A Five Year Old Designs a Before and After

I can finally show you the dresser I found several weeks ago.  It comes with quite the story.  I spotted this dresser and knew from a distance what I wanted to do with it.  Here it is the day we brought it home.

WP_20131004_001Lovely isn’t it. Here’s the top in the condition I found it.


Look at that smile on my granddaughter’s face, that’s the key to this whole transformation, but more on that in  a moment.   When I spotted it, the image that came to mind was the body of the dresser being painted in a sand color I had recently been given from Freecycle and the drawers stained a deep walnut.  This is the closest picture I could find of what I had in mind.

two toned dresser

You see I’ve done enough white pieces, enough in black, and enough feminine and youth pieces for the moment. I wanted to do something masculine and different.  But that came to a screeching halt real fast.  The moment the dresser was taken out of the vehicle where my granddaughter could get a good look at it she turned to me and informed me it would look good with rainbow drawers.  I smiled and said sure, but had no intention to follow through with that.


She continued to talk about this dresser and how much she loved it and how beautiful it would be with rainbow drawers.  I realized something at this point.  All those questions she has asked me over the last couple of years as I restored furniture has been her way of learning.  The questions have been all over the place from “Are you going to paint that?”  What are you going to do with it?”  “How will you fix what is broke?”   She was learning.  Yet it wasn’t until this actual piece that she decided to voice her “decorating” style, for lack of a better term.

After a discussion with her parents of how they could rearrange the current dressers in the house to work better for all, it was decided this dresser would go to my granddaughter.  This meant my entire reason for wanting to bring this dresser home had just ended. I would let her direct me in how to refinish the dresser.  I would embrace her style and let her see what was in her mind come to life.  Who knows this could be the beginning of a life-long passion for her or even direct a future career, either way I wanted her to see it come to be.

Now, I have several colors of paint here to choose from.  All of it passed on to me from others who no longer wanted them. But it wasn’t to the containers of latex paint she turned to for her colors, it was a drawer where I was storing a few tubes of acrylic paint given to me for crafts.  I inwardly cringed to think of acrylics being used on this piece.

Since the body of the dresser was still going to be painted I wanted to preserve some of the wood grain and decided to play with the acrylics.  First they were too vivid.  I mixed a bit of white latex paint in with each color she chose and then watered it down to a soupy consistency for the drawers.  This she was okay with. Then I got the bright idea to give her a surprise and painted a picture on the inside of each drawer in the color she selected for the front.  When I shared this with her she was delighted.  It even earned me another leaping hug and the complement that I was the best grandma in the world.  Best present ever.


In preparing the top of the dresser, I had to remove the veneer.  These two layers took quite a bit of time to do. I spent a total of 7 hours just working on the two small drawers and one large one.  The top was just as bad time-wise.   It is important to give yourself large blocks of time when removing veneer and here’s why.

To remove veneer you need a bowl of water, a towel or other absorbent material and a very hot clothes iron.  You set a wet rag on the veneer then set the iron on this.  You don’t have to apply pressure, but you do have to allow the iron to sit for as long as you still see steam.  In the beginning this will need to be repeated several times before the veneer will start to lift off.


The reason you want large blocks of time is because as the glue begins to give way you will find the glue in nearby areas are melting and will make the job speed up the longer you work.  I like to work with a cloth approximately the size of a dish cloth when doubled.  These will become caked with glue as you work, along with your iron.  I ended up tossing out 4 pieces of material that became so covered with glue they no longer were absorbent. It’s also a good idea to do this on a chilly day because the steam will heat up the room you are working in. In my case the entire apartment’s temperature increased by 4 degrees on a day it was snowing outside. :-)


Once the veneer has been removed, let it sit overnight and allow the glue to re-harden.  You can try to wipe some of it up but you won’t get it all.  Now comes the fun part, sanding off all that glue.  This was the top of the dresser with the veneer removed and waiting for the sanding to begin.


It was in this exact stage that I received a visit from family.  My granddaughter saw through the glue to the grain of the wood.  She began to ask questions about the grain and the knots in the wood.  It was then I realized her education was still incomplete.  As I explained these are the markings from the tree, she stopped me and asked why I called a tree wood when we told her it was bark.  Yes, when climbing trees we did tell her the outside of the tree is called bark, but didn’t realize she hadn’t made the connection to wood coming from cutting down trees.  I have one more question to answer for her, and that is why we call trees wood.  I told her we will look that up to find the history behind the word “wood”.

Looking at the top of the dresser she informed me I was not to paint the top as she wanted to see the tree that made her dresser.  This would make the job a bit harder as I would need to make sure I not only removed all the glue but evened out any shading from the application of the glue decades ago.  At this point you can see I had painted some of the front and legs to show her what it would look like.  She now wanted the paint removed to see “her tree”.  My grandson was excited to have a new piece of furniture he could sand and spent countless afternoons doing just that over the course of the last few weeks.


