Thrift Store Highboy: Elegant UpDo

By Kate Riley June 22, 2009

For years, I’ve wanted to bring some glamour and elegance to my foyer.  It’s the first impression for guests, and it has been nothing short of dull for quite some time.  Since our entry is only ten feet wide, I also wanted to bring reflective light and shimmer to the space as well.

Last week I hinted at the fabulous highboy dresser I picked up at the Goodwill for $35.  Lucky me, it had only been on the floor for thirty minutes before I snatched it up.  SCORE !  With a bit of stain and some new hardware, I brought this wonderful vintage piece into the modern age, and gave it a special new glow.

Here’s the foyer Before and After:

Here’s how it all happened.  As you know, I frequent the local thrift stores looking for treasures.  I chanced upon this solid wood new arrival and hustled – no I seriously ran – to the cash register to buy it before anyone else could, with my poor little boy shouting “Mooooommmmiieee waaaaiiiit” as I dragged the poor little guy behind me.  I spent part of my weekend giving this piece the TLC it needed.

Re-staining Previously Stained Furniture:

Step One, Sanding:  Give your piece an all over good sanding, removing all varnish that may exist.  Wear a disposable mask so as not to inhale any microscopic dust.  In my case, I sanded the highboy by hand with coarse, and then medium, grade sandpaper.  (My electric sander, although faster, would have been too rough on this delicate piece.)  Work with, not against, the grain of the wood.  It took over an hour to fully sand this dresser, but hey I look on the bright side:  I got a great upper arm workout.

Step Two, Conditioning:  I’m a Minwax fan, so if you want to create better absorbency in your wood, you can consider using a wood conditioner like Minwax Wood Conditioner.  Grainy or gnarly woods like oak or pine should definitely be conditioned beforehand.

Step Three, Staining:  To stain this piece, I used a staining pad and Minwax Gel Stain in Walnut.  I truly madly deeply love this stuff.  The gel formula is thicker, unlike regular stain, so you don’t need a brush, and it doesn’t drip.  I recently used it to re-stain my entire two story oak staircase (reveal coming soon).  How convenient is it to be able to stain upside down without drips?  Brilliant !

The imperfections in the dinged up dresser soaked up this stain and were transformed into those ‘distress’ marks you’d pay so much for at a top retailer.  This gel stain buries itself in the ridges, and translates into deep character, just like a glaze on painted wood.  One caveat: this gel product dries a bit more quickly, so you must work fast to get your stain strokes right.  And don’t forget to wear gloves, cause this stain really stains !

Step Four, Reapply:  If you desire added depth from your stain product, then reapply a second coat 24 hours later.  Here’s what two out of three drawers looked like after just one coat (I applied two coats).

Step Five, Protectant:  If you’ve used a regular liquid stain product, then you will probably need to apply a polyurethane to protect your piece. I’ve used Minwax Wipe-On Poly with success in the past on several projects.   However, this gel based stain gave my piece such a nice glow that I didn’t find it necessary to add poly this time.

 You can see how the ‘Before’ piece had a washed out honey color, plenty of dinks, and old-fashioned hardware.  Just by staining the piece and adding new oil-rubbed bronze hardware from Home Depot ($12 for a set of ten), the dresser now looks like something out of a new furniture collection.

So now I need your input, playing a bit of multiple choice.

I played around with a few preliminary vignettes, and I have a favorite, but I’d appreciate your vote.  You’ll notice the flea market silver pitcher remains a constant.  I love fresh flowers in the foyer, so it stays.  And you’ll notice that a white ceramic bust makes an appearance (antique store find).   Your opinions please.

A) Botanical Print with bust and clock

B) Paris Print with bust and clock

C) Silver Candlestick with bust and clock

D) Wedding Print with pair of busts


So friends, give it to me straight.

Which scene do you prefer ?




  1. I have been loving reading all your do-it-yourself projects – and this is one of the best! I vote for the wedding photo with 2 busts – I love the way they are looking at each and how the smaller frame echoes the larger mirror frame.

  2. Wedding photo scene is perfect! BTW, I have an old dresser that was my grandmother's. It desperately needs hardware. Any interest in selling the stuff you took off your new highboy? Please let me know!!

