Refinishing a Mid Century Cedar Chest

A few weeks ago I found myself with my mom in Restore, debating whether to buy this Mid-Century Modern Lane cedar chest… I debated whether it was priced at a fair value, how much worked it needed, if it fit in my car, where I could put it, and if I wanted to spend the next hour moving something heavy. I figured this was something I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else, even if I thought it was priced a little high. Plus I would get a project to work on! and learn something.

This thing was pretty hideous and gothic looking. Whoever donated it must have tried to refinish it and must have calculated it was a big fail. I talked with one of the guys who works in Restore and he said it had been probably been refinished with Minwax Gel Stain. Evidently it’s not very good.

So I went and bought some paint stripper, a plastic scrapper, CitrusStrip Cleaner, sand paper & tool, steel wool, spraypaint, prestain treatment, foam brushes, tack cloth, and stain. First I used the CitrusStrip Paint Stripper by the same brand, which is supposed to be kinder on you. The regular paint stripper worked better. The CitrusStripper was milder as far as fumes, but I think the regular stripper is the way to go (in the red can). The Minwax prestain treatment was also worth it, especially since I couldn’t get every bit of the red stain out of the furniture. This helped to even out the stain I used, which was Minwax Dark Walnut.

The sanding tool I got was also worthwhile (purple/silver tool). It helped keep the sandpaper flat, and from rutting out spots in the wood. I would suggest going with the heaviest sandpaper you can without scratching the wood. I mostly used 100 grit, then used the 320 to go back over, and then went over with a fine steel wool. Then I used the Citrusstrip cleaning fluid to get off any dust. I don’t know how much it helped vs. using just water, but it seemed to work well. After that, I used a tack cloth (a waxy covered cheesecloth) to get any specs of dust off. That tool was for sure worth it.

Here’s what it looked like after stripping the old varnish and sanding out the wazoo. If you’re wanting to do this quickly, then I would suggest a power sander.

Now to the good part! I covered the piece with the Minwax Pre-Stain. I then needed to stain the piece within 2 hours of applying. So then went on one coat of the varnish. I used a foam brush which was fine. After an hour or so I used a cloth to remove any excess varnish, then applied a second coat of varnish the next day. I think the dark walnut color is close to what the color was originally.

I used the 320 grit sandpaper and steel wool on the gold feet to make them shiny again. I then spray painted the handles, cleaned up the locks, and the gold trim on the front. One piece of the trim was missing, so I cut a piece of balsa wood to fit. Notice the top and bottom pieces of the trim are still gold, while I had to spray paint the two side pieces.

It was a lot of work… but I really enjoyed sitting out in my garage, people watching, and working on it. It was pretty relaxing.

So what’s the lesson learned today?

1. Don’t try to refinish furniture if you don’t know what you’re doing or have bad taste.

2. Know what you’re getting into if you buy furniture that’s a project.


4 thoughts on “Refinishing a Mid Century Cedar Chest

  1. Gorgeous work. What was the purpose of a pre-stain? Does it inhibit the absorption of the stain like a pre-conditioner. You did a wonderful job. I’ve never seen this style before.

    1. Thank You! I’m not sure what the pre-stain does chemically, but it seemed to help the color stain to go on evenly and maybe to get a better color.

  2. I was given this exact Lane cedar trunk. Mine dates to 1957, and mine still has the original finish- light yellow!!! The prestain is supposed to partially seal the grain after sanding to allow the stain to penetrate more evenly. I am thinking of just refinishing with my power sander, pre-stain and Minwax also makes a rub on polyurethane which looks like a hand-rubbed finish. I just used this to refinish my dining room table, and it looks great!! Just a word of caution about the lock- it can not be opened from the inside, and some children have died from suffocation. Lane will send you a free replacement lock. You just need to visit their web site. The style number of this trunk is 6334-10. If you look at the bottom, you will also see the serial number. Reverse the serrial number and it is the mfg date. My serial number is 751310, which corresponds to January 31, 1957

    1. That is so neat! Thank you for the information! My dining room set is a lot lighter color that would match the original finish. The stain I used turned out darker than I would have liked, but it’s a lot better than what had been put on it before

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