Never once did he complain that he had sanded the front and legs to prepare them for painting and now needed to sand the paint off and get it ready for a coat of sealer.  Instead he was excited.  As I removed more areas of the veneer it became apparent that this wasn’t going to work.  The side panels were of a different wood all together.  It was now time for my granddaughter to take a look and make a decision of what to do with it now.

She decided that the body of the dresser should be painted, remember we just removed all the paint, the top would be sealed and left natural, but the drawers had to be her rainbow colors.  My son rolled his eyes and quietly informed me this dresser was going to be one ugly dresser.  We never shared that opinion with her, but my son did have to eat his words when he spotted the finished dresser today.

I think I’ve dragged this out long enough. I wouldn’t blame you if you had scrolled down to see the after and skipped all the rest. :-)  Here is the completed dresser, designed and directed by a 5-year old.


She is very proud of her design


Her father is impressed. He says it’s amazing and is happy it isn’t as heavy as it looks to carry to her bedroom.  He also wants to know how she was so sure this was going to look so nice?  All I could tell him was she must have seen it in her mind.


I wish I could have gotten a better picture of the top. But today was another dreary day with zero sunlight. Even with the curtains and door open there was no natural light to help, but here’s an idea of the grain she fell in love with and wanted exposed.


Lamps gave off too much glare, but you get the idea. It’s actually pine so picture it without the orange tint. :-)

There is a reason I told such a long drawn out story. I believe children need these opportunities to explore their natural talents.  While it may have added more work than was necessary, I was happy to allow her to change the direction when the dresser presented challenges.  No one will ever forget the process that went into this piece.  Between her mother struggling to get it into the back of her vehicle for me, to my grandson knowing he helped to make this for his sister, for my granddaughter this will be the first piece she completely designed. And for myself and her parents this piece will be the one that taught us all that this little girl has a creative streak beyond just drawings.

I hope you enjoyed this before and after. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think of the final look, it grew on me, now I need to find a dresser to design my way. :-)


  1. I really enjoyed this do-over, especially your grandson’s enthusiasm for sanding! I’m curious about what you did to condition the wood. I have a cabinet that’s in really good shape except the veneer in the front. It was in a kerosene-heated room about 50 years ago and that side was closest to the heater. All it took was a fingernail to pop off the veneer, but the glue is still on and the wood is rather dry beneath.

  2. Woowee! I did imagine the ombre look which I see a lot now days, but this is a little different to that. I think it’s wonderful that you let her have her own direction. Too often as children we’re corralled into someones interpretations of what we’ve said we want and it can slowly kill ones spirit. Hey, even as adults, sometimes we let people shape our spirit, until we look around and hardly recognise ourselves… Certainly something I’m learning (though not related to designing things)

    • Yes, Sarah, this turned out different from the ombre designs, which I have seen as well. I agree, children are often not allowed to do their own thing when young, I hope by letting the children express themselves it will foster a life-long passion to be creative and do things their own way rather than following the crowd. And it was no big deal really when you stop to consider this is just wood, it can be stripped and redone as she grows out of this look but will continue to be functional and beautiful.

      You are also right, even adults fear just being ourselves and doing what we want. It took me until this year to decide to experiment with painting pictures because I was taught that unless you are perfect at what you do you shouldn’t waste your time. I find I am enjoying the simple things I create as I get more comfortable with this new medium. I hope you work through your situation as well.

  3. What a great teaching opportunity :) – my 5 year old grandson just experienced for himself how colours mix, such fun when he realized what was happening as he mixed red and yellow for the first time! Now your granddaughter is learning to distinguish good and valuable wood from plainer wood that needs painting to look attractive and knows how to recycle into the bargain – excellent life skills!

  4. Hi Lois and thank you so much for a truly heartfelt post!

    Your granddaughter and grandson are so precious and the fact that they love hanging out with their grandmother and working on projects like this is so wonderful.

    The dresser looks lovely and I’m sure fits in nicely in your granddaughters room. I hope she never loses her creative spark.

    Thanks again Lois for allowing us a small peek into your life :)

    Take care and all the best.


    • Lyle, Thank you, I’m glad you enjoy these posts! Yes, the little ones love to come over here and work. Whether it’s in the garden, weeding around trees, repairing furniture they love to know they are able to contribute. Of course they also enjoy an afternoon of crafting. I keep a bag of recyclables on hand for them to play with such as toilet rolls, fabric scraps screws and such I have left over from projects. Then they get to use their imagination and have fun.

    • Absolutely not, no one was belittled. It was seen as just another project to work on. My son while believing it would turn out ghastly kept that opinion between him and I as he wanted to allow her to explore her creative side in another way. He jokes that he will need to pay a lot of money for art lessons for her because I handed her pen and paper to occupy her in the car, which she hated, from the time she was five months old. She was fascinated with the marks she could make like no other child I’ve met.:-) And it made for a quieter car ride.

