Late Mid-Century Modern Makeover: Two-Toned Credenza

One cold day this past winter, I decided that our old IKEA TV cabinet was just so, well, IKEA looking. We all know those particleboard beasts that practically stink of meatballs and lingonberries.  It was purchased in a different time of my life:  Before I owned a power sander, or knew how to set automatic Craigslist keyword searches on Google Reader (or whatever it is now). It was time for a fresh start.

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I deliberately took a bad picture of the old TV stand and made sure to leave all the crap on it so you would share my contempt for this thing.

As it turns out, I found a young lady in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago who was ready to make a fresh start of her own.  Fed up with big city living, she was shipping herself back to Ohio (or was it Iowa*?) and  was foolishly selling this sturdy, but stunning, late mid-Century credenza for only $35 (I gave her $30).
IMG_1648I was almost certain the credenza was solid wood, but this late MCM stuff can play tricks on you.  Just to make sure, I scratched the top layer off a discreet corner of the top panel, and sure enough… more wood.  Whew.  IMG_1647Structurally speaking, this thing was in perfect shape.  But on the surface, it needed a lot of sanding and some combination of stain and paint.  My goal was to keep most of the original wood surface, but stain it darker, then use white paint to highlight the fabulous cabinet lines and drawer pulls.  I borrowed my kids’ crayons to sketch out a few options, and settled on  a modified version of number 2.

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Black-and-white photos make my confused drawings look like evidence in a mid-century noir thriller.

And before the trolls get all purist on me about keeping the original wood, let me show you a close up:IMG_1652HOW GIVE YOUR LATE MID-CENTURY MODERN CREDENZA A TWO-TONED FACELIFT:

STEP ONE:  Pull out the drawers and mark their position on the back (i.e., Top, Middle, Bottom).  You could use 1, 2 and 3, but then you might forget if 1 is the top or the bottom.  This has actually happened to me.  Unscrew the drawer pulls and tape the screws to the back of the pulls. Also, be sure to mark the pulls with the position of the mother drawer.  This may seem a bit anal, but when a screw has been sitting happily in a hole for over 40 years, it may resist being screwed into another hole (this is not a euphemism for anything).
IMG_1657Next, unscrew the doors from their hinges (leaving the hinges attached to the cabinet). Line the screws up in the proper order and tape them down on the floor of the cabinet, so you don’t lose them or forget their proper hole assignments.  They should look like happy snuggle buddies:


I’ve never felt more affection for nails.  Sleep tight, little buddies!

STEP TWO: Move the cabinet body to a totally bare room, or preferably outdoors (I used our front porch, which isn’t legally a porch).  Use a 100-grit sandpaper and a power sander to remove the old varnish.

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Can you guess why I’m wearing a handkerchief over my face instead of a NIOSH-approved dust mask? The answer may surprise you.

Brush off the dust, then gently wipe with a damp (not wet) rag.  Then you will see all the spots you missed.  At this point, I like to go over the rough spots as well as the rounded edges and hard-to-reach spots with a piece of sandpaper in my bare hands. Finally, give the whole thing a once-over with 220-grit sandpaper.  You don’t need to get down to the bare wood, just get all that old varnish off so the wood is ready for a new stain.  Wipe with a damp rag and let dry.

When spray painting or sanding, I always recommend wearing eye goggles and a face mask thing.  Who knows what kind of freaky chemicals they used to finish furniture in the middle part of the 20th Century — and here you are blasting it into very small, perfectly inhalable molecules!

But during this project, I learned a very important and disgusting safety lesson about safety equipment.  After spray painting my DIY hanging fruit basket, I immediately threw my goggles, gloves and mask into my Safety Gear Tupperware container and sealed it up tight.   Two weeks later, I popped open the container and find this:

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I can’t believe I’m actually showing this to you.

I debated whether I should share this lesson with you, lest you think I am the sort of person who regularly grows GREEN AND BLACK MOLD on her personal belongings (I am not).  Don’t learn this lesson the hard way: face masks get really damp from your wet breath.  Either hang them up to dry, or store them in a BREATHABLE container — not an old Tupperware.

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Scott captured the moment I discovered that something wasn’t right in my “Safety Gear” tupperware container. Please also ignore the fact that I’m wearing his sweatpants.

STEP THREE:  When the wood is dry, it’s time to stain it a dark walnut hue. Pull on your gloves, grab a handful of clean rags, gently stir the stain and apply generously, rubbing in the direction of the wood grain.
Picture 033Really slop it on! At this point you want to get it very damp. After about 15 minutes, take another clean rag and rub in all the stain that hasn’t yet soaked into the wood, blending together different areas of the wood that may have gotten more or less stain.  DO NOT leave any wet spots standing on the wood… they won’t dry properly and will be very sticky and tar-like.  And don’t panic if there are a few lighter spots;  you’ll repeat the process in 4-6 hours, giving extra stain love to those trouble spots.


