Have you ever had one of those projects that, as soon as you hand over the cash to make the payment, one of the legs falls off? Probably not. This Empire dresser tested us as soon as we took possession and forced us to learn new skills to complete the rebuild; "rebuild" may be an understatement for what we did to it. We hope you enjoy the journey we went through with this piece. We also hope this prevents you from learning some lessons the hard way as we did.
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It is no secret if you have been following our blog posts for a while that we are suckers for empire style furniture. Sometimes when these types of pieces come available (especially for a good deal) we can let our desire for the piece (our empire state of mind) cloud our better judgment. When the individual selling this piece of furniture in Greensboro, NC said we could have it for a relatively low price, we couldn't pass it up. If you purchase a piece like this, then you better have cash on hand to pay for the items needed to refurbish it, the patience to learn new things, and resiliency to weather the constant frustrations that a piece like this can provide.
However, pieces like this empire provide for the greatest transformations, which provide a huge sense of accomplishment. Further, you will end up with a statement piece that should last a very long time.
Side note: A large gust of wind blew over this dresser prior to us getting good before pictures and proved the fragile state that the piece was in by causing significant damage to certain components. This caused us to rethink how we wanted to approach the rebuild (it ended up being a good thing that we came to that realization early in the process).
Demolition phase/planning phase
As stated above, this piece was pretty much falling apart as soon as we took possession of it. This created an interesting problem for us; do we try to work with all of the original pieces like we usually do, or do we rebuild some of the components to strengthen its core and make it more functional? We decided to do the latter.
The piece in its original state had four drawers, two doors, and two shelves behind the doors. We developed a plan that turned into one drawer, two doors, and three shelves. This became the plan based on an assessment of what could fit on those shelves as well as the state of the components that would be replaced.
We made a rough sketch of our ideas although some adjustments in measurements were made along the way.
Wood Filler Work
After we tore out most of the components that we decided not to keep in our new vision for the piece, we started to utilize wood filler to smooth some of the significant issues on the piece's body and give it a cleaner look. We should note that we weren't looking to take all of the imperfections away from the empire because we knew that some of the imperfections brought some character and charm to the piece, which we wanted to capture.
We found that Goodfilla's Wood Filler worked pretty well and was easy to use.
Rebuilding the Body
As with a lot of antique furniture, there is a need to add supports to the antique to make sure it is structurally sound. We ended up replacing some of the cross posts on the empire with hardwood. The wood that we replaced seemed to be in a fragile state due to its age, so we knew that we needed to replace it so that the body could hold the weight of our new design. We also added wood hardener to the rest of the body so that the original wood could be strengthened. Initially, we weren't sure if the hardener would make a difference, but we found that it was a significant help as we continued to add structure to the piece.
Cleats for the Shelves
We replaced two fragile shelves with three strong and durable hardwood maple shelves as part of the rebuild. There are multiple ways in which you can create a shelf support system, but we felt that cleats would be durable and easy for this project.
As part of creating this durability, we cut strips of hardwood maple to fit the inside of the empire and attached the cleats using Spax screws after pre-drilling the holes with a countersink drill bit. We worked out the spacing of the shelves to hold small beverage glasses on the top shelf, pint-size glasses on the middle shelf, and small beverage bottles on the bottom shelf.
Part of the challenge that we found with this was that the dresser was not totally square due to aging. We had to try several times to clamp each cleat to get it just right and so that it was level. This also meant that some of the cleats were slightly different cut lengths.
Building the shelves
We started the process of putting the shelves together before installing the cleats for the shelves, but a lot of the steps to this project ran parallel with each other so that we could keep it moving along. You will have to decide the best timing of each step if you end up with a similar project to this one with a lot of moving parts.
