TedsWoodworking Plans and Projects

Reworking An Old Cedar Chest

1We weren’t going to add this to the site at first because we wanted this site to be about building projects with woodworking. But the more I got to think about it, the more I realized that reworking something is actually an aspect of woodworking. And many enjoy these projects.

My wife was given this old chest years ago from a relative. And it looked just like this when she got it. It was from the 1940-50 era. That is when they veneered the chests made of cedar. Why? It was just popular during that time.

First off, you should have seen what this thing looked like before starting. Actually, let me show you what it looked like at first. The chest was coming apart as you see below in the front and back of the chest. The veneer had come off of it in many places as well.


Here is the side view. The chest isn’t sitting on anything, it is just split wide open the more you look you go towards the back of the chest:


Below is the back of the chest. Someone painted the back some kind of pink color. So it will need some extensive sanding work done. The hinges are old and rusty as well.


Now on to the lid. Veneer is coming off bad here as well, the wood needs refinished underneath. I do like that they used some poplar on the lid and at the bottom. It is a green color so once finished it will add strips of green to the color, giving it character. They did this at the manufacturer because once covered over, even on the inside it wouldn’t be seen. That is because it was the very bottom layer of wood wrapped around the bottom of the chest, and the inside lid had a thin layer of cedar attached to the underside of the lid.


Take note of how bad the corners of the lid were here on the trim were also:


                      REWORKING THE CHEST

To begin, we need to take off all the old veneer. It takes a bit of time, but using a chisel seems like the best way. I made sure not to chisel too deep. A sharp chisel definitely is best for this job:


Some of the veneer you can actually pull off by hand:


But much of it isn’t able to be pulled off, especially on the lid. So the best way to take care of it is with a sander. Some will use a bigger sander to take it off, but I used the palm sander. For one, a palm sander won’t go too deep, and also the random orbital sander will prevent any sanding marks from showing:


It worked well on this section and because of this I know that it should work well on the rest of the top also. So I sanded the entire top but some of the veneer just wouldn’t come off. It was glued fast to the top. I didn’t want to chisel the veneer because it actually would take chunks out of the top. I wanted to keep the original top because of the poplar strip, so what I did was just taped the veneer that wouldn’t come off into the wood with the sander, and then sanded the veneer itself very well:


That section turned out well, but the entire lid was like that as you see below:


So I went ahead and just tapered the edges of the veneer with the sander into the wood. I was happy with the end results as you see here:


It almost looks like a leather skin on the lid, like an indian type of decoration. At first I had a few individuals that said they weren’t keen on it, but then I finished the lid and they changed their mind. But enough about that.

Even though I was extra careful when taking the veneer off, there were a few spots on the lid that it pulled little chunks of wood out. So what I did was just sanded the edges of the holes (I had to use my mouse sander to get in there) and it was enough for me. If you were trying to do a complete restoration back to original, you would have had a lot more work ahead of you. This already took 2 days to do so I went with it. And to me it gave it more character, but it is up to the individual as to what they want to do.


Now I sanded the trim around the lid. The corners were real bad so I just sanded them in a rounding motion. That fixed them. They were tapered, but I matched them all up to look the same:


I went ahead and made a handle for the chest. I didn’t have to do it, but to me it makes it easier to open the box up All I did was screwed the handle to the lid by predrilling from the backside and screwing it from the backside into the handle as well using 2 screws on each side of the handle:


Then I just put the lid back on the chest to make sure it worked out ok after all the sanding.


