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Credenza Makeover Part 1 – Adventures In Stripping Wood Veneer

The credenza in my living room is getting a makeover, and I’m just about finished.

Sounds innocent enough, right?  Simple, even.  A nice antique credenza gets a cute little makeover — a little paint, a little polishing, and voila!  Done!

If only. 😀

Let’s start at the beginning.  This is the credenza I’m talking about.

Antique credenza with peeling and cracked veneer

It has been in my living room between the two smaller windows.  You can see it here in this “progress” picture I showed you in my last post of 2013

living room progress

The veneer on the drawers was in really bad shape — chipped, cracked, and bubbled all over the place.  Since the piece is so dark, it doesn’t really show up in pictures.  But in person, you could certainly tell it was in really rough shape.

A credenza makeover has been on my “to do” list ever since I purchased it on Craigslist, but after I posted my living room progress, and after about the 20th person asked me about the fireplace in my living room 😀 , I decided that there’s no better time than the present for a credenza makeover.

So I took a knife and spent about 10 minutes removing all of the veneer that was flaking, cracking, bubbling and peeling, and I ended up with this.

Antique credenza with damaged veneer

After removing all of the badly damaged veneer, I had a problem.  The rest of it was stuck on there very well.  I mean, really well.  As in, stuck so securely that I couldn’t even wedge a knife under it at all.

So I asked for some advice over on my Facebook page.  The main suggestions were heat, steam, and water.  I started with heat using my iron on the hottest setting.  It didn’t work.  Then I tried steam using my iron on the hottest steam setting.  Still nothing.  Then I tried using my iron over a wet washcloth.  Nothing.  Then I tried a hair dryer on the hottest setting.  And still nothing.  Many people suggested a heat gun, but I figured that if leaving my iron on it for a full minute on the highest heat/steam setting didn’t even budge the veneer, a heat gun probably wouldn’t be much better.

So even though it made me really nervous, I went with the water option.  I placed the drawers in the bathtub, put a hot wet towel over them, and left them for 24 hours.  (I added vinegar to the water at the suggestion of several people.  I have no way of knowing if the vinegar actually helped, but vinegar is good for everything, so it probably didn’t hurt.)

Remove wood veneer using a hot wet towel

And by the way, this is probably common sense for most, but evidently not for me.  Don’t use your good washcloths or towels for this!  You can see the washcloth that I used with the iron there on the side of the tub.  It soaked up that red mahogany stain very quickly.

After 24 hours, the veneer still wasn’t coming off easily, so I scored it with a razor blade, and put the towel back on for about eight more hours.

That did the trick.  Now I’ve read where other bloggers described the veneer as scraping off easily like a hot knife through butter using this method.  I don’t know if they just lucked out, or if I just had some really stubborn veneer.  Mine certainly didn’t scrape off that easily, and it was still hours of hard work, banged up knuckles, one very deep gash on my thumb where the scraper got away from me, and some incredibly sore hands for a couple of days.  But the water definitely did soften the veneer and the adhesive to make it possible to scrape off.

I used this 5-in-1 tool from Home Depot, and that little pointy side was a huge help.

5-in-1 tool for scraping

But all of my hard work paid off, because I discovered the most awesome striped wood drawers underneath all of that veneer.

credenza makeover 4

Isn’t that awesome?!  If y’all know me at all, you know I LOVE STRIPES!!  So when I uncovered this, I felt like I had struck gold.  I was so excited!!

Ever since I purchased this piece, my intention was to re-veneer the drawers.  But once I saw these stripes, I knew that if I could get all of the veneer off without damaging the striped wood, and if it looked pretty decent, I’d make those stripes the focus of the whole piece.

Spoiler alert!  The veneer came off just fine, and while the striped wood isn’t in perfect condition, it’s good enough.  And I think the imperfections add beautiful character.  🙂  I just sanded the drawers and gave them two coats of Rust-Oleum polyurethane in a satin finish.

Since my plan had been to re-veneer the drawers and refinish the whole thing, I was kind of at a loss about what to do now.  I thought that the striped drawers with their casual appearance looked really awkward with the body of the piece still dressed up in fancy mahogany.  Plus, the rest of it still wasn’t in the best condition, which is why I had always planned on refinishing it.  Here’s what it looked like before I sanded and polyurethaned the drawers.

Antique mahogany credenza

So I asked for your input.

Lots of you said to paint it, which was no shock at all.  Lots of you said to strip and refinish it.  Still no shock.  But so many of you said to remove the veneer on the rest of it.  That actually did shock me.

But in the end, I decided to paint.  The fact is that after dealing with those drawers for three days, I simply didn’t have the desire or the energy to strip and refinish the rest of it.  And the veneer that’s on the rest of the piece is actually in really good condition, so I couldn’t bring myself to remove it.

