Big Blue: Our chest of drawers’ mod makeover

Guest post by Jess Boucher

Big Blue was a chest of drawers that my husband had owned since childhood and brought along with him to NH. It was big, it was blue, and the thing was HEAVY. And we moved it four times before I really had a chance to fix it up.

As you can see, Big Blue had also seen better days. And also less blurry days. BB needed serious love.

I dove in. I started the project while I had a few weeks off from work. I thought I’d be able to paint the room and the cabinet by the time I went back.

Boy was I wrong.

Big Blue was hiding not one, but FIVE layers of paint underneath: bright blue, light blue, yellow, orange, and black. Although I got the room painted in time, I spent many evenings over the next months just stripping the paint off Big Blue. Take a look at all the layers of paint on the back of one of the handles:

When all was said and done, we had a lovely mid-century-model set of drawers that we can barely recognize.

So how do you go from Big Bad Blue to Gorgeous? Actually, pretty easily.


  • Orbital sander –- I use a Ryobi Random Orbit Sander. I love this one a lot because it fits nicely in my hand and the weight of the battery is above the sander, which allows for a more even job.
  • Sanding disks in various grits. The grit is the amount of coarseness on the disk — the lower the number, the grittier it is.
  • White Paint –- this was actually left over from the previous owners. We use it everywhere. I think it’s Lowes Ultra Pure White.
  • Brown Paint –- Behr Paint and Primer in Heirloom Mahogany. My husband calls it “Hershey’s chocolate color.”
  • Paint Brush –- I prefer a 2″ brush when doing larger jobs that don’t need a ton of accuracy.
  • 2″ Painter’s Tape
  • Cabinet Pulls -– also from The Depot. These came in a set of 10.
  • Screwdriver (Phillips or Flathead, depending on the pulls)

Steps to remove the old paint:

  • Remove the old handles. Stare at the grossness some more.
  • Sand that mutha down. This was by far the worst part. Normally I don’t sand all the way down to the wood but with so many layers, I wanted to start fresh on this one so that my finish was nice and clean. When you sand, start with the low numbers and work your way up. I started with some 60 grit here. This took forever –- because of all the layers I would sand all evening, and I would only get through one of the drawers.
  • Get fed up with sanding and grab some paint stripper. I did NOT want to use paint stripper. First of all, my work area is my basement –- and I didn’t want to die from paint stripper fumes. I also don’t like to use chemicals in general, but the work was going far too slow. I chose Citristrip Paint and Varnish Stripper because it seemed like the least of the paint stripper evils. It has a citrusy smell but takes longer to work than the others –- you spray it on, let it sit overnight, and then come back and strip it off with a wood scraper. I wish I took pictures of this, because it looked pretty darn bubbly and cool.
  • Sand again to get an even finish. I used 120 and then 220 grit, just to even things out.
  • Fill any holes/gashes with wood filler and sand. Any will do here.
  • Clean the entire cabinet of dust. I used a mix of my vacuum and a can of compressed air.

Steps to paint the cabinet:

  • Paint the whole thing your stripe color. This was very easy. Start by removing the drawers and work in nice, even strokes. I really like using a brush here because I like the texture it leaves, but you should be aware of the direction of “grain” you are creating. I also painted the shelf edge that was visible from the front, but not inside. Let it dry overnight.
  • Tape your stripes. Put all the drawers back into the cabinet. I wanted to have the middle stripe centered over the drawer pulls and then have the other two 1/2″ away from that. You’re going to tape everything together – the top and the drawers – to get a consistent line. Run your fingers along the edge of the tape to ensure your edge is well-defined.
  • Cut your lines of tape between the drawers and the body of the chest and remove the drawers..
  • Paint your top coat. I did two coats of the brown. Remember to keep your grain the same as the coat below. Let it dry overnight one last time. Get excited about finally being able to show it off!
  • Convince your husband to help you carry it upstairs, and add your hardware.
  • Happy dance!

Goodbye Big Blue. Hello set of drawers I am proud to move a million times.

Comments on Big Blue: Our chest of drawers’ mod makeover

  1. Wouldn’t it have been easier to paint the white stripes on, rather than painting the brown around the stripes? :-/

    Still looks great though, and I bet it’ll last forever!

    • Not really, because getting that bright of a white through the brown would take a ton of coats, giving you a lot of chances to screw up.
      This drawer is lovely. It makes me excited to get hand-me-down furniture. Now, show me how the make difficult drawers roll out smoothly again and I’ll be forever in debt.

      • have you made sure the sliding surface of the drawers is still smooth? if not, sanding down the rough edges helps a lot. i usually rub a dry bar of soap on the runners of the drawers, as well as the dresser surface they sit on. it provides some great (cheap) lube for the operation!

          • Thank you both. I was talking about this with a customer at work and she suggested just a little vaseline. We’ll have to see what I can do. The drawer is over a hundred years old, and while the color is still nice, I think it could do with new handles and some polishing. I may or may not paint it depending on how the rest of our furniture comes together. I’m waiting until after the wedding to see what we have and what we can do with it. I plan to save my money to really fix up my poor broken high-backed chair.

  2. I had a somewhat similar experience with a set of chairs. I went for paint stripper right from the beginning since I was working outside or in an open garage on my parents’ farm. I have pictures of the disgusting piles of paint I stripped off those 4 chairs. I diluted craft paint to “stain” them so they will be much easier to paint the next time, just requiring a bit of sanding. It’s so satisfying!

  3. Wonderful! I had a similar “set of chairs” experience – they were painted a god-awful shade of bright orange, but the wood had potential! My bf and I ended up with the paint stripper too (ya gotta… we did it outside on tarp, so that helped), and we used black shiny spray paint, actually, on the areas we wanted to be black. Painter’s tip: the glossy spray paint works wonders and leaves no brush strokes! We stained everything else, and voila! We now have a set of gorgeous antique solid oak chairs that cost $40 total at a flea market. w00t!

  4. Awesome! My husband has a dresser that I’ve been wanting to tackle for the longest time. Not as bad as Big Blue, but its stained a vibrant orangey color and I’m sort of sick at looking at it.

    A note on paints (I paint professionally in a scene shop), if you want a more durable paint that will adhere to your surfaces better, Benjamin Moore makes a product called Direct to Metal and Wood– we swear by in the shop. It’s strong enough to use right on metal without peeling off and can be tinted in an array of colors. It’s a little pricey, but it’ll ensure all of your hard work will last. Which should be said for all of the more expensive paints– while the ultra cheap products may seem more appealing in price, you’re actually paying for paints with more binder than pigment, which means you’re going to have to recoat several times to get a nicer finish…and depending on the size of your project, that’s more time, more paint, and less durability.

  5. thanks for the post and tips, I actually just picked up an old dresser on freecycle that needs some love and a new paint job before its new incarnation as my baby’s changing table/dresser and VOILA! there was your post with some much needed guidance! thanks!

  6. Quick note: Be aware when sanding that older (pre 1978 in the US) painted items, that they likely have some lead paint. Paint strippers, especially the friendly sort, are ideal for using on suspect paint. Wet sanding is also a good option for some items.

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