to apply a polyurethane to protect your piece. I’ve used Minwax Wipe-On Poly with success in the past on several projects.   However, this gel based stain gave my piece such a nice glow that I didn’t find it necessary to add poly this time.

 You can see how the ‘Before’ piece had a washed out honey color, plenty of dinks, and old-fashioned hardware.  Just by staining the piece and adding new oil-rubbed bronze hardware from Home Depot ($12 for a set of ten), the dresser now looks like something out of a new furniture collection.

So now I need your input, playing a bit of multiple choice.

I played around with a few preliminary vignettes, and I have a favorite, but I’d appreciate your vote.  You’ll notice the flea market silver pitcher remains a constant.  I love fresh flowers in the foyer, so it stays.  And you’ll notice that a white ceramic bust makes an appearance (antique store find).   Your opinions please.

A) Botanical Print with bust and clock

B) Paris Print with bust and clock

C) Silver Candlestick with bust and clock

D) Wedding Print with pair of busts


So friends, give it to me straight.

Which scene do you prefer ?



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160 Responses to “Thrift Store Highboy: Elegant UpDo”

  1. Gillian says:


  2. TidyMom says:

    I vote for D! when I saw the first picture in the post the vignette was the first thing I fell in love with!!

    I have a question – the drawer pulls on the original piece, are they hard to remove? they aren't just screwed on like knobs are, are they?

    Love this make over!!♥


  3. Cara@TheSheetBoutique says:

    D is my choice. Everything just looks really professionally pulled together! Lots of elbow grease paid off…

    Love it!

  4. Jen says:

    I can't wait to go trolling the thrift stores looking for a highboy for my "foyer" (if that's what you'd call the 2 feet by my front door)!! This is great! I've wondered about that technique for a while now. Did you use stripper or just sanding? And the mayonaisse? Do you just let it sit for a while or smear it in? & IMO- I love the wedding & Paris arrangements, respectively. Now, fess up- which one is your fav!?

  5. Caroline says:

    I like the wedding pic option the best.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I vote for the wedding picture and two busts. Paris is the second choice, not too fond of the fruit print.

    You are TRULY inspirational, I have repainted chairs I've had since 1994 since finding your site, and I'm recovering Ikea dining chairs–that's in process.

    Thanks for the GREAT site–your writing is great, the project descriptions and photos make it so readable and understandable!

  7. Shanade says:

    I absolutely love this redo. Such an inspiration. I definitely think that the wedding photo is the best. So beautiful.

  8. Samantha says:

    I love the wedding one. It's great! I love your blog, you are so talented!

  9. Anonymous says:

    The wedding scene is my favorite too!

  10. jeanne @ Inspiring Ideas says:

    The last ensemble is my fav, but you could also swap in the Paris print. Gorgeous display!

  11. Ruth says:

    What a gorgeous piece. It is definitely so much better since you refinished. My favorites are c and d. The paris print or the wedding photo. They are both great. I can't wait to hear which you choose.

  12. Susan says:

    Maybe its my Southern roots, but I think the silver candlestick option is the best, though I'd take out the bust.

  13. Rebecca says:

    Paris print with bust and clock. Fo sho!

  14. Michelle says:

    What a fabulous find and you did a great refinish job! My favorite vignette is the wedding with two busts!

  15. Anonymous says:

    The Paris and wedding scenes are my favorites.

    I REALLY want to know about staining your staircase. ALSO do you think this product could be used on kitchen cabinets? I'm currently obsessed with finding a way to change mine.

    Thanks in advance for your help, Martha

  16. Jennifer W says:

    I love what you did great job…you totally rock! Anyway, I love B but I also like the wedding scene too and would switch back and forth between them!

  17. Michelle says:

    I absolutely love the last picture. I always try for the touch of whimsy as well, and you've done a fabulous job of combining elegance, personal bits and definitely whimsy!

    Love, love, love your blog! If I could only learn how to get photos on my blog and embed links, I'd be having some serious blogging fun!