  3. Such hard choices but I would say B

    I love how you transformed the chest. It looks marvelous!

  4. I love the wedding one too, closely followed by the Paris one. Love your blog. I just picked up a table at goodwill for 26 bucks. Can't wait to do it up.

  5. great re-do. can't wait to see your stairway. i vote for the wedding picture also.

  6. Paris or wedding picture gets my vote.

    I like the added height of a picture frame, but the (gorgeous) botanical fights the flowers for "color power". All white flowers in your pitcher would look great with the botanical, but I like bright flowers with a simple black and white picture.

  7. Gorgeous transformation! Love what you did with the mirror too! I would have never thought of using craft paint. Love this!

  8. Yes, i agree that the wedding pic is the best and then the Paris print. I do love Paris prints and have many myself!!! Love the frame of the wedding print! Your project gets an 11 in a 1 to 10 scale!! LOVE it!


  9. I can't belive you did that so fast. It took me about the same amount of time to do just my tabletop WITH and electric sander. I had the biggest problems with the gel stain too. It looks incredible though! What an amazing transformation.

    I guess I'm in the minority, but I like the botanical print.

  10. WOW!

    Beautiful transformation! I can't wait to see your staircase project.

    I have to agree with others- I prefer the wedding one myself; followed by the Paris print.

  11. I love you for this tutorial and it just looks fantastic. I've been considering staining the beams in my family room. And $35?? What a score! Minwax gel stain is going on my list for sure. Oh, and I'm loving the last look the best~the wedding picture one.

  12. I'm going to go against the stream here and vote for the candlestick one. I like how everything is low, allowing more use of the mirror for people coming in/going out of your foyer. But the wedding photo and Paris print ones are lovely as well. :) That dresser looks GORGEOUS!! Great job.

  13. Beautiful, Love it…

    I like the wedding picture best, but keep them all on hand, you might want to change it up! LOVE it all.

  14. Wonderful find and great transformation, as always! I like option B the best. And love the mirror now too!

  15. I like the candlestick one as well, but I'm a real sucker for artsy wedding photos. And that one is fabulous! So wedding photo and two busts it is…

    Love this dresser redo.

  16. Kate….. Totally loving the last option. 2 busts with sassy jewelry and wedding pick! You and your husband built your home, your guests should be greeted with a representation of that… And how whimsical, yet classy!

    Good show as usual!

  17. i like the wedding photo with busys!! :) really love your mirror! i love how you say your foyer is "only 10ft" – my biggest room is that wide and my foyer is 4ft by 3ft! Can't do a damn thing with it!! :)

  18. fabulous redo! I had no idea they made a gel wax. I may have a new hobby! :)

    I vote for option D. BY FAR my favorite.

  19. Love the wedding picture! The Paris print is nice too! Thanks for the refinishing tutorial!

  20. I like D the best- it looks cohesive and it really pulls it all together nicely.

  21. Question- did you seriously just use craft paint on the frame of the mirror? Did you have to do a ton of coats or anything?

  22. Definitely option D. SOmething about having a wedding photo in the front foyer at the entrace of your home makes it seem like a home. It shows a united front. Plus your photo isn't to obviously weddingy so it is pleasanty subtle. Love it! Plus the busts make you laugh so that is a great thing to feel when entering your home. Lovely! I cant wait to try refinishing a few of my own wood peices.

  23. Definitely D! Not only do I prefer the size of the frame against the mirror over the others, but it's so very personal. Gotta love that!

    This post was great. I learned a couple of things that I hadn't heard before. Thank you!

  24. D is by far the best option. You are AMAZING girlfriend! The transformation of your high boy is beautiful. Thanks again for taking the time to teach the rest of us how to do it ourselves. Love it!

  25. Fabulous transformation! I vote for "D", the wedding photo & busts that make you smile, hands down!

  26. Wowza! You're really inspirational when it comes to trash-to-treasure makeovers. I love the wedding photo with the busts. Cute.

  27. Absolutely DEFINITELY, for sure, the wedding picture so option (D). I think it's the most personal touch than all the rest and the frame looks great with the mirror!