We ran the hardwood maple that we purchased through both the jointer and the planer to get it to the size boards we needed prior to the glue-up process (see some pictures of this same process in the drawer section). We then applied glue to the sides of the boards and used our parallel clamps to clamp the boards together. We also used bar clamps against slim pieces of wood to help keep the boards level in spots where they did not line up evenly. We wrapped these wood boards with wax paper under it (to keep the glue from sticking to the wood used solely for clamping purposes). We apologize for not having photos of this process, as we had an issue with the cell phone that we took the photos with prior to uploading them to our cloud storage.
Building the Drawer
We built the face of the new drawer for the empire out of birdseye maple. We had another empire piece that we worked on that featured birdseye maple on its drawers and we absolutely loved it, so we thought we would try it again on this piece; it did not disappoint.
We took the Birdseye maple (front of the drawer) and hardwood maple (the other sides of the drawer) through the jointer and the planer after we had cut the boards down using the table saw and miter saw. These initial cuts on the miter and table saws were to get the board to a more manageable size for our other machines. We had to trim them to the exact size again later once we had clean 90 degree edges.
After we finished the jointing and planing process, we used our table router to cut out a dado around the bottom of the drawer pieces so that we could slide 1/4" birch plywood into the grooves to form the bottom of the drawer. We clamped the pieces together just to make sure that everything was on track prior to the actual glue up.
The next part is the actual glue up process. We used corner clamps, bar clamps, and a speed square to make sure everything was just as needed. We used Titebond III to glue up the sides to the front face of the drawer first.
Once that was dry after about 24 hours, we slid in the bottom panel (1/4" birch plywood) and glued on the back of the drawer (hardwood maple). We clamped each piece along the way and triple checked that it all stayed squared up.
building the doors
We've had the idea for a while to use decorative sheet metal in a furniture project, and we felt that this was finally the piece where we could test it out. Little did we know that building these doors would bring many learning curves and new skills that were necessary along the way.
The first steps we had were to determine the size of the door frames and to explore options for the decorative sheet metal options. Since this was the first time we've used sheet metal in this way, we wanted to keep it simple and buy something in stock at Home Depot. We ended up purchasing the decorative sheet metal with the plans to cut it down to the size we wanted to fit inside the custom door frames.
Once the ideas were clear, it was time to use the jointer and planer to get the birdseye maple down to size. Then, we used the miter saw and table saw to cut each piece to the door's planned shape.
Using a stop block on the miter saw helps to make sure that each piece is cut to the exact same length. Keeping the fence set on the table saw ensure the same width for each piece. Unfortunately, we do not have many picture of this process.
As you can see in the photo above, the sheet metal bubbled up in the center, which means that it was too wide. We trimmed down the sheet metal with sheers. Before we actually took our first step in trimming, we used a straight edge and painters tape to mark the line that would be cut, which helped us to stay on track, especially when our hands got tired of snipping away. It took several tries, but we did finally get it to a size that fit just right and laid down flat during our test runs before gluing.
Some technical lessons learned: This sheet metal was thin enough to be fairly flexible, which did make it slightly difficult to slide into our dado cuts in the door frame because it kept bending and moving when we wanted it to slide straight. We also found that using a 1/16 in straight bit in the router was challenging. The bit is so fine that we used several during this process because they kept breaking. If we do another project with sheet metal in the future, we may have some made that are thicker or order something more custom online.
Once the lessons were learned, it was time to get everything glued up. We'll spare you the cursing that occurred during this process of finagling. Thankfully we can look back at this moment and laugh now that we did many new things successfully.
We don't have many photos to show off our new skills because we were too busy learning. We used a loose mortise and tenon to help give more surface area for our glue. We used a flush saw to cut off any excess wood from the loose mortise and tenon hanging off the end. Then, we could sand it all smooth.
Initially, we had some challenges in deciding what type of door hinge to use on this project because of the changing dimensions down the side of the frame of the body. The hinges also only had limited room to expand and limited room for where they could attach. After some research, we found that the Soss concealed hinge would work best. Once we received them in the mail, we had more learning curves with creating the mortise. The mortise was made with a drill bit and a chisel was used to clean up the edges. The hinge mortise cuts were needed in the door itself and in the frame of the body. The mortise was easier to cut cleanly into the body than into the door, which was likely due to the hardness of the wood. Soss also makes a template that we might use in the future. You could also use a plunge router over a drill bit if preferred.
