DIY Restoration: Thrift Store TV Cabinet


When I first moved to Chicago as a poor college student I quickly learned the importance of resale / thrift stores. While I prefer to write about items I pulled out of the alley or inherited “free of charge” from someone, the truth is that I sometimes have to purchase my treasures. This find came about when I moved into my first apartment on my own, bought my first TV and realized I had nothing to set it on. Off to the thrift store I went where I found a reasonably priced, decent looking cabinet that has served me well for the last 5 years. The trouble is, after 5 years of staring at the same piece of furniture I started to notice the flaws and started brainstorming ways to improve it without buying something new. Thus began, the Thrift Store TV Cabinet Restoration


Lets start with the Good. I really do love this piece that I found even though it is several years old. It is a sturdy cabinet that has a mixture of wood and glass, shelving / cupboards and drawers, nice hardware and has still worked as my TVs have grown over time. It is a classic design that could have easily come from Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel or an antique shop. Most importantly it serves a purpose and serves it well! No reason to get rid of something that still has a use.

The Bad? The color. When I look at a piece of wood furniture, I like the wood grain to account for a lot of the character of the piece. This one however was stained so dark that it was almost black and you could not see any of the wood grain or even the hardware that would have made it stand out. I knew this had to be corrected.

The Ugly! Lets face it, my TV cabinet had gone through 5 years of hard living, including 3 apartment moves which resulted in more nicks, dings and glass rings than was acceptable. It needed a facelift and it needed it badly!

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I decided the time had come to strip it down and re-stain/varnish the cabinet to a lighter color that would show off the wood grain, make the hardware pop and give it a fresh, updated look.


Step 1: Prep work. I first had to remove the glass doors and all of the hardware. When doing this it is best to put screws, hinges, knobs and drawer pulls into a labeled plastic bag or container so that nothing gets lost. The worst thing to happen is get to the end of the project when you are putting it all back together and realize that you are missing the finishing touches.

I also used Blue Painters Tape to cover the glass on the doors. I chose to cover the entire glass panel instead of just doing to boarder because stain is much thinner than paint and therefore will run easier. Also, the tape will help protect the glass from the sander. As soon as this was done I was ready to start sanding.

Step 2: Sanding – this I had to break down into several stages

1. Creating the sanding environment. Unfortunately, I decided to tackle this project in the middle of winter and therefore had to do it inside. Being the city boy that I am, I do not have a yard or garage to work in so I had to make due with my apartment. Luckily for me I have a small porch room that I can close off. I took all of the furniture out of there and was able to close the door going to the rest of my apartment and open the window to the outside so I had good ventilation. When sanding down something you should always make sure you are in a well-ventilated space and should wear a facemask so you do not inhale a lot of dust. And believe me, there will be dust!

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Black & Decker “Mouse” Sander

2. The sander. I have my small, hand held “Mouse” sander by Black & Decker that is great for do-it-yourself projects. It is small, yet hearty which makes it the perfect machine for city living. Sanders come in many shapes, sizes and brands so go to your local hardware store and find the one that is right for you or click here to get the “Mouse” I use. In this case, I liked using the smaller sized Black & Decker “Mouse” because it has a pointed tip that really allowed me to get in some of tight corners of this cabinet.

Image 43. Start Sanding! Before I went too crazy I did a test patch on the backside of the cabinet to see what I was working with once I broke through all of the layers of varnish and stain. After you are confident you like where you are going with it, start sanding away. This project took me collectively about 5 hours to complete the sanding. There were several layers of varnish that took effort to get through and I had to keep rotating the cabinet to find the best angle to work at. Then I found a surprise…

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4. The surprise of this project was that once I got through the varnish and stain, I quickly realized that the wood grain was fake.  What I thought was a 100% wooden cabinet was in fact 75% wood, 25% particle board with a thin wood veneer over the top of it. The problem with that is while you can sand the wooden portion to get through top coats, you can NOT sand the veneer section.  This meant that the shelves and two side panels were left the dark, black stain color while the rest of the wood was back to a light Beech color. This was an unexpected challenge, so I decided to ask the professionals at Sherman Williams for help.

Image 6Step 3: Stain / Varnish – I made my way down to the Local Sherwin Williams to ask the professionals for help. Something I have learned over time is never be afraid to ask for help when you get stuck. Sometimes there is an easy fix and sometimes there is not – part of learning how to rehab your own projects is to ask the people who have done it before you. Every project I tackle I know I am going to make at least 10 phone calls to different people to ask for advice. Embrace it! So I went to Sherwin Williams and explained my problem. They told me not to worry because even though veneer is not a porous product, it will still absorb the stain. Phew! So with my question answered it was time to pick out the color of stain I wanted.  Luckily they have samples in-store to help!

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I chose the base stain and the high-gloss clear coat varnish I wanted. I also purchased a few sponge brushes. I prefer sponge brushes when working with stain because they are better at evenly applying the stain and it will not leave brush strokes or the occasional stray paint brush hair behind. All in all, the cost for materials was just over $40.

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If you have ever painted anything then you can stain. It is best if you use a sponge brush and always remember to go in the same direction as the grain of the wood. I did one coat of stain and then let that sit for 24 hours to fully cure (aka dry).

Before Staining
Before Staining
Varnish Curing
Varnish Curing

I then applied two coats of clear varnish (with a 12 hours dry/cure period in between) to bring it back to that professional shine that I was looking for.

After applying the second coat of varnish I waited a full 48 hours

before I moved on to the next

step. I wanted the clear coat to fully cure so that when I set things back on it there would not be any marks.

Step 4: Reassembly Image 14After everything was fully cured the final step in the process was to reassemble. The painters tape came off, the hinges, knobs and drawer pulls were put back on and the cupboard doors reattached! This part of the process is a lot of fun because you can finally start to see all of your effort come into place. Once this was completed all I had left to do was organize and put my living room back together!

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I was very pleased with how this project turned out. It was one that I had been thinking about doing for a long time and now I question why I waited so long. It brought life back into a piece of furniture that had served its purpose well but that frankly, I was bored with. Now it is ready for another 5 plus years and move with me to the next new home!

Jack Bio PhotoJack Pettyjohn is a native of Traverse City, MI. He moved to Chicago in 2006 and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a Bachelors in Advertising and Public Relations. His passion for restoring historic “treasures” started at the age of 10 when his grandfather gave him his first Antique Electric Fan and since then he always searches for ways to restore the past. For questions and tips please feel free to reach out to him at

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