the raw wood experiment.

I’ve been admiring the raw wood trend in furniture refinishing for a while now.  I know it’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love the Scandinavian vibe of raw wood pieces.

However, I haven’t really understood why so many people are resorting to using oven cleaner to strip pieces when they want to achieve this look.  But if you can’t sand (thin veneer, have to work indoors and can’t afford a fancy sanding system, whatever the reason may be) why not just use furniture stripper?

It seems to me that oven cleaner must be harder on the environment, and your own health, than a stripper like CitriStrip.  I did a little google research and according to an article from Martha Stewart, oven cleaners can contain lye, ethylene glycol, and methanol, which can be very toxic.  Yikes!  That does not sound good to me.

Nonetheless, I thought there must be a reason why so many people are turning to oven cleaner instead of a safer stripper like CitriStrip so I decided to put it to the comparison test myself.

I’m starting out with this dresser.

I picked this up at the thrift store last winter.  It ended up being a really poor purchasing decision.  It was way overpriced for its condition, and I neglected to check it out thoroughly enough before pulling the trigger (always open ALL of the drawers).  In the end, my handyman Ken had to re-build the two lower drawers because they didn’t even have bottoms in them!  How did I not notice that??  And if that weren’t enough, he then had to completely take apart and re-glue the back of the piece as well.

Once all of that was done, I stripped one drawer front using CitriStrip and one using oven cleaner.  Here are the results after one pass with each.

I definitely got a better result with CitriStrip.  Clearly it did a much better job of removing the dark stain than the oven cleaner.  What I’ve heard from other furniture refinishers is that it often takes several passes with the oven cleaner to achieve the desired results.  While it’s true that it can sometimes also take two passes with the CitriStrip, that’s often not the case (this piece required just one application).

The method I used with the oven cleaner was to spray it on heavily, wait 30 minutes, scrub the finish with a brush, hose off to rinse.

I’m having trouble figuring out how this is easier than using stripper, especially if you have to do it three times to get the desired result.

Both processes are quite messy.  However, the oven cleaner method pretty much requires you to be outside on a surface that you don’t mind drenching in dirty, stain filled oven cleaner.  Your driveway?  Your lawn?  Your cement patio?  I’m not sure I want to add oven cleaner to any of those areas.

With the Citristrip, I prefer to use it outside as well, but I’m not washing it off with the hose.  I’m scraping it off with a plastic scraper and then wiping it off into a disposable cup.  I have stripped the tops of pieces indoors in winter too (winter is coming!).  I’m just more careful not to fling the stripper around as I’m scraping it off.  CitriStrip in particular does not have any toxic fumes and can be used indoors with adequate ventilation.

Finally, drenching your piece of furniture in water from the rinsing process can create all kinds of problems such as loosened joints, loosened veneer, swelling, and raised grain.

After my experiment with the two drawer fronts, and considering all of the above factors, I decided that stripping furniture with oven cleaner just isn’t for me.  I’ll stick with the CitriStrip.  I gave my extra can of oven cleaner to my neighbor so she can clean her oven.

However, even though it only took one pass with the CitriStrip for this dresser, and I preferred it over the oven cleaner, ultimately this project reminded me how much I dislike stripping entire pieces of furniture regardless of the method.  I don’t mind stripping a nice flat top here or there.  Or maybe even just the drawer fronts (you’ll see that coming up on my next piece of furniture).  But stripping an entire piece is messy and time consuming whether you use stripper or oven cleaner.

So, as much as I like the raw wood look that is so trendy right now, I doubt you’ll be seeing a lot of it from me.

And that brings me back to today’s makeover.  After all of the work it took to repair this dresser, and then to strip it, I was ready to just chuck it on the firepit when I realized that after all of my hard work the wood itself wasn’t the nice, light color I was hoping for.  But I already had so much into this piece, I knew I had to keep going.  I decided that white wax might be a great way to lighten up the color of the wood.  So I ordered up some of Dixie Belle’s white wax and then tested it out on a single drawer front.

Yikes!  Nope.  It was way too white, and it really enhanced the grain, which wasn’t a feature I particularly wanted to enhance on this dresser.  I have used white wax on other stripped wood and really loved the look, but those pieces had much more subtle grain patterns.  It definitely wasn’t the look I was going for.

That brings me to your q tip for today; you can remove furniture wax using mineral spirits. 

In my case I dampened a scrubby pad with mineral spirits and scrubbed off the wax, then followed that up with a soft cloth with more mineral spirits to wipe away any last remaining bits of white wax.  See?  White wax is gone …

And then I went back to the drawing board.  I still didn’t love the look of this raw wood, I wanted it to be lighter.  This would be the perfect opportunity to test out one of the two-part wood bleaching kits that are on the market.