    P.S. I live in Healdsburg so I'm a neighbor of sorts. I got a kick out of seeing that you're from Petaluma when I read about your "piratey dresser" transformation.



  18. Aja says:

    LOVE the wedding pic and two busts! They can talk to each other and greet your guests! :)

  19. Rachel says:

    Wow I was going to say wedding picture and busts too. I guess it's pretty popular. Great job on the highboy!

  20. The Cockrells says:

    I vote for B or D! I bet I'm too late; how old is this post? LOL, just got back from vacay and catching up on blog posts!

  21. indigo says:


  22. allie~millie designs says:

    I LOVE the dresser! You're amazing! Thank you for sharing. I LOVE to thrift and re-do! Take a look at some of my treasures… Great idea with the gold, now I won't pass up some gold stuff when I see it out thrifting!
    Ginnie Renner

  23. Anonymous says:

    Definetly the last one.

  24. Sarah says:

    I love it with the candlestick, wedding scene and all the shimmer! Too cute!

  25. Graceful Moments says:

    Love the makeover of the chest. It is so rewarding to take an old piece and give it new life.
    The arrangement with the wedding picture and the two busts is perfect. An odd number of objects almost always works better than an even number (much like nature.) Love the whimsy of the jewels on the bust!

  26. Michelle Morgan says:

    THANK YOU SOOO VERY MUCH FOR TAKING THE TIME TO EXPLAIN THIS! You have no idea how incredibly helpful this is!!!
    Thank you!

  27. Margaret says:

    Love the last one with the jewelry. Thanks for the how-to and pics– now I’m off to the thrift store! I am wondering, though, what shape the inside of the drawers were in– every time I get an old dresser the insides seem to be smelly and seedy. Were they in good condition? What do you keep in here?

  28. […] The printer/scanner is behind closed doors, and the rest of my office supplies I keep in the thrift store highboy I restained earlier this year.  That handy piece stores all my staplers, scissors, hole punches, envelopes, […]

  29. […] set a traditional scene on the highboy I refinished earlier this year with various shades of red, paired with white and gold.  The ornament wreath I […]

  30. […] #6   Thrift Store Highboy Restained […]

  31. […] home office supplies are kept tidy in this highboy I refinished last […]

  32. Tran says:

    B! Love the clock with Eiffel tower photo!

  33. Amanda says:

    Either the silver candleabra or the wedding pic are my favs! Botanic print is too much with the fresh flowers as well. But, Paris does work too :)

  34. Genevieve says:

    Hi Kate I just wanted to say thank you!!!!! I have been looking at my husbands UGLY dresser for 12 years and have always wanted to give it a do over. I was inspired from the step by step process and completed it in four days. This was my first real DIY project and it’s not perfect but an enormous improvement.
    Thanks again and keep it coming!!!

  35. […] gold color, but I hand painted it with metallic taupe craft paint last year, just like I did with this mirror in my […]

  36. Deborah says:

    Hi, I love the end result with the wedding pic. I love the primitive look and have used black in livingroom and kitchen. I have left one piece in my diningroom white. I can’t decide hat I want to do with it. I got this out of an old house that was going to be knocked down. We took up all the oak hardwood floors also. I plained them and my husband put them down in the kitchen, diningroom, and the livingroom. Then I finished them. They are beautiful. But back to the piece in my dining room. Does anyone have any suggestions on what I should do with it color wise? Thanks for your help. Again I love the look with the wedding pic. You do such great work. Thanks Debbie

  37. Kelly says:

    D for sure!!! i think it balances best :)

  38. Dawn says:

    OMG! I have a gold mirror (or 2) that I was looking to tone down! So excited to try!

  39. Definitely D…..the wedding photo with the pair of busts. (Love the jewelry on the female :)

  40. Tia says:

    Another great find! Its amazing how small touches can really make a big difference.

    Although all nice, I think I like the Parisian print arrangement the best.

