A Little Bit About Finishing Dresser Tops

I had a conversation yesterday with Deb over at Confessions of a Craigslist Junkie about removing laminate from the top of those French dressers from the 60’s-90’s… you know the white slick looking topped ones… well she just painted this gorgeous dresser, top and all, I think it’s lovely the way she painted it, but I also knew that she had the option of staining the top if she had wanted to. I thought I’d share with you a few experiences I’ve had so a little information is coming your way!

The pieces pictured below I wanted to share with you so you could see how I removed the white slick laminate looking top and what I discovered underneath! You see I don’t really think it’s laminate at all, I think it is a type of “paint” or surface that is a specialty coat of some sort, but not laminate, I could TOTALLY be wrong here but you be the judge based on the evidence below… I have 3 examples of mine to share with you…

Here is your typical dresser from the early 80’s. It’s hard to tell in the sunlight but this was most certainly that slick looking white surface.

before french dresser

I sanded it down starting with 100 grit paper, then 150 ultimately finishing with 220. Using my orbital sander I didn’t have to worry about going with the grain of the wood… it just sanded down like any other painted surface and I was left with the top below… amazing right?

refinished striped french dresser top

This is what it looked like after some dark walnut stain and a coat of wax!

refinished striped french dresser top

This is the matching nightstand to the dresser above, same top, same process…


BOOM!! pretty solid wood underneath that gross surface.

refinished striped french nightstand top

All pretty now with a dark walnut stain and a coat of wax.

refinished striped french nightstand top

This one someone had painted the entire piece, but the white slick surface was just underneath this lovely yellow paint. I used the same process as before…

UF French Desk

GORGEOUS solid wood top, stained dark walnut and waxed! I kept this chest because I loved it so much I couldn’t let it go!

refinished striped french dresser top

So next time you walk by one of “those” pieces think about trying to sand down the surface to reveal the beauty beneath! I’m no expert and I’m certainly not saying every piece will turn out like the ones above, but it can’t hurt to try right? That is what I did and I loved the results!

Good luck and go sand something!

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24 thoughts on “A Little Bit About Finishing Dresser Tops

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  1. Wow Susan, your results are amazing! I’ve never tried sanding that finish down, but I definitely will next time!


  2. I have a bunch of questions about how you sand since your tops came out perfect!
    Do you sand the edges or strip them?
    I usually start with 60 grit paper–do you think that is too harsh?
    I keep getting swirl marks. I try not to move the sander around too much, but if the sand paper gets some of the finish stuck to it, then it leaves marks too–any advise?
    The last thing I sanded I went through so many pieces of sand paper with each grit–is that normal?
    I appreciate any advise you can give!


    1. Hey Susan, My process depends based on the finish, but I’ll categorize it for you Old worn finish, dry – 150 grit max on top, 150 max on edges Thick “newer” finish – use a heat gun (or stripper) to remove some of the finish first then 100 grit paper to start Paint – heat gun or stripper to remove most of the paint, then same as above I sand the edges, never using anything below 150 grit, sometimes I use the mouse sander in combination with the orbital sander then hand sand the rest. If you are going to strip the edges do it before you sand the top or the stripper liquids can stain the unfinished top.. Use an orbital sander, move it around as much as you want, just don’t bear down on it if you notice swirl marks use a putty knife (or fine metal wired brush) to remove the buildup on the sand paper. It also helps to keep the debris off the top as you sand. I rarely use 60 or 80 grit, and then it’s only when I’m trying to remove veneer, layoff the low grit paper 😉 You will go through a lot of paper, but it’s still cheaper than stripping. Try to use a heat gun, they are not expensive, about $35, and are also great with removing veneer. Buy sandpaper disks in bulk, they are cheaper that way. I hope this helps! Maybe I should do a how to post on sanding… I will choose to sand down a top vs stripping anyway…



  3. Hi Susan!
    These look amazing. I had no idea they could look so good. Great job. What paint did you use on the black one you kept? I love it.


  4. I love your unpainted wood tops. I think they add richness to the piece. I have a question for you: can you use any wax over stain, or do only certain stains and waxes work together? The stain I’ve been using says to protect with varnish, and the wax I purchased says to use on natural wood. So confusing…(and I’ve been getting a lot more requests from clients to refinish wood). I need expert advise!


    1. Thanks so much! I try to leave them natural when I can! Yes, you can use wax over stain or paint. I would use a dark wax or clear wax on darker stained wood as sometimes the hard yellow paste wax can show up white in the tiny fissures in the wood when it dries. You can also use an oil like Watco to seal the wood, it’s not as shiny as wax and has more of a rustic look. Hope this helps!



  5. Great information Susan! The dressers look so pretty with a stained top!

    Have a blessed week,
    Linda at The French Hens Nest


  6. hi Susan – I love this post. I think the tops are some kind of epoxy oil based spray finish. not laminate. we have the same kind of furniture in australia and I have just done a few of them – although i painted my top but I am tempted top strip it now as the white top in my bedroom gets so dusty and dirty
    have a great weekend


  7. Tried this on 2 pieces last night… sadly, it was pressed wood underneath 😦 Doesn’t mean I won’t try it again with the next piece I find! Thanks for sharing, it looks beautiful!


  8. Hi Susan
    I am working on a piece exactly like this. I’ve got it all stripped/sanded except the tiny edges. Any advice for me? I cannot seem to get that edge cleaned up and it’s making me crazy. Thanks


    1. Hey Emily! The only way I know to do it is with folded over small piece of sandpaper. You could try a small stripping knife or blade, but be very careful not to gauge the wood. If you have a dremel tool there are several sanding options you can use with that as well. Good luck!


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