Sure it would.  If I could find one.

I went to Home Depot, Menards & Fleet Farm, they were all sold out.  Of course.  The bleached wood look is so trendy that stores can’t even keep those kits in stock.  I did find one available on Amazon where it was over $50 when you added in shipping (despite having Amazon prime).  There was no way I was spending $50.

So that left the DIY version of lightening the wood using regular old household bleach and the power of the sun.

Mr. Q and I hauled the piece out into the sunniest spot in the yard and I used a brush to coat it in straight up bleach.

Then I left it outside to sunbathe all day.

The dresser certainly seemed lighter after its sunbathing.  I have to say it wasn’t a night and day sort of difference.  I’ve also read that you often have to repeat the bleaching 2 or 3 times to get the desired result as well.

People who do these things clearly have way more patience than I do!  Good gracious.  Three passes with oven cleaner, followed by three sunny days of bleaching??  Not for me.

I decided to move on to the next step, which is neutralizing the bleach by wiping the dresser down with vinegar water (I used about a cup of vinegar to a gallon of water).  Once the piece was dry again, I sanded it first with 120 grit, and then again with 220 grit.

The work was still not done!  After vacuuming away the dust and deciding the raw dresser looked pretty good, I still had to seal it.  I did a lot of research on the world-wide web and saw that many people noted that adding a clear coat can darken the wood right back up again (or bring red/orange tones back out).  I also noted some people that thought wax did the same.

However, I’ve found that although the wax darkens the finish as it goes on, it does dry lighter.  So once again I pulled out a drawer to experiment.

As you can see, the side of the drawer on the left with the freshly applied wax is darker than the unwaxed right side.

However, here is the same drawer after about 20 minutes of dry time.

I couldn’t really see a color difference between the waxed and unwaxed halves of the drawer at that point.  Just a side note here, both of those photos are a bit over exposed and lit with my very bright workshop lighting.  I don’t want to mislead you into thinking the wood got that light from one afternoon of bleaching.  It didn’t.

I went ahead and clear waxed the entire dresser.  That left me with the question of the drawer pulls.  I really didn’t want to put the existing pulls back on.  I doubt they were original to the dresser, they are totally the wrong style.  They are also way too dainty for the look I wanted to achieve.

Normally with a dresser like this I would have filled the double holes, painted over the filled holes and drilled new holes for knobs rather than pulls.  Knobs are much more affordable than pulls.  But since that wasn’t an option here (since I didn’t paint this piece), I had to come up with a 3″ pull that wasn’t too terribly expensive because I needed 10 of them.  Once again, the search was on.  I looked all over the place for an affordable option, but in the end I just wanted to get this dresser finished so I splurged on a $4.49 cup pull.  Yep, ouch, adding $45 to my expenses for this piece.

That being said though, I really felt like the hardware was pretty important to the overall final raw wood look of this dresser.  So it was worth the extra $45.  Or at least I hope so.

In the end, I do rather love how it turned out.

However, I will say that this is not a piece for a perfectionist.  It has plenty of dings and gouges, some discoloring in spots that wouldn’t come out, and some funky repairs to the drawers.  But it is fairly solid after Ken basically rebuilt it.  And I would say that it has tons of character and a certain rustic charm.

So tell me, what do you think of the raw wood look?  Are you dying to have your own piece?  Or do you think it would look good in someone else’s home, but just not yours?

I have to admit, it was a bit tongue in cheek to use a photo of my grandmother while staging this piece.  I’m quite sure she would consider this dresser unfinished looking.

But then, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it?

Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

This raw wood look dresser is for sale, be sure to check out my ‘available for local sale‘ page for more details on this piece and any others that I currently have listed.

42 thoughts on “the raw wood experiment.

  1. I love it! I think the occasional “bleached “ piece looks great. Seems like a lot of work to achieve it. The refreshed pulls add to its charm.
    I’m probably not undertaking this technique but I might purchase one already done .

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  2. Wow! It’s def an improvement but what a lot of effort to get something to look unfinished! I love the raw wood look though and the pulls just really add so much character. So glad you did this because I was wondering about the over cleaner myself as I keep seeing it all the blogosphere. Maybe it’s cheaper than stripper but I would prefer keeping my top layer of skin. Seems I always somehow get that stuff on my bare arms. 😑. Thanks for taking one for the team here.

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  3. Thank you for sharing the process and lessons you learned! I do like the the raw wood/bleached look on some pieces. Your hard work paid off and it looks great “bleached” but darn it I don’t love the pulls on this piece. Were you going for a more masculine feel?

