Learn how to revive a cedar chest the easy way! A little gel stain was all the wood portion took. The top was reupholstered with a tufts, and is gorgeous!
At 30 years old, I don’t really have expectations of birthday gifts anymore. But to my surprise, my aunt picked up this awesome cedar chest for me at a garage sale:
It had clearly seen better days: the stain and finish had worn away on the front of the chest, and cushion bench top was ripped in a couple places.
But I knew it would be easy to get it back into tip-top shape. Plus, I had the perfect spot for it in my new home!
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Ideas and Planning
First off, determine if your chest is solid cedar or a veneered piece. Upon first glance, I definitely thought this chest was solid cedar. I was wrong. There were a couple clues that told me this was a veneered piece:
- The faded stain on the front decorative trim indicated that, at minimum, the trim pieces weren’t cedar, and were stained precisely to match the rest of the bench. I think they’re oak.
- When I took the hinges off the bench top, it was easy to see the composite beneath.
- Looking closely on the edges from the top-down, you can see the veneer layer next to the structural layer of the chest.
If your chest is solid cedar, you have a couple options for reviving the chest.
- The Gel Stain Method – This is the method I’ll show today. It’s the easiest method by far, since you’ll apply gel stain on top of the current finish to even everything out. It works on both solid and veneered pieces.
- Strip and Refinish – Using a chemical stripper (I like Citri-Strip,) strip the finish off the piece. Then sand the piece until it is even in color and re-stain if desired. I demonstrate this method on another piece of furniture here. If you’re super careful, you could accomplish this on a veneered piece, just don’t sand with low grit sandpaper at the end.
- Sand and Refinish – If the finish is thin, with a little persistence (and a power sander) you can sand the finish and any stain off without using a chemical stripper. Then once the color is even, re-stain and finish. This will only work on solid pieces; veneered pieces don’t have enough thickness to sand to an even color.
I’ll be talking about the Gel Stain Method today, since it’s the easiest one, and works on all sorts of cedar chests! It does, however, require staining the chest to a similar or darker color.
You should also decide if you want your cedar chest to double as a bench, or remain as a traditional chest. Since my cedar chest already had cushioning on top, it was a no-brainer to reupholster and improve the bench top as well.
For the Cedar Chest:
- Gel Stain – I used two different colors: Varathane’s Red Mahogany, and Dark Walnut.
- Zinsser’s Shellac SealCoat – I love this stuff for finishing pieces, since it can be reapplied in about an hour. Be aware that Zinsser sells three premixed shellacs. The SealCoat is the only one that is wax-free, and therefore the only one I actually recommend!
- Denatured Alcohol – For thinning the shellac.
For the Bench Top:
- Drop Cloth/Fabric – I bleached a Harbor Freight drop cloth for my bench top. It doesn’t bleach to a perfect white, but I was going for cream anyway, so it works out!
- Button-Making Kit Size 30
- 1″ Screws
- #10 Washers
- Low Loft Batting
- 5/16″ Staples and Staple Gun
Cedar Chest Makeover
Step 1: Test Finishes on Back
Anytime I refinish a piece, I always test out my possible finishes on an inconspicuous part of the piece. For the cedar chest, this was on the back.
I experimented with a couple different things, like the length of time the gel stain sat before wiping it off, sanding before applying the stain or not, brushing vs wiping on the topcoat, etc.
This way, I know exactly how the finish will look before I even start, and there will be no surprises!
During this process, I determined I was going to do one layer of Red Mahogany gel stain, followed by a layer of Dark Walnut gel stain, followed by three layers of Zinsser’s SealCoat. All layers would be wiped on, not brushed.
Pro Tip: I’m using gel stain here, not traditional wood stain because gel stain will sit on top of the former finishes. Because I’m using gel stain, I don’t have to strip the former finish off the piece. Way easier, but it means I can’t make the piece any lighter.
If you want to use traditional oil-based stain, you’ll need to strip the finish first.
Step 2: Sand
During my testing, I found the gel stains worked better if I lightly sanded the piece first. So I grabbed 180 grit sandpaper and sanded with my orbital sander. It dulled the piece a little, but that was fixed as soon as I applied stain.
Note that because my chest was veneered, I was careful not to sand too much. I really just wanted to dull the finish.
I had to hand sand some of the trim on the front of the chest, but that didn’t take too long!
Step 3: Apply First Gel Stain Layer
Using an old cut up t-shirt, I applied the Red Mahogany gel stain to the cedar chest. I started by rubbing the stain into the wood against the grain, then finished off rubbing with the grain. This ensures the stain gets into all of the pores of the wood.
Then I waited for the gel stain to dry. The can said it could be recoated in two hours, but it was a hot day and two hours later the stain was still a little sticky. I waited until the stain was smooth and felt dry, which took around 6 hours.
Step 4: Apply Second Gel Stain Layer
I applied the Dark Walnut layer the exact same way I applied the first layer. I worked as fast as I could, since it was a hot day and the stain became tacky quickly. Weather matters!
Then I let the gel stain dry overnight. I always let gel stain dry overnight before topcoating.