So my option was paint.  I might strip it and refinish it at some point in the future, and I figured that adding a couple more coats of primer and paint now isn’t going to make that job any harder in the future if I decide to do that.  Or I could love the paint so much that I’ll decide to keep it.  Although I do love the look and warmth of stained wood, I’m certainly not a wood purist who thinks it’s a crime to paint wood furniture…even antique wood furniture.  😉  There’s definitely a place for stained wood, and a place for painted wood in my home.

And this is where I’ll leave you today — the base primed and ready for paint.

Primer on an antique credenza, ready for paint

Now I already know that a hundred people are going to ask me, “Why didn’t you use chalk paint?!  You wouldn’t have to prime!”  So let me go ahead and answer that.  🙂

I know from reading other blogs, as well as the warnings that many of you gave me, that if you use chalk paint over a piece like this with the really super dark mahogany finish, you’ll get some of that red bleeding through.  So the suggestion is the shellac the whole piece first, and then follow up with chalk paint.

Well, I didn’t have shellac on hand, nor did I have chalk paint.  And the “no prep” benefit of chalk paint — that very thing that you pay the big bucks for when you purchase a quart of chalk paint — would have been lost on this piece.  So instead, I used what I already had on hand.  And I always have Zinsser oil-based primer on hand.  Always.

I also happened to have a quart of paint in the perfect color on hand.  (Another spoiler alert!  It’s not white.  After seeing the primed piece in white, can you imagine how boring that would look against my white wall?)  I was intending to use the paint on another project, but when I decided to paint this credenza, that color made much more sense for this.

But I’ll leave you in suspense until tomorrow.  😀



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  1. Rats- I was hoping I was reading an old entry, so that today was “tomorrow” and I wouldn’t have to wait to see the final result. Ha ha- I guess I will survive, but I’m looking forward to the result!

  2. iiiiiiiiii! Can’t wait to see what color!! Do you get pottery barn catalogs? Their December edition was headlining indigo in decorating. I thought, well, that’s old news; Kristi had that idea going on for her master bedroom a long time ago! Can’t wait to see the credenza!

    1. I don’t get their catalog, but I look at their website all the time for inspiration. 🙂 I haven’t been in a while, so I didnt see the swing towards indigo. Now I want to check it out!

  3. I am loving reading your blog! You are inspiring!! It is so mean, however, that you are not revealing until tomorrow. I’m not good with suspense! 🙂
    I just painted an old desk with homemade chalk paint. It worked wonderfully and was a fraction of the cost.
    2 cups paint (I used egg shell), 1/3 cup plaster of paris, 2 tbsp. of water.
    I’m sure you know these cheater ways…just thought I’d mention it!
    Can’t wait for tomorrow!!

    1. Thanks, Michelle! I’ll have to give that a try. I have used the recipe for homemade chalkBOARD paint, but not for the homemade chalk paint. Looks like the difference is that chalkBOARD paint uses grout, while the chalk paint uses plaster of paris. Interesting!

  4. Kristi, I think I saw you mention your color choice but it may be buried deep on FB. I won’t say what I saw. But it is exactly what I would choose too, if I recall correctly.

    I have to confess that I do not know what chalk paint is or why it is used. I figured it was just one of those things people get at Michael’s to paint chalk boards on everything!

    1. Brenda, there is a lot of confusion online about chalk paint and chalkboard paint–they’re very different! Chalkboard paint, which can be purchased at craft and home improvement stores simply allows you to turn any surface into a chalkboard that you can write on with chalk. Chalk paint, on the other hand, was popularlzed by Anne Sloan, whose paint can be applied to any surface without any prep like stripping or priming. The use of waxes allows you to give it a vintage look. It’s pricey, but the colors are beautiful, and it works great. Many people are now making their own chalk paint. Hope this helps!

  5. Love the new look! I am excited for tomorrow! And I LOVE the stripes on the dresser. Now about that heat gun. The temp of a heat gun can reach as high as 1000 degrees and melt the adhesive backing of just about anything. an iron only gets up to about 200 degrees. So an iron cannot penetrate that veneer layer to reach the adhesive. A heat gun may prove valuable also for other project, such as removing linoleum or stick on tiles or old caulk from windows. You can get a cheap one for 20 bucks. But I like mid range models that allow me to regulate the heat. You may want to pick one up and add it to your tool aresenal. So excited for tomorrow!

