How to Strip and Bleach Previously Stained Wood Furniture
Usually when I makeover furniture, I’m using paint to transform it. But after transforming my Mom’s dresser for her entryway makeover, I realized there’s so much beauty in the natural look. Don’t get me wrong, painting pieces of furniture a fun pop of color is still a favorite of mine! So when I was staring at the vintage dresser collecting dust in my office, I knew I wanted to strip it down to the natural wood and use it as Oliver’s dresser in his bedroom.
Here’s the back story on this dresser. I found it at a local thrift store about a year ago for $10. I remember getting in my car like it was too good to be true and any second they were going to tell me they made a mistake. But as you can see this dresser with so much character made it home with me! And it was time to let it shine!
The original plan was to sand it down to the original wood and wax it. But there were a few pivot points but the end result was better than I imagined. I discovered on the back of the dresser that it’s made of walnut which is normally a medium, rich brown. After seeing a lot of red undertones, I had to go a different route. So this tutorial is how I sanded, bleached and waxed this piece of furniture to give it a modern facelift. Here’s what I did!
What You’ll Need
Stain Stripper (if needed or if you decide to get the stain off with this method)
Sandpaper in 80, 120, and 220 grit
Vinegar + Water
Stain of choice (I used Flagstone by Varathane)
Minwax Natural Finishing Wax
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Start by sanding off the stain or varnish on your piece of furniture. If you have handles on your piece, remove them first to make the sanding easier in those areas. To do this, use an orbital hand sander with 80 grit sandpaper. Be careful along the edges because this grit will also shape your piece if you use it too much or too hard along the edges. Once all of the stain is off, follow up on your piece if furniture with 120 grit sandpaper and then 220 grit sandpaper. This will smooth out your piece of furniture. Make sure to wear your mask during this. Once all of the sanding is done, use a tact cloth to wipe away all of the sanding dust.
If your stain is being really stubborn or you have those hard to reach areas where an orbital sander may not fit, stripper might work best for you. Make sure you use a stripper meant for removing stain, follow the directions on the container, and wear your protective gear.
This is where things took a turn for me with my piece of furniture. Normally, I would sand it down and wax it to seal it for that natural wood look. But my dresser, made out of walnut, ended up pulling a lot of red (almost pink) undertones. Something I definitely didn’t want. Stain wasn’t neutralizing it so I decided to try bleaching my piece of furniture.
This is easier than what you think and very straight forward. There are products that are specifically furniture bleach but I used regular, household bleach on my piece of furniture. Pour a little bit of bleach in a glass container (I used our measuring cup). Then dip a paint brush into the bleach and rub the paint brush along the side of the container so it isn’t too saturated. You don’t soak the piece of furniture so much that it could warp areas of it.
Apply the bleach all over the piece of furniture. Re-dip the paint brush as needed. Once the piece of furniture is covered, allow it to fully dry. Tip: Sticking it out in the sun to dry speeds up the drying process and can make it even lighter. I kept mine in the shade to have a little more control over it. Once it’s dry, if it still isn’t light enough, apply another coat of bleach. Each new coat of bleach will lighten it even more. You’ll notice right away, even after the first coat, how any undertones are taken out and it is noticeably lighter. The picture below is after one coat of bleach. Can you believe it!? Zero traces of the red undertones.
Once the piece of furniture is to the desired lightness, the bleach needs to neutralized and preventing it at eating away at the wood even further. To do this, mix 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water in a bowl and apply this mixture using a new paint brush (or cleaned out paint brush) all over the areas the bleach was applied.
You’ll also notice after applying the bleach, that the piece of furniture may feel rough again. This is because the bleach “exposed” the wood fibers. A quick and light sanding with the 220 grit sandpaper will take care of this. Make sure to wipe it down again with a tact cloth.
Staining the Furniture after Bleach
I loved the color I achieved after two coats of bleach on my dresser. But I had another pivot moment from a problem arising. When I went to seal the dresser with my finishing wax, the wax (although a natural colored wax) was changing the dresser back to the red undertones. I believe this was happening because of the wood being fully exposed after the bleach.
I tested two stain colors and ended up going with Flagstone and applied it all over the dresser. It did turn the dresser into a slightly darker brown but a light, neutral brown without the red undertones. Which has been my goal all along. My biggest tip with staining furniture is that as quickly as you wipe it on, wipe it right back off. It all goes back to having more control over the color you’re creating.
Sealing the Furniture
Sealing the furniture is step you don’t want to skip to help prevent scuff marks, wear and tear, and water marks. Since I’m wanting to keep this dresser the color that it currently is without darkening it even more, I’m applying wax to seal it. The type of wax you use is key!
I’ve learned that the Finishing Wax by Minwax in Natural keeps stain and furniture pieces the same color (except for obviously right after bleaching). I applied it all over the dresser with a rag in a circular motion, let it sit for 15 minutes, and then buffed it out with a clean rag. It kept the beautiful stain color without changing it and my dresser is now protected to keep it looking new.
To update your piece of furniture even more, consider switching out the hardware or updating the current ones with a little bit of spray paint. My original plan was to replace mine all together but decided to try painting them first. A little bit of black spray paint went a long way with these handles and now I can’t imagine any other ones. They certainly help to make a unique piece. I also painted the brass rods along the bottom of the dresser black as well.
So, there you have it! Now the possibilities are endless with furntire pieces you can flip in your home. And if you’re like me, you’re now looking at thrifted furniture in a whole new light. I used to look away from the orange furntire but now that I know what’s hiding underneath, I’ll be running towards them more than ever to snatch them up. If you use this method or flip a piece of furniture in general, please share with me! These transformations are always so much fun to see!
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