  28. I prefer the wedding picture as well mostly because it is something personal. The busts are just so terrific! Love the high boy as well. Fabulous job.

  29. Hi Kate.
    I know this isn't terribly helpfuly, but I would go with C or D. Both are great, although I assume you love D judging by the extra shot in the bottom there.
    That highboy is amazing! It's so beautiful, and you're right. It's absolutely worthy of Drexel Heritage or Ethan Allen.

  30. Great job on the highboy. It looks fantastic!

    My vote is definitely D!!! So cute.

  31. I love the wedding picture with the busts! What a great job – again. Do you get sick of me commenting about how awesome you are?

  32. Fabulous makeover! I need to do the same with my table so this gives me some inspiration.

  33. I just found you today via Kimba and I'm so glad!

    I love your highboy. You did a really great job. It really does look like a piece from Ethan Allan.

    Thank you for the tutorial, also. Such a big help. :)

  34. The chest is gorgeous with the darker stain and the enw knobs. So beautiful. I love all the vignettes, but I really liked the candelabra. I like the look of silver with the mirror. Hugs, Marty

  35. Amazing! So much better than buying a new one. much better!

  36. Wow! I am so envious. That looks absolutely amazing! The wedding photo or Paris gets my vote!

  37. I am a NEW lover of your blog – have READ EVERY SINGLE OLD POST – you are TRULY an inspiration to me – WHERE is the silver clock from?

  38. AHHH! I love your stuff! you truly are one of the BEST decorating blogs out there! I like the wedding print OR the Paris print. and I am sooo gonna try that Gel stain- I used the regular stain and it just takes too many coats & drips-drives me batty! Cant wait to see your stair railings- I want to re-do mine sooo bad- they are that peachy, pale oak color-blech!!

  39. Gorgeous transformation on the dresser! The wedding print is perfect. The right size and scale, and the right finish on the frame. PERFECT!

  40. Kate, you've done it again! What a fantastic piece that is. I have used gel stain, but not in the same way. That piece DOES look SO high end now, great job. I'm gonna vote for B, with the Paris print, don't know why, I just like it. Don't forget to get back to me on guest posting at my blog. ;)

  41. Great job!! I'm always amazed at how many items you transform – I can't manage to get 1 done within a month! I like option B :)

  42. The updo is b-e-a-u-tiful! The jealousy is practically seeping out of my pores. How embarassing!

  43. I like the wedding scene, but I think the small silver cup could go. It doesn't add much to the scene, unless you stick some flowers in that too.

    Also, that mirror is gorgeous! When you painted it, did you dilute the paint at all? It seems like some of the gold still shows through so I was wondering.

  44. A! Botanical print. It Pops the color in the real flowers. Yiu are so inspiring! Do yu have any reservations about the chemicals in all those minwax products?

  45. I can't believe how great the highboy looks. I need to pay some better attention at my local thrift store.

  46. I like c. Because I don't think you should hide that beautiful mirror. I also would remove the clock just because I always feel things are displayed better in odd numbers. Great job on the dresser. You are always an inspiration!

  47. I say definitely option D. I think it has the perfect mixture of white, metal, and wood. I love that it subtly shows off your personality with the heads and has a wedding picture (is that your wedding?). The frame styles compliment each other too. Love it!!

    Also, I am about kicking myself for not grabbing a crazy cheap silver pitcher at the Goodwill a couple days ago. I saw it and loved it but told myself I didn't "need" it….well after seeing yours with the flowers in it…I obviously need it! haha! :)

    Thanks for all your tutorials!

  48. I prefer the wedding picture, but I would put a black mat on it instead of white. It would make the picture stand out more and bring out the darker distressed areas on the dresser.

  49. I actually like D the best. Although you may want to put the necklace away when entertaining (I've heard those Northern Californians can't be trusted).

  50. D_ the wedding picture print, vase and two busts. I think it's formal enough, but has that pop of personality because you added the necklace to the one bust.

