How to Know if You Should Paint or Refinish – A Checklist

I scored a deal on a dresser in a little thrift shop here in town this week.  I got super excited about it because I only paid $35 for the dresser AND the mirror.  That’s practically free!  We’ve been doing some decorating in my daughter’s room and she would love a dresser with a mirror (she doesn’t have a mirror right now.)  Her furniture is white and I thought this dresser would be so so so cute with a coat of white paint.

vintage dresser

I tweeted out this photo and exclaimed “I can’t wait to paint it!” and it seems some people were a little concerned that I was going to slap some paint on here.  There were questions around how maybe refinishing it was the better way to go. I know, in the photo it looks precious.  But in real life?  Not so much.  It’s really beat up.  At any rate, I thought it would be helpful to do a post on how to know when to refinish and when to paint.

How to tell if you should paint that second hand furniture find - or not!


  • If the piece is valuable or an antique (trust it to a professional who can tell you if refinishing might be a mistake or a good idea.)
  • If the piece is sturdy and  in relatively good shape.
  • If damage is surface only (scratches are only in the finish and aren’t deep enough to go into the wood.
  • If the piece has historical or sentimental value and maintaining it’s current look is important.  (in this case, I’d argue to not touch the finish at all.)
  • If there is inlaid wood (small pieces of wood carved and set into the piece.)
  • If refinishing would increase the value.


  • If the piece is not of high value.
  • If there are pieces of veneer that are missing (great tutorial here)
  • If damage goes through the finish and into the wood.
  • If it makes sense to fit the decor of your existing room.
  • If painting would increase the value instead of diminish it.
  • If changing the finish allows it to take on new life.

Now, I’m as much of a purist as it gets.  I LOVE the look of beat up antiques.  I find the scars tell the story of the piece and it shows us it has a history. But this wee dresser?  It is not precious.  The construction is not delicate, the interior wood is scrap to say the least.  Joints are messy and ‘commercial’ looking.  This was not a lovingly hand crafted piece of art.  It was built for sale, most likely at Sears, in the 1940s or 50s.  This dresser had wooden handles which had been sprayed with flecked gold paint to make them look like something other than wood.  The petal motif looks like inlay, but it’s not.  it’s just stained darker there.  While I do think it has beauty in the state I show it in here, I think it will be put to much better use, painted to suit my little girl’s room. She will fill it with her clothes and it will serve a purpose again.

See the After Photos HERE


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  1. Great tips, Heather. I know what I like, but I’m not sure that I could voice my thought processes regarding DIY projects the way you do.

    Or maybe I just don’t DIY very often? Or have thought precesses?

    Meh. Either way. I like what you’re doing here. I’ll be back for sure. 🙂

  2. I really appreciate this post – it’s the most knowledgable I’ve read on the subject, to be honest! I’m excited to see what you do with it. 🙂

    • Sometimes it’s hard to know the right course of action. Sometimes both ways are ‘right’ and you just have to go with a preference or gut feel.

  3. I totally agree! There are plenty of occasions when paint is an upgrade. I love wood as much as the next girl (tee hee), but sometime it isn’t worth trying to save.

  4. Great list! And I agree with all of it. I have so many pieces that I’d never paint even with a gun to my head, they’re well-made and so old, the natural wood look is what they need. But that cheap little dresser I got for free? You bet it’s getting a coat of paint!

  5. Wonderful checklist! Thanks for sharing this information. I really love DIY project because it feels so great after finishing it. I can’t wait for the result of your work! Please do post a picture of your finish product! 🙂

    • You can paint veneer but the trouble is it’s not as durable. If a piece of veneer chips off there isn’t much you can do (easily) to fix it.


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