Pro Tip: If you’re not using Zinsser’s SealCoat, be 100% sure your gel stain is fully dry before topcoating. This should be 48-72 hours for water-based topcoats, and at least 24 hours for oil-based topcoats.
Zinsser’s Shellac SealCoat is incredibly good at adhering to wood; it’s called SealCoat for a reason. While your stain should be dry before topcoating, you don’t have to be quite as careful as you do with other types of topcoats.
Step 5: Apply Zinsser’s SealCoat
Zinsser’s SealCoat comes as a 2 lb cut of shellac (the “cut” is the ratio of shellac to alcohol.) A 1 lb cut is easier to apply, so the first thing I did was thin the shellac.
Luckily, this is easy to do by mixing a 1 to 1 ratio of shellac and denatured alcohol.
Then I brushed on the shellac. I did two coats of shellac, sanding in-between the two coats.
Upholstering the Bench Top
Obviously, the bench top needed a bit of work to be functional. I decided to recover it with a bleached dropcloth, and add some tufting to it as well!
Step 1: Add Batting
Wrap the batting around the bench like you would wrap a present, doing your best to keep the batting as neat as possible.
Then staple the batting into place with a staple gun. Since I didn’t want the batting/fabric to interfere with closing the chest, I did my best to secure everything on the overhang of the top. That way, it didn’t intersect with the gasket that seals the chest.
Then I trimmed the batting as close to the staples as I could. This also helped keep things looking neat.
Step 2: Secure Fabric
Once again, wrap the fabric around the top and secure with staples. Try not to worry about the corners too much. I just aim to make them look neat and intentional, and I’ve never been unhappy with how they turn out.
As I went along, I folded the end of the fabric underneath the batting, stapling everything into place. Once again, I tried to make everything look as neat and intentional as I could. I think I succeeded.
Step 3: Add Tufting
Flip the cushion over, and mark with a pencil where you plan to add the tufts. I used a diamond pattern, with the tufts in each row spaced 8 inches apart.
Each row was 4″ apart from each other, and the tuft pattern was centered on the bench. Meaning: the top and bottom row both started 4″ away from the top and bottom of the bench. The first “column” of tufts started 5″ away from each end. Like this:
Obviously, the top of your cedar chest might be different, so if you decide to make tufts choose the spacing that works for your bench top.
Once you’ve marked the tufts, use an awl to stab a hole through the batting and cushion at each tuft. To do this, place the awl at the tuft mark. Then hit it with a hammer until you feel it hit the wood.
This pokes a hole in the cushion and batting, which means when you add your screw in the next step, it won’t get tangled up in those things. This doesn’t seem important, but trust me, getting a screw tangled up in batting is a huge pain.
Slip a #10 washer onto a 1″ screw, and screw the screw into the wood where you’ve placed your hole.
Repeat until you’ve made all your tufts!
Step 4: Make Buttons
I used a Size 30 button making kit from Dtriz to cover the screws. It came with instructions and was super easy to use, but just in case you’re stuck, an overview of the process looks like this:
1. Cut out the fabric using the template provided.
2. Push button top into mold on top of the fabric.
3. Fold the fabric around the button.
4. Press button bottom into button. I struggled a bit with this part, so I used pliers to help.
5. Remove the button from the mold, and enjoy!
Step 5: Secure Buttons
I simply hot glued the buttons to the screws. It was the easiest thing I had available.
The main thing is to use glue that is thick – it needs to encompass the space between the bottom of the button and the screws in order to hold well. Liquid nails is another glue that would work for this.
When you upholstered the bench, did you take the old fabric off?
No. It was secured between the cushion and the wood, and taking the cushion off the bench top seemed like a lot of work. So I just wrapped batting and fabric around the whole thing and called it a day.
But wait, shouldn’t I tuft before stapling the fabric in place?
Maybe. This is actually the first time I’ve tufted anything before, and this is how I did it. It turned out nicely, so….
But I think if you tuft before stapling in place, the fabric will bunch/fold up more to make the tuft. This is a nice look too, so I think it depends on what you’re going for.
I’ll also mention that my cushion was only 1″ deep, so adding the tufts didn’t actually use much fabric. Deeper cushions would probably use more fabric, in which case it’s probably better to tuft before stapling the fabric.
What if the veneer on my cedar chest is chipped? How do I repair it?
You have a couple of options. The easiest, and the one I’d try first, is simply gel-staining over it using the method above, and seeing if it blends the chipped veneer in enough to make you happy. It might, and it’d save you a ton of work.
Otherwise, you either need to A) remove and replace the veneer, or B) repair it. Neither of these are particularly quick or easy things, so I’m not going to get into them here. I do have a tutorial on removing veneer, if you’re interested in learning more.
I learn better through video… You don’t happen to have a video of this, do you?
Given you already had the cedar chest, the rest of the project adds up as follows:
It cost right around $50 to revive this cedar chest, and that was with having to purchase everything new. Many of these things (the stains and finish) are things I keep in inventory, so maybe you do too!
I love how this turned out!
It fits perfectly under the big window!
I’m so glad my aunt thought to grab this for me for my birthday. Big thanks/shout out to her!!
If you like it too, go ahead and save this post to Pinterest so you can find it again later!