  51. Great job! I would have to say "c",that one really jumped at me! Maybe b/c I love that candlestick and that the mirror is not blocked!
    Have a "BLESSED" week! Natalie,

  52. Gorgeous! My vote is for either the botanical print/clock/bust set-up, or the wedding photo/2-bust vignette. I'm a sucker for beautiful, personal wedding prints incorporated into decor.

  53. I like the one without the prints. Just the clock, the candlesticks and the bust. But they all look nice.

  54. Beautiful! I really like the wedding photo set up. When I saw it in the first picture, I thought it was awesome!

  55. The one with the wedding photo is my favorite! The dresser looks beautiful! I've been stripping the stain off an old rocker this week and it is much harder than I thought! I am sore!

  56. The one with the wedding pic for sure. Do you do all the prep work indoors or do you have a workspace where most of the sanding, etc gets done? Fabulous work!

  57. Oh, you are so brave to try a refinish. I need to get over the fear and just go for it!
    My vote is for the Parisian print.

  58. GREAT makeover!!! :) That highboy must be grateful to you. ;)

    I vote for the wedding scene OR the silver candlestick. :)

  59. I like D the best. I seem to have a prejudice against empty candlestick holders. The necklace on the bust cracks me up.

  60. You did a wonderful job transforming that chest and as much as I love all the painted furniture out there I'm glad to see some stained wood. I have quite a few pieces that my dad built or refinished in my house and I think he would roll over in his grave if I were to paint them.

  61. I would go with B or D. The fun thing is you don't have to pick one and stick with it. You can always mix it up!

  62. I love D. You do such fantastic projects– I can't wait for the humidity to die down a bit so that I can work on many of the pieces I've been collecting after being inspired by you!

  63. I vote for C–but then I'm a sucker for candleholders. You've done it again! Taken a sow's ear and turned it into a silk purse. Think this would work on veneer? I have a desk I'm looking at redoing.

  64. I recently found your blog and am very impressed! I have an award for you at my blog :)

  65. My choose B. I love the colors in the Paris print with the mirror and clock. Beautiful!

  66. Definitely the wedding pic with the "his and hers" busts – (the Eiffel Tower would be a second choice). Love the dresser, in fact I love your blog and just became a follower. Thanks for all the GREAT tips and "how to's" – you make it so easy for others to follow your directions. Linda

  67. Thanks so much for the tip about using gel stain. Your dresser turned out just stunning!

    All the arrangements are beautiful, but my favorite is the wedding pic with the 2 busts.

  68. Oh my goodness…i am LOVING your site! i just came over from ASPLT and am hooked (new follower). In fact, I can't seem to break away, there is so much fabulousness to behold. You are one talented lady! The metallic paint over the gold is amazing. I have sooooooo much gold stuff waiting to be transformed, and now I know exactly with what. Thank you!


    p.s. My vote is either C. or D….both are beautiful!

  69. My vote is for D absolutely! Love the wedding print and two busts. Perfect! I have so many projects around my house- you give me inspiration every day!

  70. I love the wedding photo with the two busts. Wish I had your kind of goodwill in my area!

  71. I vote wedding! and I need my own busts. I've been trying to convince my husband that they're manly enough for his study. the 'after' mirror frame is perfect!

  72. I like the balance and scale of B, with warmth and whimsy of D. D is a bit out of scale, and B feels a bit cold.

  73. I love the Paris print with the one bust. Less busy, but seriously romantic and pretty. I'd like the wedding one if the shot were bigger and in the print frame…

  74. B, B, and B – do I get 3 votes? It's very balanced and I think it looks like it came right out of a decor magazine. Seriously I love B!

    I have a dresser from my hubby's grandmother that looks exactly like this and you've inspired me to make it a piece I want to keep not just a piece I must keep. Thanks!

  75. This is so awesome, girl! I haven't dipped into staining just yet. But this is such a great tutorial, I just may have to stop painting altogether! LOL! NOT! Anyhow, have a great week and thanks again, for sharing!

  76. Wow…really, I mean WOW! Fantastic job! I vote for the wedding print and pair of busts.

    Thanks for the tips and tricks on refinishing!