    • I noticed that as well, Alex. I had taken so many shots of the dresser top trying to get just the right light but that was the best one so when I saw that I gave up and posted it anyway.

      It was fun having the children so involved in one of my projects. I’m not sure if I shared this story, but during the process of restoring the dresser my granddaughter announced when she grows up she wants to work with me fixing furniture. I laughed thinking I’d be pretty old by then and suggested I work for her and she could be my boss. She looked horrified, and said she didn’t want to be my boss she wanted us to work together like “teamwork.” I hope she carries these opinions into adulthood. Not that I want to go into business with her necessarily, but I believe the cooperation of people working together without the hierarchy so common in business today would be a lovely environment to work in especially in a creative venture.

  5. Wow, what a transformation! I love that she wanted to see the tree that made her dresser Lois, that’s beautiful :) That’s an awful lot of work to remove the veneer but I imagine totally rewarding at the end. The colours are not something I could live lol, with but perfect for a wee girl who hasn’t had her senses or tastes dulled by conservatism. Lovely.

    • Healthy Frenchie, I’m not sure the dresser will blend so well into her room as I think she needs to come up with one look in there. When her parents bought the house a year ago they let her pick out the paint colors. She chose pink for the walls and green for the trim. Then we found her a twin bed frame on Freecyle which she wanted to paint blue. Now she designed this dresser.

      I think she is trying to develop her style. Somehow the room, while it doesn’t sound beautiful the way I worded it, does reflect her personality and isn’t over the top.

      Yes, she knows and talks about the different parts each person had a hand in making her dresser for her. I think that reason alone this will be treasured piece for some years.

  6. WOW! again, your granddaughter has the design flare .. Brilliant results, and loved all the hardwork your grandson put in sanding… I think he may well take to working with wood in the future..
    If you had told me prior to seeing it, the various colours I would have thought no way! and yet it works so well together and just the thing for a little girls bright bedroom… Beautiful! Well done to you all :-) xxx

    • Sue, the color combination was one I wasn’t too fond of using, and her parents thought this was going to look awful. What surprised me the most about the color combination was her insistence on the placement of each color. She decided it must progress from yellow, to orange, then red and finally green. Had she changed up the order it would not have turned out as nice. To start with the lightest shade and add a bit more saturation with each drawer is something I wouldn’t have believed she would know to do at this age.

      My grandson is very hands on. He loves sanding because he can do this independently. He knows to follow the grain of the wood and I do not have to supervise him in any manner. But he also enjoys working with tools. It might simply be a stage of enjoying what he sees as adult work, but his passion and the regularity in how often he asks for something to work on tells me it is at least a good outlet for him. I hope he carries this with him into adulthood as I can see the calmness that comes over him as he works.

      • Yes I am sure your grandson will work with his hands and be creative, its a feeling I get! as for your Granddaughter Colours are healing and I think if you look up the meaning of those colours and do an interpretation of them from top to bottom, You will be surprised at what you will find..
        Our Grandchildren are being born with many gifts which will stand them in good stead for their future Lois… And its so good that you are helping bring out their individual skills :-) x

        • She is into the Strawberry Shortcake shows right now which I believe was part of her inspiration for the dresser, but yes, she also picked colors that she found cheerful, and represented her favorite shades from summer. The green grass, the yellow, orange and red of her favorite flowers. I may never know why she choose each one, or in that order but I do believe any other order would not have worked as nicely in the end.

  7. Your granddaughter does indeed have a very special grandmother. I think I might have stopped at preparing to repaint the legs but let her have the drawers her colors. However, the dresser has a great look and I especially like the designs inside the drawers and the wooden top contrasting with the other colors.

    • Live and Learn, there were moments I just wanted to ship it over to her house, but I would have put the time into doing it right whether it was going to her or I was selling it. It did help that her brother enjoys sanding which speeded up the process for me.

      I completely forgot to photograph the inside of the bottom drawer as that one was finished last and the only one that needed major repairs. The red drawer had hearts in it, and the green one has leaves painted inside.

      Her father is still shaking his head that the color scheme turned out so nicely. :-)

  8. I’m so impressed with all of your transformations, and I think your granddaughter definitely has the muse. I love the natural wood top, and it’s just amazing that she never made the connection between trees and wood! Oh, the things we take for granted…

    If it were me, I’d have thrown a piece of cloth over the damaged top and called it done – but home decor is decidedly not my strong suit… I can’t imagine how anyone has the patience for that kind of work.

    • She saw something when she spotted the dresser. Her suggestion came out immediately, no hesitation. I think she had been planning a rainbow dresser for some time. :-)

      The only part of the work that drove me nuts was the sitting, waiting for the glue to soften. I am not a very patient person. When I work on something I like the activity, but this part was tedious. If the veneer hadn’t been damaged I would have been tempted to simply paint over it. But I am glad it was damaged as it was worth the work.

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