  41. kristinc says:

    Late commenter is a year late, but anyways. This is FANTASTIC, the best job of fixing up old wooden furniture I have ever seen. Absolutely gorgeous. But you should know that stain conditioner doesn’t give wood “better absorbency” — its job is to do the opposite, to fill the pores of overly absorbent wood and reduce that absorbency so that LESS stain soaks in (to avoid blotching). Stain over conditioner will actually be lighter/more translucent (although perhaps more even) than stain on bare wood.

  42. […] in the dozen years I’ve had it.  Years ago, it sat in my entryway, then I replaced it with this tall stained dresser.  When I moved the writing desk from my stepdaughter’s room to make an art gallery wall […]

  43. Kelly says:

    Hi! I saw the before/after pics on Pinterest of your highboy project. Awesome! I had a question along similar lines. I have knicks and scratches (thanks to 4 kids and soft, cheap builder’s wood) in my kitchen cabinetry that I am wanting to smooth out and cover. What should I use to sand the knicks out and can I just do it in spots and cover with stain, or do I need to sand the entire area to redo it? Any help would be appreciated!! Email: [email protected].

  44. Kaelsma says:

    Pictures aren’t showing up :(

  45. CentsationalGirl says:

    All fixed now Kaelsma!

  46. Sharon Anne says:

    First of all, congrats on your treasure find! You did GOOD girl!

    Your telling of your dear little boy’s plea was sooo cute. I’m a mom, now a nanna – I can relate. But what I want to say is how BEAUTIFUL your finish is.

    I know painting wood is ALL THE RAGE on Pinterest and (well yes) some pieces look better with paint…. but your piece will be a TIMELESS beauty. I’ve been selling new furniture for over 30 years now and fades come and go – but I just loved the color you chose, plus the depth of color your added to the edges looks like a pro!

    P.S. Thanks for the tip for using Mimwax GEL – for no drips! Found you on Pinterest and will repin.

  47. Sarah says:

    I have a question….. totally new at this home improvement and furniture makeover thing so forgive me…. when I sand the piece do I need to sand it all the way down to the bare wood? Thanks… your stuff always looks awesome!

  48. CentsationalGirl says:

    If staining, then yes Sarah, but if painting no, as long as you use a good bonding primer.

  49. Lynda says:

    You did a great job on the refinishing. Each of the choices looks good, but I’ll have to vote with the majority…The wedding picture.

  50. jessie says:

    Great job overall. I can’t wait to start my own project. My favorite arrangement is the last one.

  51. Christine says:

    Kate I have been searching searching searching CG for how you transformed and toned-down this mirror. Until the wee hours of last night and up again this morning! Can you please help? I have many gold mirrors and large picture frames, but I’m so tired of the gold. Thanks..,

  52. Edie says:

    Wowee! I’m going down to the basement RIGHT NOW to start working on Hubby’s granny’s dresser. Thanks so much for your blog!

  53. Rhapsody says:

    how can you tell what a good piece is to get when they all give bad first impressions?

  54. Patty says:

    I’m so glad I found your site for refinishing. I have my parents old bedroom suite that I’m wanting to restain. The directions are so simple that I’m not afraid to start this project. My question is (and you can tell I’m not a DIYer is, my dresser and chest need new legs, can I purchase just the legs and stain them the same color as the other pieces?

  55. CentsationalGirl says:

    Sure Patty, be sure to experiment first with a few stains until you get the color right, you can even mix stain colors from the same manufacturer as long as they are the same formula.

  56. Tiffany says:

    Okay…I’m going crazy! I know you had a post on here somewhere about the paint you used to re-do that mirror on the wall above the highboy. Did you remove that? I wanted the name of the paint that you used. I think I remember you saying you got it from a craft store???
    Thanks so much!

  57. CentsationalGirl says:

    Hey Tiffany, I’ve replaced that mirror but yes it was champagne colored craft paint!

  58. Debbi says:

    I own this exact dresser it k
    Has been in my family from the first day it was on sale. Thank you for showing me it can look grand again.

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