      1. Wow, I didn’t even notice about comparing heat gun to hair dryer. I will use a heat gun to strip paint off of anything….NO GLASS (it will shatter from heat)…You must be careful though, you want to warm the object, when it starts to soften the paint/varnish/glue (I use a putty knife) scrape paint off. Must be careful with object so not to gouge. Also once it starts getting warm- move slowly and steady- do not stop -or (any paint I have seen) will catch on fire. AND Whatever you do DO NOT RUN YOUR HAND BETWEEN THE GUN AND THE FINISH This would be a trip to ER for 3rd degree burn! Yes the air is that hot. And do not set it down (like to take a break, on flameable objects…paper, plastic, etc.) Then after it has been turned on (even short time) do not touch anything but the handle!!! -you think the air is hot, lol. Out of the pot into the fire. BUT not really funny!!! I keep a heavy cardboard box close by to scrape the putty knife off into. The old gooey stuff will stick to anything and is super hot. When all done, I can just break down the box for trash. These are wonderful tools if used correctly. Our first house had paint over wallpaper (6 colors paint over 3 kinds of paper) Worked like a dream taking off all paint at once -not stripping one color at a time- bonus it made the wallpaper brittle. It came off with vinegar and water in no time. Have used it to strip painted cupboards, furniture, to get off old tile, glue. You have helped and shown me soooooo much in this last year, I hope this could help you a little in return. Sorry I got so wordy.

  6. oooh… I can’t wait! I was actually perusing Craigslist and found a listing for piece that must have had the same type of construction because the drawers were striped! (not paint striped- but like yours) Unfortunately it wasn’t the right piece for my space. But I was like “HEy! I know that look!”… lol

  7. Kristi, if I may offer a suggestion for any of your future woodworking/finishing projects…. There are a number of good woodworking forums that have many experienced people, both professionals and advanced amateurs, who readily offer their help, suggestions, and experience in solving problems. WOODmagazine.com, Woodnet.net, and finewoodworking.com are just a few examples. I have always gotten good advice (with no condescension) from them. Including advice on buying tools!

    BTW, many older pieces of veneered furniture utilized hide glue to adhere the veneer, so vinegar is often used to break down the glue.

  8. I sure hope you are going to stain/seal the drawers. That striped wood is incredible. I do a combo of paint and stain on dressers all the time. I always get very nice comments and I happy with them too.

    Can’t wait to see the finished piece!!

    Small House / Big Sky Donna / White Oak Studio Designs / SW Michigan
    Hand-Painted Vintage Furniture Transformations
    Blog: http://smallhouseunderabigsky.wordpress.com
    Facebook: [email protected] (for portfolio of chalk painted work)

  9. I think I am the only person in the world who does not like chalk paint. I also dislike ‘distressed’ or ‘shabby chic’ where one puts all that work into a pice and beats the heck out of it with a hammer, chains and sandpaper. But that’s me.
    Can’t wait to see your finished piece.

    1. I feel like I’m the only blogger left who hasn’t painted a piece of furniture with chalk paint. 😀 And I’m not completely anti-distressed-furniture, but I do feel like it’s to the point where if someone paints a piece of old furniture, they feel like they must distress it. Not every piece of furniture needs to be distressed.

      1. I always think it’s funny when people think in order to look ‘country’ something has to be distressed. My grandmother lived in the country and had a huge farm, and she would have thought it very embarrassing to have a shabby looking piece of furniture. Her pride and joy was her custom covered (ugly and uncomfortable to me as a kid) sofa hardly anyone sat on, but it looked new for many, many years….all her furniture had intact veneers and finishes, no chalk paint, no distressed wood and she had a lot of old things. She didn’t refinish anything, but she and my mom both thought having something that looked beat up was deplorable. My grandmother was born in 1895 and lived till 1981, My mom grew up in the depression, and she wanted all new and pretty things, they had enough of feed sack dresses, etc. that people find charming now….Sally

  10. As the only person in the world that doesn’t have a Facebook account, I’m not sure why everyone would be upset that you didn’t use chalkboard paint. I know chalkboard paint is very popular right now but if you’re going for a classic modern look, the popularity of chalkboard paint might pass away quickly so I think you’re smart to use something else. I can’t begin to guess what color you’ll use (blue? Green? Tan?) but I’m betting it’ll look great when you’re complete.

    1. Chalk paint is actually a different product from chalkboard paint. Chalkboard paint is used for making chalkboards that you can write on with chalk.

      Chalk paint, on the other hand, is a special kind of paint that was created by a woman named Annie Sloan that (generally) allows you to paint a piece of furniture without doing any kind of prep work first, like sanding or priming. The paint has a very chalky finish to it — very flat — and is usually finished with wax. That type of paint became very popular very quickly, but it’s very expensive (over $40 for a quart), so people have come up with ways to make their own versions of it at home for much less money.

      1. Oh. My bad. (hanging head) It sounds like a product I’d like to check into for several items. Thanks for the clarification.