  77. What a gorgeous job! I love the wedding print. Minwax gel stain is a fave at this house, too.

  78. I vote for D! when I saw the first picture in the post the vignette was the first thing I fell in love with!!

    I have a question – the drawer pulls on the original piece, are they hard to remove? they aren't just screwed on like knobs are, are they?

    Love this make over!!♥


  79. D is my choice. Everything just looks really professionally pulled together! Lots of elbow grease paid off…

    Love it!

  80. I can't wait to go trolling the thrift stores looking for a highboy for my "foyer" (if that's what you'd call the 2 feet by my front door)!! This is great! I've wondered about that technique for a while now. Did you use stripper or just sanding? And the mayonaisse? Do you just let it sit for a while or smear it in? & IMO- I love the wedding & Paris arrangements, respectively. Now, fess up- which one is your fav!?

  81. I vote for the wedding picture and two busts. Paris is the second choice, not too fond of the fruit print.

    You are TRULY inspirational, I have repainted chairs I've had since 1994 since finding your site, and I'm recovering Ikea dining chairs–that's in process.

    Thanks for the GREAT site–your writing is great, the project descriptions and photos make it so readable and understandable!

  82. I absolutely love this redo. Such an inspiration. I definitely think that the wedding photo is the best. So beautiful.

  83. I love the wedding one. It's great! I love your blog, you are so talented!

  84. The last ensemble is my fav, but you could also swap in the Paris print. Gorgeous display!

  85. What a gorgeous piece. It is definitely so much better since you refinished. My favorites are c and d. The paris print or the wedding photo. They are both great. I can't wait to hear which you choose.

  86. Maybe its my Southern roots, but I think the silver candlestick option is the best, though I'd take out the bust.

  87. What a fabulous find and you did a great refinish job! My favorite vignette is the wedding with two busts!

  88. The Paris and wedding scenes are my favorites.

    I REALLY want to know about staining your staircase. ALSO do you think this product could be used on kitchen cabinets? I'm currently obsessed with finding a way to change mine.

    Thanks in advance for your help, Martha

  89. I love what you did great job…you totally rock! Anyway, I love B but I also like the wedding scene too and would switch back and forth between them!

  90. I absolutely love the last picture. I always try for the touch of whimsy as well, and you've done a fabulous job of combining elegance, personal bits and definitely whimsy!

    Love, love, love your blog! If I could only learn how to get photos on my blog and embed links, I'd be having some serious blogging fun!

    P.S. I live in Healdsburg so I'm a neighbor of sorts. I got a kick out of seeing that you're from Petaluma when I read about your "piratey dresser" transformation.



  91. LOVE the wedding pic and two busts! They can talk to each other and greet your guests! :)

  92. Wow I was going to say wedding picture and busts too. I guess it's pretty popular. Great job on the highboy!

  93. I vote for B or D! I bet I'm too late; how old is this post? LOL, just got back from vacay and catching up on blog posts!


  95. I LOVE the dresser! You're amazing! Thank you for sharing. I LOVE to thrift and re-do! Take a look at some of my treasures… Great idea with the gold, now I won't pass up some gold stuff when I see it out thrifting!
    Ginnie Renner

  96. I love it with the candlestick, wedding scene and all the shimmer! Too cute!

  97. Love the makeover of the chest. It is so rewarding to take an old piece and give it new life.
    The arrangement with the wedding picture and the two busts is perfect. An odd number of objects almost always works better than an even number (much like nature.) Love the whimsy of the jewels on the bust!

  98. D!
    THANK YOU SOOO VERY MUCH FOR TAKING THE TIME TO EXPLAIN THIS! You have no idea how incredibly helpful this is!!!
    Thank you!

  99. Love the last one with the jewelry. Thanks for the how-to and pics– now I’m off to the thrift store! I am wondering, though, what shape the inside of the drawers were in– every time I get an old dresser the insides seem to be smelly and seedy. Were they in good condition? What do you keep in here?

  100. Either the silver candleabra or the wedding pic are my favs! Botanic print is too much with the fresh flowers as well. But, Paris does work too :)

  101. Hi Kate I just wanted to say thank you!!!!! I have been looking at my husbands UGLY dresser for 12 years and have always wanted to give it a do over. I was inspired from the step by step process and completed it in four days. This was my first real DIY project and it’s not perfect but an enormous improvement.
    Thanks again and keep it coming!!!

