How to Update a Dresser from 1975 to 2015

I’ve always been a sucker for makeovers. I love the before and after and the potential for a huge change with just a bit of work! This is probably what keeps me trying out new DIY projects – always looking for that big reveal. Unfortunately my arts and crafts skills peaked around age five. This means that to my three year old I’m an arts and crafts genius. To the rest of the grown-ups in my life, I make a “really good effort”. Usually what happens is I get inspired by something I saw online or just get an idea in my head of how to repurpose something we already have. Most of the time the image in my head doesn’t quite match up with what my results are. Every so often though all the stars align and it’s even better than I imagined. This was one of those times.

For the last year I’ve been slowly updating our daughter’s room from a nursery to a big girl’s room. As her interests and preferences became more apparent I wanted to shape her room into a place she loved. By this past summer most of it was done and I was feeling really happy with it. There was just one glaring piece that was driving me crazy. Her dresser.

Her dresser is part of a set that my husband had as a kid – it also has a desk (which I use as a work desk now) and a set of shelves (that the toys in their playroom sit on). They are a glossy stained solid wood and very nice and sturdy, and an excellent choice for a kid in the '70s - but looked very out of date in her sweet purple and pink room. I considered buying a new set but it seemed a waste as these ones are the right height for her to be able to reach all the drawers and deep enough to fit all her clothes. I mused and muttered about them for several weeks until I remembered seeing some dressers on Pinterest done in a ombre or gradient effect that I just loved. I googled some of those projects for ideas and then convinced myself I could do it.

Because I don’t like to wait unnecessarily (my husband calls it impatience, I call it using my time wisely) a couple days later I dumped all the clothes out and pulled the drawers out. I labeled each drawer with a sticky note, i.e. top left, middle right, so I knew where it went back – some of them don’t slide as smoothly if they go in a different spot. Even if your drawers all fit well in each spot it’s still a good idea to label them so when you get to the painting part you know which one is supposed to be which colour as with this type of effect the colours can look very similar until it's done. I then had my husband help me drag all the pieces down to the garage. 

I popped by a home improvement store next and agonized over shades of purple. The idea is to choose one colour card and pick three in a row so that you get the subtle changes in colour. I find it so hard to choose a colour in there with the fluorescent lights - I hold them against white buckets and go down dark aisles but it's still really hard to judge what they will actually look like in a house. I finally erred on the side of caution and went with CIL's Artistic Orchid, Vesper Bell, and Vintage Violet (side note: what on earth do the first two even mean?! According to Google a Vesper Bell is a church bell rung in the evening - no idea what that has to do with purple). I had some leftover interior white paint at home from another project for the rest of the dresser.

I also picked up eight drawer pulls while I was there. I wanted really simple white ones that wouldn't distract from the overall design and would be easy for little hands to grab and pull. The ones I chose were very clean looking and low cost (just under $4 each).

Things needed and cost:

  • Sample pots of purple paint ($5 each for a total of $15 and still tonnes left)
  • White paint ($0 - already had leftover from previous projects)
  • Paint brushes ($0 - already had)
  • Sand paper ($0 - already had)
  • Cleaner ($0 - already had)
  • Putty and putty knife ($0 - already had)
  • Screwdriver ($0 - already had)
  • Drawer pulls ($4 each for a total of $32)
  • Drill and a handy partner (free with the exchange of one set of wedding rings)
  • Total cost = $49 plus tax

As soon as the kids went to bed that night I unscrewed the hideous 1970’s drawer pulls and put them aside for another project some day. Then I plugged the holes with some putty as the new drawer pulls would need to have new holes put in.

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Then I used the cleaner to scrub down the whole dresser and clean it out really well. Next up was the sanding which went surprisingly quickly. It had a glossy finish on it so I figured I’d scratch it up first and see how well the paint stuck and then do more if needed (and this is why most projects end up going wrong – short cuts).

Once I sanded it all I wiped the dust off with a wet sponge and then did another round of sanding and wiping (since it was so easy and satisfying the first time). Then, the best part, the painting! I love what a dramatic difference a coat of paint makes on anything. Unfortunately before painting comes the worst part for me – taping. I taped all around the edges so that it didn’t bleed onto any parts that shouldn’t be painted (I kept the bottom of the drawers and the back of the dresser natural as it was just PDF). My plan was to use white paint for the top, sides and bottom of the dresser, as well as along with the sides of the drawers; and use the purples (from lightest to darkest) from top to bottom on the front of the drawers only.

I did all the white paint first and then left it to dry overnight. The next morning I popped out to the garage before my husband left for work and slapped a second coat of white on it to make sure it was nice and smooth. It was looking great – like a whole new piece of furniture!

As soon as the kids went down for nap I eagerly opened the purple paint. My first disappointment was that they were lighter than I had hoped. I’d played it too safe with the paint chips. Too late now though so I carefully laid out the drawers according to my sticky note label system and did the top, then the middle, then the bottom colours. I laid out the paint pots in order as well (top, middle, bottom), as you could barely tell them apart when they were all opened, and used different brushes for each to ensure nothing got mixed up.

That evening I did touch-ups on the white and a second coat on the purple drawers. It was really coming together now. The next morning when they were all dry I put the drawers in to check out the gradient effect. It was better than I’d thought once it was against the white! I think the next level of purple in the colour family would have been a little bolder but this works well with the pink and purple theme in her room.

The last step was the drawer pulls. I had my husband use the drill to make new holes for them as we needed to use longer screws than the ones the drawer pulls came with (due to the wood being so thick). Luckily we have a massive collection of screws and nails and were able to find some that fit.

And, voila, a new-to-her dresser that perfectly matches her big girl bedroom! In the end, once they were all together, I really liked the colours and I just adore the gradient effect.

Time (built around sleeping children): two and a half days

Cost: under $50

Difficulty level: Easy-peasy lemon squeezy. The only part that I had trouble with was the drilling. As much as I'd like to be, I’m just not a power tool kind of girl.

Note: This dresser got yet another life a few years later. See how we updated it for Mr M's room here!

Have you ever updated furniture from your childhood for present day use? How were the results?