Rescuing an Old Dresser

Do you recall the first time being asked to restore a piece of furniture? For me it was not really that long ago. I help re-seal a customers concrete patio, lo and behold there’s an old dresser that this lady had re-finished with her grandfather when she was a little girl, and she’d like it to be fixed up.

I take a look at it, its a bit rickety. But somehow I’m thinking, fix a few drawers, strip and spray some poly, blah, blah, yah I can do that for $400. As I’m loading the dresser into the back of my pickup I tell the lady’s husband in a most sincere tone, “I’ll take good care of it.”

He replies, “Oh, that thing is a piece of junk.”

Ah, so it is, so it is.

It should come as no surprise then that once the dresser was back in my shop I realized that it needed to be disassembled and all the joints re-glued. And hey, why not French polish the thing while its in pieces? Maybe I blew my work budget right at the get go because I knew I would enjoy the work only if I could do it to my own standard of quality. When its done, its done.

Not to lie, it was a piece of junk in terms of joinery. The panels sat in the same groove as the tiny wimpy stub tenons for the rails. By the time it got to me the only thing holding it together was the nails used to get it out of clamps on the production line.

That said, taking apart a piece of furniture you didn’t make is really fun and interesting. You get to be part detective, brushing the dust off of a past place and time, exposing wood that hasn’t seen the light of a workshop in a long time.

And gosh, pulling rusty nails is just excruciating. It makes you think of all the times you’ve read “disassemble the joint with as little damage as possible”. Well, just how much damage is possible, lets not find out. The drawer stops were little pieces of dowel glued in to the front drawer dividing rails, what a joke. They got replaced with proper dovetail stops mortised into the front dividing rail.


And worn drawer bottoms.

Which are  a simple fix.

I made up some finishing samples for the customer to look over. As it turns out the fewer choices you present the better. I’ve seen a dozen samples put in from of someone that pretty well melts their decision making ability, in the end they of course pick something not even shown, i.e. “match this color from this different species of wood on the other side of my house” kind of thing, ugh.

French polished shellac is a rabbet hole, but try it, its a beautiful finish, truly. Soon you’ll be convinced that everything, including the phase of the moon needs be considered when applying shellac with a rubber and spirits.

The front faces of the drawers were warped, which had to be corrected on the newly glued runner strips. I don’t care if the drawer face doesn’t sit perfectly flush with the frame, the drawer needs to run flat on the runners.

Now lets see how many specialized tools I can use repairing a drawer.

Marking the drawer bottom for a sliding dovetail batten.

Azebiki saw for cutting the sides of the dado. As an aside, if you pay $40 dollars for a saw like this expect to get a $40 dollar saw. Or be happy and practice your saw doctoring skills!

Routering out the waste. The drawer bottoms were badly warped. Normally I might have just flipped them upside down and called it a day, but the drawer stops had carved grooves in the drawer bottoms from sagging so much. Consequently the panels had to be held flat with battens for all the marking and cutting.

White Ash tools pleasantly by hand, including a little dovetail plane.

Cut too loose and the joint is pointless, too tight a fit and you warp the panel. Maybe there’s something to be said for always cutting tapered sliding dovetails?

Whew! One drawer down, four more to go.

But something fixed with care, it adds a charm all its own.

The shellac finish convinced me to buy a proper cabinet scraper, I spent way too long sanding out tiny digs from using a hand scraping card.  The wood was red oak, filled. Stained with a brown mahogany gel, body coats of amber shellac and then clear followed by a dark paste finishing wax. And to skip over all the tedious bits, it turned out quite well. Just in time for Christmas, and passed on to its next generation of owners.


4 thoughts on “Rescuing an Old Dresser”

  1. I’ve come across a few of these pieces that are gang mortised with a tablesaw. I could never know which nails were original and which had been driven in by a handyman as the structure began to sag. The combination of tacks, box nails, and finish nails also convinces me this piece was nailed in stages, too.
    I wish I could buy similar casters with wooden wheels off the shelf today.
    Any piece of furniture with enough intact solid wood can and
    should be repaired and your results confirm this. It’s a bit of synchronicity that I was also working on a back panel for a small cabinet that also uses battens to keep it flat and secure it to the carcase. And yes, I find that tapering one side makes it much easier to create a tight fit. Your dovetailplane does indeed trim the joinery beautifully. I wish that you had shown how you marked out and cut the drawer stops.
    I do want to suggest that despite your efforts, you might have recreated a problem with the drawer bottoms. The bottoms show a pattern of wear from having been trapped in the grooves because the back of the panel was nail into the frame, causing bulges that were abraded by the dowel stops. It appears (I might be not seeing clearly) that screwed the bottoms through the battens into the drawer backs, without making a slot to allow for seasonal changes.
    Excellent work and the owners got more with $400 than they had bargained for.

    1. Thank you for the comment Potomacker, I think I read a comment of yours over at sbe builders roof framing blog yesterday, always insightful. I think I wasn’t clear enough saying that I used dovetailed drawer stops, differentiating between tail shaped blocks that are let into the rail then glued and screwed/nailed, and the sliding dovetail ones (like Hiki Dokko floating double dovetail keys). I used the former, simpler construct because two of the drawer dividing rails contained defects like insect holes that I didn’t want to cut joinery into.

      You’re correct about the drawer bottoms having been nailed into the frame, a homeowner fix at some point no doubt. Most of the drawer bottoms were nailed all the way around the frame, lots of tiny finish nails. The dresser had come from a moister climate, and shrinkage was really evident on the drawer sides as well. I had assumed that fixing the drawer bottoms through the dovetail battens at only one point would allow for the panel movement, but then you are right, the panel is still trapped, and would push against the drawer back when it swells. Am I correct in thinking that the screw slot for movement would need to be only on the drawer bottom panel, or both the batten and panel?

  2. In theory, the bottom panel expands and contracts along the length of the battens so a slot only needs to be cut into it, but it would be simpler to drill two holes and open a slot in the assembled pieces. In my unsolicited advice, I would have trimmed down the tail of the batten so the battens could be secured to the drawer back with a round head screw through a flat washer and still be below the batten .
    In the original manufacture, nails were driven through the bottom board into the drawer back. The finish nails all around the frame only came later.
    and thank you for clarifying how you reconstructed the stops. The owners still got more than what they paid you.

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