It fits well. Now I just peeled the veneer off the box part of the chest, and had to do a little chiseling, but not much. Take note though what I found underneath the veneer:


It was quite a bit lighter than the part that the veneer had already been pulled off years ago (or just broke off from bumping it or whatever. Sanding, of course, will take care of this. So that was the next step. I used a course grit, 60 grit at first in order to make it go faster. You still have to be careful when the grit is this course or it will take too much off, and that is noticeable:


The back had paint on it, but the 60 grit was plenty to take it off. The problem was I was out of the 60 grit for the Hitachi random orbital sander, so I had to use my mouse with a 60 grit sandpaper. I don’t like using it unless I have to because the Hitachi is a lot stronger and is quicker. The mouse will leave sanding marks also. I had to go back with a lighter grit anyway on the random orbital for the finish, so there weren’t any sanding marks on it when I was done:


The back is now finished. I ran the random orbital over it as mentioned above. Be careful when sanding cedar because it is very soft. You don’t want to have high and low spots in the wood. So just go back and forth with it at a steady rate, and evenly. You have to pretty much feel the way it is sanding to know whether it is too much. It just takes some experience with your own personal sander.


Notice that there are two huge chunks of wood missing from the bottom of the backside. That is because someone previously tried to pull the bottom together by nailing it together and the nails were so close to the edge of the wood it blew those pieces out. So I just sanded the edges and blended it the best I could. Again, if you were restoring it to the original, you would have had to replace the board. This would have been time consuming:


Now onto the feet of the chest. The feet were apparently veneered with a ton of glue. I took some of the veneer off with a chisel, but much of it just had to be sanded with the 60 grit sanding paper. It took a bit of time with it. Again, had to use the mouse because I was out of the random orbital sandpaper in 60 grit.


Now the chest is completely sanded with step sanding and ready to stain and coat with urethane. Start with 100 grit to get the bad stuff off first, then slowly move up on the grit. To me 220 grit is plenty on the finish sand, but some will go higher. Some even go as high as 600 grit, but to me, it isn’t enough of a difference to notice. I just set the lid on without the hinges so you can see what it looks like.


I am reusing the hinges as well. That is because all I have to do is slap them back on in the exact location they were in the first place. No measuring, the predrilled holes were still there, so why not. The hinges were very rusty (see below) but all you have to do is either step sand them or I just used the wire brush on my grinder:


We are now ready to sand the inside. Some just leave it like it is, but I went ahead and stained it as well.


I finished it with a coat of stain and 6 coats of urethane (coated it and let it dry, coated it again, let it dry, etc.). To me the shiny look is a great addition to it. That is why I went with the 6 coats. I want to show you again the before and after:




And here is the finished product again like I show in the beginning:


Now there is a wire that prevents the lid from falling backwards. If you accidently let go of the lid, it could damage the lid, but also it could mess the hinges up as well. I had to fix it. All that was wrong was it was not attached, so I just reattached it in different spots. If I would have put it in the same holes, it could have been too lose.


This is an image of the lid. You couldn’t get a good look of it in the finished image withthe entire chest, so I thought I will make a seperate one of just the lid by itself:


Again, here is the finished product:


I hope this has inspired you to refinish something. As you can see here, even if it is beat up and looks beyond repair, it very well may turn out to be a beautiful product once refinished. Look for more refinished products in future posts!


DO YOU HAVE a woodworking project or tip that you would like to submit to WooDesigner and get it added to our site? Then go to the contact tab below OR at the top of this page and let me know. Just make sure you are able to give us step by step instructions on it, as well as images as you see here, and we will put it on this site just like you have read on this page! As long as it is clear and concise like you just saw, it will go up. Your name will be credited to the project, as where you live. (Please include that.) Also include the type of lumber you use for the design. We look forward to hearing from you! (Take note that the tip and images and instructions have to become ours. I do hate that so much but in today’s society so many will sue, and yes, you can sue for a lot of money over images.) The tips will need to include YOUR IMAGES that you take. They can’t be images from somewhere online. Remember, we have to go through these images and if they aren’t your own, we will not be able to use them. This is illegal and it won’t be tolerated and you will be banned from this community by being blocked. We can get sued for this, and just one bad apple can ruin our community.

Ted Leger –


Updated: December 18, 2014 — 11:57 am
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