This is what we DIY-ers call “sloppy wet.”

STEP FOUR:  Wait at least 24 hours for the stain to dry, then apply three coats of water-based polyurethane varnish.  You’ll need to lightly sand before applying the second and third coats of varnish. But don’t fret, each coat only takes about two hours to dry.

STEP FIVE: Time to move on to your DRAWERS AND DOORS.  Lightly sand the surface in the direction of the grain.  Wipe with a damp cloth and let dry. Give the front panels of your doors and drawers one coat of oil-based white primer.

IMG_1662And no, you cannot skip the priming step. I’ve been pondering a memorable, catchy slogan to pass on to my readers about the importance of priming:
“If you prime, the result is sublime.”   Or,  Use the primer, it will look much finer.” Or perhaps I should go negative… “If you don’t prime, it will look like peeling, bubbly slime.”  Readers?

So, the drawers were easy, but for the more intricate doors, I used one of the dozens of my Grandpa’s old fine art brushes that I inherited, to avoid getting primer in the nooks and crannies (remember that unless you own paint thinner, you’ll have to toss the brushes as oil-based primer isn’t water soluble).

Let the primer dry. If it you were really sloppy and it dried with serious brush marks, go ahead and lightly sand those down now.

STEP SIX:  Apply TWO coats of latex (water-based) paint with a roller, using very light, gentle back-and-forth strokes to achieve full coverage without dripping or oozing into the crevices.
IMG_1678During this step, I recommend keeping a damp baby sock handy to quickly wipe up any oopsies.  We seem to have dozens of these things in our rag bin, so if you need one, just ask.
IMG_1682When the paint dries, give it another light sanding with 220 grit sandpaper (the higher the number, the finer the sanding), wipe with a damp rag and let dry.

STEP SEVEN: Using a clear-coat polyeurethyne, brush very lightly over your painted drawers and doors.  You’ll be using three coats, so don’t feel the need to slop it on all at first.  The worst mistake you can make here is to slop on too much, then find that the polyeurethane dries into hard, milky little boogers which will be impossible to sand off and will drive you nuts (especially if you are a “picker” – you know who you are).  IMG_1726PRO TIP! Use a damp rag (socks, again!) to continually wipe around the edges of the drawers/doors to ensure that NO varnish dries on those inside edges. In fact, I left the inside edges completely “raw” to ensure that they would close properly once back in the cabinet.  Three coats each of paint and varnish will definitely add up.

When all the varnish has dried, screw the pulls back onto the drawers, and the doors back into their hinges.

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No, this drawer is not lined with marble. That’s just some late ’70s contact paper that has permanently fused with the wood.

Now it’s time to fill your gorgeous new TV stand with DVDs you will never watch again!

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Not shown: TV. We still have to sell the old TV stand on Craigslist. Anybody?

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Brewing an unhealthy infatuation with these drawer pulls.

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… and one last money shot, under the Marimekko.

* My Chicago-born husband doesn’t know that Iowa and Ohio are two different states. Perhaps he should leave the city more.


22 thoughts on “Late Mid-Century Modern Makeover: Two-Toned Credenza

    • Thanks, Maria, I’m really happy with how it came out. I hope I didn’t make it look TOO easy. Actually, none of the individual steps were that challenging, but there are just so many of them. Sand, clean, paint, sand, clean, paint, sand, clean, paint…. ad infinitum. No wonder the darn thing sat gathering dust in my dining room for 4 months!


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  2. It looks cool and still MCM-esque. Though, I was a bit sad that you painted over it until I saw the close-ups. BTW, you’re probably aware, but I think the dresser is from the Broyhill Emphasis series.


  3. Oh, and as background to all of this: I found an Emphasis dresser at a local thrift/antique, but didn’t really know about this line until I took some photos and google’d things a bit. That particular dresser had a label in it….and, hmm, this is making me think I should go back and see if it’s still available.


  4. Love this! I just bought the same piece and I’m thinking of doing a similar update with grey instead of white. Thanks for the step by step!


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    • yes, the oil-based primer is tricky (and stinky), but SO worth it for these types of projects. I think I’ve gotten a little soft from having used latex paints for so long; cleaning brushes, pans, and spills with soap and water. Still can’t bring myself to buy paint thinner, so I just bought a huge pack of cheap disposable brushes for this purpose.


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  7. This makes me so depressed. That’s the Broyhill credenza that matches my bedroom set and I’ve been searching for one for a long time.


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  9. Thank you for your detailed and informative steps. Outstanding piece. Now, I go pick up my 75.00 credenza and put it on my porch for the marathon of work.. Wow, your work shows, this piece is fabulous.


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