Once the hinge mortise was cut and sanded smooth, we were ready for pre-stain and paint. Pre-stain is helpful to keep wood from appearing blotchy once stained. Make sure to use an oil-based pre-stain if you use oil-based stain. We liked this color the most after testing out a few stain options on a piece of scrap. It helped the patterns of the birdseye pop and tie in with the black color of the body.
You can use a stain pad or rag to apply pre-stain and then a clean one to apply the stain. We stained these doors simultaneously with the drawer and the shelves to make for a smooth process and consistent finish throughout.
painting the body
As we were finishing the doors, shelves, and the drawer, we prepped the body of the empire by cleaning the surface area and then started painting. We have found that Valspar Cabinet and Furniture paint is durable and easy to apply. The paint also has self-leveling characteristics that reduce brush strokes, which will provide you with a smoother finish.
We started by painting the inside of the body of the empire first and then painted the outside of the empire. We applied three coats of paint to make sure that we had it sufficiently covered. Between coats, we sand the body with 320-grit sandpaper to provide a smoother finish. It is important to purchase good quality paint brushes as those can significantly impact the finish.
Odie's Oil Application
We initially planned to use oil-based polyurethane on all the stained pieces and water-based polycrylic on the painted body. We applied 3 coats of polyurethane with 220-grit sanding in between each coat to remove dust and bubbles. The shelves turned out nicely; however, we were unhappy with the finish on the drawer and the doors. After several arguments, deep sighs, and eye rolls, we begrudgingly decided to sand it back down and start over. We knew we wanted to get this right, even if we dreaded it after all the hard work we had already put in.
After sanding back down, we stained everything once again. Once it was dry, we decided to take a risk and try a new finish we had never used before. We debated between using Odie's Oil and Osmo Polyx-Oil. We decided to use Odie's Oil after watching some YouTube reviews. It was easy to apply with a pad and then after 30-45 minutes, we buffed it all off. It provided a nice, smooth, even finish.
After the paint was dry, we were ready to apply a coat of water-based Polycrylic to both the inside and the outisde of the dresser body with a Purdy Syntox brush. After the first coat, we sanded down the dresser using 320 grit sandpaper; then, we applied a second coat of Polycrylic. We sanded with 320 again and applied the final coat.
Finishing the build
We are so close to being done at this point. Everything is dry and finish is complete. At best, we are exhausted and ready for a success moment, so it is time to put this rebuild back together. We started by sliding in the shelves from the back. We had already done pre-drilling with a countersink bit, so we used our drill with a right angle attachment to screw the shelves in. We decided to do this because one shelve ended up with a slight bow and we wanted the extra stability in the piece.
After the shelves were done, we prepared a backboard for the piece. We initially planned to use 1/4 inch birch or maple, but we ended up using 1/4 inch luan that we already had on hand. Since we were running low on paint, we used two coats of ebony stain to make it appear to be a matching black finish. We also used two coats of wipe on polyurethane on each side for an easy finish since it will have limited touch once the furniture is in use. We used nails to hammer it into the back of the empire.
Our next task was to install the doors. We added these carefully and then drilled for the knobs once the doors were hung. We did this since we had to sand on the doors and they were no longer the exact same size. This allowed us to ensure that the knobs were level and even. It was helpful to put painters tape on the door and then mark with a sharpie on top of the painters tape so we did not make any marking on the finished doors.
Finally, we are almost done. We got our workout finished with bringing this inside the house. All we had left was to slide in the drawer. Thank you for joining us on the journey.
Josh and Sydney are life adventurers that love to learn and create. We are exact opposites and enjoy gaining new perspective. Our home is where our varying personalities shine, and we use it to gather our friends and family together.