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  4. There is a very popular shop here that is full of raw furniture that everyone loves. I tried it and it’s soo much work!
    I asked them about a finish and they said they don’t use any. So it’s all completely raw wood…

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  5. Uh, oh, I am definitely in the minority here! I actually prefer the before. I love oak wood, not crazy about the pulls on the original, but I do love oak. I use Howard’s Restore, then wax and love how my pieces turn out if I don’t paint. I think the original showcases the lovely curved drawers, where they get lost on the bleached look. Still fun to read about though, as I’m sure people love this trend. Just me, not so much!

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    1. I think you just might be in the minority. Or at least in the minority when it comes to my target market of buyers. I’ll have to wait and see how long it takes for this raw wood piece to sell, but I think I would have had a very difficult time selling this piece in its original dark stain.

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  6. Hi Linda,!! I love how it turned out! Ok f ok not know what it is about oven cleaner either. I would not want to put all of those toxins on a piece of furniture. If I am had the room I would definitely bleach a piece for sure. I have a few oak pieces like yours that I hope to bleach some day. Yours came out beautiful. Thank you for trying this and bring open and honest.

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  7. Wow you are a woman of perseverance! Thanks for the info on the oven cleaner versus stripper.I think the cleaner is an environmental nightmare.I like the raw wood trend but agree it is a lot of work to achieve-I have used white wax on raw wood and liked the result.

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    1. I really should figure out how many social media influencers do more than one raw wood piece. It’s beginning to sound like many of us have given it a try and decided it’s a lot of work!

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      1. I find they are a lot of work and the stripper is costly where I live (prefer to sand actually) and they do not seem to be big sellers.Painting is a bigger part of my creative process.

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  8. I do like what you did to the dresser. The only way that I would go through all of that work is if I was going to keep the dresser for myself. Way to much work to resell. 😊

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  9. Your advice, photos and hard work are amazing!! I have never heard of using oven cleaner, but I gave up refinishing furniture years ago!! I love the dresser with your style and beautifully refinished ♡♡♡

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  10. Glad to hear your comments on the oven cleaner. Never understood how that could be better than stripper. I use Citristrip. Haven’t tried the bleaching but this piece makes me want to try. This piece looks very high end. I have an oak piece that I need to refinish and can’t wait to get it done. Your instruction for all your projects are so good. Look forward to all your posts.

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  11. Well, it’s actually growing on me. I’d put it in my house, but I might end up painting it after a while! The pulls are perfect on it.

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  12. It looks good but wouldn’t be my choice. I like the painted pieces with the original wood tops but too unfinished looking for me.

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  13. I have had the same frustrations with all of the above and got so frustrated on one piece and lost my patience that I just painted it! God bless you for all your perseverance. I often wonder in the end of all these steps if you will get your money back.

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  14. I really appreciate all the work you put into this but I like the richness of the wood before. It just seems a little pale for my taste.

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  15. Oh where to begin!!???! I LOVE how this turned out!!!!🙌🏻🙌🏻🙌🏻 Love the pulls, totally worth all the work!! I think there must be something wrong with me, and for sure I’m stubborn, but I just love the raw wood look so much that I keep trying it! My problem with the citrus strip is that it’s messier I think than the oven cleaner, what I really want to try is the easy strip that I’ve seen some IG people use but I have to order it and I never plan ahead!🤦🏼‍♀️ I definitely do not like the harsh chemicals of the oven cleaner though so I need to just bite the bullet and order the stuff. I think because I’m usually doing a couple pieces a week I get plenty of painting in too so I’m not missing that, I would get really sick of just doing raw wood! Thanks for doing the comparison, super interesting to hear your opinions and experience!!!👏🏻🙌🏻

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  16. I do like the look, but I have not been able to achieve the look of the online beauties. We are currently redoing some chairs, sort of the same process you used with the dresser, and like you I agree….. mostly the part about how much I dislike ANY furniture stripping process no matter what product!

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  17. I have stripped and bleached a few pieces now and it is quite a bit of work. But right now in my area it is very popular so I will continue doing it for now. I will say the pieces I’ve done so far were pretty light to begin with so it wasn’t as tough. I love the pulls you chose and the finished look!

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  18. You have a lot more patience than I do! I would’ve fixed the drawers and replaced the pulls and called it a day! That being said, I love the finished product, and I thought you did an excellent job of explaining your steps. I can appreciate all the work that went into comparing the options for stripping and bleaching. Working on old pieces is truly a labor of love! If you have time, check out the antique chifferobe that I also had to rebuild prior to finishing it. Honestly, I think the ones I have to repair are the ones I love the most. 😉 Looking forward to reading about more of your creative furniture adventures.

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