  102. Hi, I love the end result with the wedding pic. I love the primitive look and have used black in livingroom and kitchen. I have left one piece in my diningroom white. I can’t decide hat I want to do with it. I got this out of an old house that was going to be knocked down. We took up all the oak hardwood floors also. I plained them and my husband put them down in the kitchen, diningroom, and the livingroom. Then I finished them. They are beautiful. But back to the piece in my dining room. Does anyone have any suggestions on what I should do with it color wise? Thanks for your help. Again I love the look with the wedding pic. You do such great work. Thanks Debbie

  103. Another great find! Its amazing how small touches can really make a big difference.

    Although all nice, I think I like the Parisian print arrangement the best.

  104. Late commenter is a year late, but anyways. This is FANTASTIC, the best job of fixing up old wooden furniture I have ever seen. Absolutely gorgeous. But you should know that stain conditioner doesn’t give wood “better absorbency” — its job is to do the opposite, to fill the pores of overly absorbent wood and reduce that absorbency so that LESS stain soaks in (to avoid blotching). Stain over conditioner will actually be lighter/more translucent (although perhaps more even) than stain on bare wood.

  105. Hi! I saw the before/after pics on Pinterest of your highboy project. Awesome! I had a question along similar lines. I have knicks and scratches (thanks to 4 kids and soft, cheap builder’s wood) in my kitchen cabinetry that I am wanting to smooth out and cover. What should I use to sand the knicks out and can I just do it in spots and cover with stain, or do I need to sand the entire area to redo it? Any help would be appreciated!! Email: [email protected].

  106. First of all, congrats on your treasure find! You did GOOD girl!

    Your telling of your dear little boy’s plea was sooo cute. I’m a mom, now a nanna – I can relate. But what I want to say is how BEAUTIFUL your finish is.

    I know painting wood is ALL THE RAGE on Pinterest and (well yes) some pieces look better with paint…. but your piece will be a TIMELESS beauty. I’ve been selling new furniture for over 30 years now and fades come and go – but I just loved the color you chose, plus the depth of color your added to the edges looks like a pro!

    P.S. Thanks for the tip for using Mimwax GEL – for no drips! Found you on Pinterest and will repin.

  107. I have a question….. totally new at this home improvement and furniture makeover thing so forgive me…. when I sand the piece do I need to sand it all the way down to the bare wood? Thanks… your stuff always looks awesome!

    • If staining, then yes Sarah, but if painting no, as long as you use a good bonding primer.

  108. You did a great job on the refinishing. Each of the choices looks good, but I’ll have to vote with the majority…The wedding picture.

  109. Great job overall. I can’t wait to start my own project. My favorite arrangement is the last one.

  110. Kate I have been searching searching searching CG for how you transformed and toned-down this mirror. Until the wee hours of last night and up again this morning! Can you please help? I have many gold mirrors and large picture frames, but I’m so tired of the gold. Thanks..,

  111. Wowee! I’m going down to the basement RIGHT NOW to start working on Hubby’s granny’s dresser. Thanks so much for your blog!

  112. how can you tell what a good piece is to get when they all give bad first impressions?

  113. I’m so glad I found your site for refinishing. I have my parents old bedroom suite that I’m wanting to restain. The directions are so simple that I’m not afraid to start this project. My question is (and you can tell I’m not a DIYer is, my dresser and chest need new legs, can I purchase just the legs and stain them the same color as the other pieces?

    • Sure Patty, be sure to experiment first with a few stains until you get the color right, you can even mix stain colors from the same manufacturer as long as they are the same formula.

  114. Okay…I’m going crazy! I know you had a post on here somewhere about the paint you used to re-do that mirror on the wall above the highboy. Did you remove that? I wanted the name of the paint that you used. I think I remember you saying you got it from a craft store???
    Thanks so much!

    • Hey Tiffany, I’ve replaced that mirror but yes it was champagne colored craft paint!

  115. B
    I own this exact dresser it k
    Has been in my family from the first day it was on sale. Thank you for showing me it can look grand again.

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