Decorating · Furniture Restyling

Cedar Chest Makeover

My daughter acquired a cedar chest while she was in college, and after a few moves it ended up being stored in the garage. Eventually, she offered it to me, and I wasn’t about to turn down a Lane cedar chest.  While it was pretty beaten up on the outside, covered in old packing tape, and finished in a yellowish color I dislike, it was pretty solid on the inside. I figured it would be great once it was fixed up a bit. Keep reading for details of my cedar chest makeover. 

Chest Inside
A nice cedar-lined chest with drawers that hang from the hinges.

I vaguely knew how I wanted to refurbish it, but just hadn’t found the time. I’ve been hanging on to it for the last couple years, and decided it would make a great coffee table (not to mention extra storage) in the studio. Since I’m currently in the middle of fixing up the studio and unpacking fabric, it seemed like as good a time as any to tackle the chest. 

I’m really terrible about taking before photos until it’s not “before” any longer. However, I did manage to remember before I was too far along in the removing tape and sanding process. Luckily, since I planned to paint the bottom section, I only needed to sand the lid. 

Cedar chest makeover - Before
Before, with the original finish marred by scratches, paint, and packing tape.

When I did, I noticed for the first time that this piece was intended to go against a wall or a couch, judging by the unfinished cedar back.  Whoops. Still, I figured it wouldn’t be that noticeable once it was painted and in front of the couch. 

Cedar chest makeover - Back
Definitely not the “for show” side of this piece.

The chest had some really nice detailing, even though it wasn’t my style. The grain of the wood was used creatively along the front sides, bottom, and top of the chest. I felt a little bad that I was going to cover most of it up with paint, but mostly I was just glad I didn’t need to sand the whole thing. 

Chest Front Detail
Both ends of the front panel had this cool mitered detailing.

Between the sticky tape residue and the old finish, I went through a fair amount of sandpaper trying to get down to bare wood. I did notice that there were a couple of pale streaks through the wood, but no amount of sanding seemed to change that. 

The lid of the chest, completely sanded.
The lid of the chest, completely sanded.

For the finish, I’d picked some Danish Oil in Cherry, and when I poured some into a cup I was a little nervous about the color. I suddenly wondered if I should go out and pick up a darker color. I like dark cherry and mahogany finishes, as well as dark walnut, and really didn’t want that orange color light cherry can have. I tested it on the underside of the chest and it looked OK, and I didn’t really want to make a trip to the hardware store, so I decided to go for it.  The directions have you apply two liberal coats of the oil, and then wipe off the excess after it sits. 

The red in the cup seems a little mellowed out on the wood itself.
The red in the cup seems a little mellowed out on the wood itself.

It looked pretty good when flooded with the oil, but when I wiped it off, it was obviously orange in places. Those pale streaks were also lighter, as I should have expected. 

Cherry Finish
Uh, not quite the color I wanted.

This is where my impatience stepped in and took me from a nearly finished project to a (temporary) mess. I’d planned to use a dark wax on this piece to antique it a little bit, so decided to see how much that would alter the orange tone of the finish. Unfortunately, the wax seemed to lift off some of the finish, making it even lighter in areas. Worse, most of it was over one of the already light streaks in the finish. 

Since I’d waxed it, just adding more stain wasn’t going to work. Sandpaper quickly gummed up with the wax and didn’t remove enough from the area to let stain be effective, either. Some quick research on removing wax led to a trip to the hardware store for mineral spirits and steel wool.  While I was there, I picked up some Danish Oil in Dark Walnut, so I could tone down the cherry a bit on the next attempt. 

With considerable elbow grease, I managed to remove most of the wax and get the top sanded down again. This time I used mostly walnut with a splash of cherry for the finish, and it came out much closer to the color I envisioned. Still a bit light, but I expected that from such light wood. As dumb as I felt about applying the wax too soon, I’m glad I ended up with the walnut finish, even if in a roundabout way. 

Chalk Paint
DIY chalk paint ready for the base of the chest.

I wanted to paint the base with cream chalk paint and distress it slightly before applying a wax finish. Since I’m thrifty (cheap?) as well as impatient, I decided to try a DIY chalk paint before moving on to more expensive versions. This tutorial suggested that the best DIY paint was made with calcium carbonate, so that’s what I tried. It mixed together easily and the final result was as expected, so I’m happy with the results. I ended up using approximately 1/4 cup of calcium carbonate mixed with about 1/8 cup water, added to about 1-1/2 cups latex paint. 

I wasn’t really worried about a pristine finish, and I liked the fact that chalk paint required very little prep work. I figured I’d have some subtle brush strokes, and mostly just tried to make them as even as possible. They’re horizontal on the base and vertical on the body of the chest, which is a slight nod to the original pattern in the wood grain. There are some small imperfections and places where I probably should have sanded the chest before painting, but they don’t bother me. 

A close up of the bottom of the chest.
A close up of the bottom of the chest.

I gently distressed some of the edges and applied a layer of clear wax over the paint.  I added a little dark wax in the corners, as well as some bonus distressing when I banged a corner into the rails for the garage door. I also spray painted the hinges with the oil rubbed bronze color I’ve used elsewhere in the house. 

The refinished chest before distressing and finishing wax.
The refinished chest after distressing and finishing wax.

I’m really happy with the way it turned out. It’s much more my style than the original finish, and it feels more timeless and classic to me now, rather than a specific vintage like it did originally. It’s also nice to have one less piece in the garage, finally. 

Cedar chest makeover - The finished chest in place as a coffee table.
The finished chest in place as a coffee table.

All that remained was to bring it inside and fill it up with wool. It’s a smidge tall for a coffee table, but not enough to be bothersome. The only thing I don’t like about it is that it really makes me want to refinish and reupholster the sofa sooner rather than later, if that can even be considered a critique. 

What do you think of this cedar chest makeover? Let me know in the comments. 

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