  11. When you use the zinger primer, do you still have to sand the piece of furniture? I am painting an old mahogany bed and tried to use klean-strip easy sander and deglosser, not knowing that the mahogany would STILL bleed through the primer. I have heard to do shellac, then prime, then paint, but I really don’t want to sand. Does the shellac, or the Zinsser primer take away that step? I just don’t know how to get into all the details with sandpaper.

    1. The product itself does not require sanding first. I do sometimes sand first anyway just to smooth out surfaces, remove dings and scratches, etc.

      But I didn’t sand anything on this credenza. I just used a clean cloth to remove the dust, and then primed it.

  12. Would you consider faux finishing the dresser to match the drawer fronts, in your beloved stripes, going whichever way you like? I did that once with a dresser that had beautiful birds’ eye maple on parts of it, and crap in other parts, so I faux finished what wasn’t great to look like the parts I loved.

    Since I’m starting to think you have a crew of elves helping you all night, all.Rapunzel-like, I wouldn’t be surprised if you already finished the entire dresser. And moved on to the next big project!

  13. Wow! That is going to be just lovely! I, too, love the stripes. But I don’t know that I would undertake stripping the rest of the piece either. I look forward to seeing the color you choose.

    And may I say: You are the neatest painter I’ve ever seen! The first thing I noticed (well, after I noticed the pretty little flower detail that seemed to pop out with the paint) was those itty bitty pieces of cardboard under the legs, and itty bitty drips of paint (brush marks, really) on them. Not a drop of paint on those beautiful floors! I’m amazed! Not only are you very creative, you are a very neat painter!

    Thank you for sharing!

  14. Wow! You are such a hard worker Kristi! I know it’s going to look great! I can’t wait to see tomorrow’s post.

  15. You’re a brave soul… can’t wait to see the final results as usual your hard work is awe inspiring!

  16. What an exciting find under the veneer! I’m eager to see how it looks when it’s finished!

    Just a comment on chalk paint, FWIW: when I’ve used it over dark veneer, it hasn’t bled until I waxed it. (SO frustrating!). Now I just prime the dark veneer first. But in my opinion, the lack of prep is by no means the only reason to use chalk paint. The colors and finish are beautiful; it self-levels so very nicely; and it isn’t as smelly as most other paints. So I use chalk paint because I think it’s a little better for me, and I’m worth that. Mixing Plaster of Paris into latex paint will give it better adhesion and a matte finish, but it won’t eliminate the VOCs. I believe that milk paints are no-VOC, and chalk paints are low-VOC.

  17. I bet you paint it teal :). I re-finished an old dresser I had in teal ( because I kept eyeing one in a magazine. it is my favorite project I have done to date.

  18. It looks better with just primer, so with color, it should be pretty amazing! Are you going to put the original hardware back on or change it out?
    I love other people’s before and afters…I get the fun part without any work, lol…;) Sally

    1. I stuck with the original hardware. I thought it was way too pretty to switch out. Plus I didn’t want to have to deal with possibly having to fill these holes, and re-drill new holes for new hardware. Sometimes original is better. 🙂

  19. I was afraid of what the painted chest would look like, as I am mildly in love with the chest (that sounds awkward) but the primer brought out shape and detail that I didn’t even notice in the stained piece. I tend to love what you do, and I think the painted piece will be more fantastic than the refinished one would have been! I will be eagerly looking for the update tomorrow.

  20. Love your work!!! Fyi, I have a dresser that had the exact same problem with veneer. I opted out lol, got myself one of those needle glue applicator. Pushed good old carpenters glue under the damaged veneer, tape some and weighted some. Worked great and no boo-boo for me (a total plus). Then I proceeded to finish the piece -once glued and sanded only need small spots of filler. Maybe next time I will venture under the veneer- scared me!
    I did notice above some of reader think chalk paint is the same as chalkboard paint……definitely not here, or is it??? Could you clarify, Now I am totally confused if it could be? Thanks…House is looking great

  21. Love Love What you do and Thank You for sharing! Wish I had joined before you started striping the vaneer I would have suggested using fabric softener. I am not sure how or why it works but it melts glue. I had a kitchen I was redoing removing some very awful wall paper scored the paper sprayed with fabric softener and it took some time to soak in but it peeled away very nicely.

  22. i’ve seen your finished credenza its stunning but this was a much better look at the drawers your right the stripes are awesome love em

  23. I have an antique buffet with a similar veneer and finish. The veneer is scratched and missing in only 2 places, so I don’t want to remove it. My plan is to paint. What do I need to do to prep it for painting with the primer? Any sanding or can I just paint the primer directly on the veneer? I’m thinking of painting it black or dark grey with a latex paint. I’m not a fan of chalk paint either.Any advice you can give me would be appreciated! Thanks, Lisa