How to Refinish a Cedar Chest

A cedar chest filled to the brim with old family heirlooms.
  • 2-4 hours
  • Intermediate
  • 25-75
What You'll Need
Mild soap
Clean rags
Rubber gloves
Steel wool (#000 and #0000)
Denatured alcohol
Lacquer thinner
Face mask
Chemical stripper
Plastic putty knife
Paint remover wash
Tack cloth
Cotton gloves
Stain (optional)
Foam brush (optional)
Natural bristle paint brush
New hardware (optional)

Whether you have a big family or just a small home, it always seems like there is never enough storage around the house, and it can be difficult to find storage solutions that look as good as they function. A cedar chest can be a perfect addition when space is at a premium because it has a warm, classic look that works well with many kinds of decor. However, age and abuse can wear away at the wood's protective finish, leaving it looking shabby and prone to damage. Refinish the surface using these steps and get your chest looking like new.

Tip: Before refinishing any antique cedar chest, have the item appraised. Determine whether it will lose value if refinished, as there are cases where the value will be diminished substantially. Many older cedar chests are also protected with shellac, which ages with a warm finish that polyurethane cannot achieve, so keep this in mind.

Step 1 - Remove Hardware and Clean Chest

Empty any contents from the cedar chest. Then, with a screwdriver, carefully remove hinges, locks, handles, and any other hardware on the outside. Scrub the surface with mild soap and clean rags, and rinse with clean water. If your old finish isn't in terribly rough shape, just cleaning the surface thoroughly may improve the appearance enough to allay your desire to continue with refinishing.

Step 2 - Strip Finish

Put on a pair of rubber gloves, soak #000 steel wool in remover of choice, and use it to carefully scrub off any finish remaining on the wood. If the cedar chest was previously finished with shellac, use denatured alcohol as a remover; if it was finished with paint or lacquer, use lacquer thinner.

Alternatively, you can use a chemical stripper. Be careful if you do, though, as some have noxious fumes. Open windows to ventilate the area and wear a mask just in case. Then, apply it to finished surfaces, and let it sit until the substance bubbles. Scrape away the finish with a plastic, round-edged putty knife. Repeat either method until all paint, shellac, or lacquer has been removed.

Step 3 - Use Paint Remover Wash and Smooth the Surface

After the remover completely dries, clean the surface with a paint remover wash. This prepares the wood for the finish of your choice by getting rid of all stripper residues to avoid interference with the final finish.

Next, smooth the wood gently with #0000 steel wool. Be extremely careful when using abrasives with cedar, as the wood is very soft and mars easily. Once you're finished, use a tack cloth to clean all dust. With cotton gloves on, run your hands across the entire surface of the cedar chest. If the fabric doesn't catch on anything, the chest is ready to finish.

Step 4 - Stain and Protect

If you have decided to stain your cedar chest, apply one thin coat with a foam brush. Allow the stain to sit for five minutes, and then wipe off the excess with a clean rag. Let the chest dry for the next 24 hours. Re-apply your stain in this manner until the desired color is reached.

After the final coat is completely dry, apply a protective finish (shellac, lacquer, or polyurethane) with a natural bristle brush. This coat should dry for another 24 hours before you go over the surface with 220-grit sandpaper. Apply at least one more coat of protective finish after and give it 24 hours to dry again. Do not sand the final coat.

Step 5 - Clean and Refinish Hardware or Replace It

Determine whether the existing hardware is reusable. Then, strip the hardware with an appropriate stripper, using a toothbrush and #000 steel wool, and clean the pieces with paint remover wash. Apply a protective coating and leave it to dry.

Before re-assembling the cedar chest, gently sand the interior of the chest with 220-grit sandpaper to raise the cedar oils to the surface. Wipe with your tack cloth. Then, finish up by putting any old hardware you're reusing back into place and installing any new hardware per the manufacturer’s instructions.