Murphy and Howard take a shine to Mom and Pop

Eleven years ago I had a new roof put on the house. The roofer did a good job on the roof (it’s held tight ever since), but he was slower than molasses getting the job done. And a little screw-loose to boot. He failed to throw a tarp over my south side dormer when he was in the middle of working on it … and that July evening a thunderstorm swept through. The dormer leaked like a sieve. I came home to find a new water feature dribbling down onto my guest bed, and an even more impressive waterfall streaming through the attic. The roofer was an hour away, but he returned with the tarp after the rain stopped, and … well, to make a long story short, eventually everything dried out and this painful incident became simply another flakey-contractor horror story.

Snoqualmie Falls

Snoqualmie Falls [Shutter Tours]

Besides the mattress, the biggest casualty of the fiasco was my mom’s 1890s Victorian Eastlake dresser, which, along with my dad’s similar dresser, were stored in the attic at the time. It made me sick at heart to see its finish ruined, but I put it out of my mind, figuring I would refinish it one day. Mom would have flipped to see what happened to her beloved furniture on my watch.

Does the light from the window make the damage look even worse, or did I somehow choose not to see how bad it was? Pictures don’t lie.

walnut Eastlake dresser with bad finish

When Eric moved in and needed closet space, he took over the spare room’s closet and dresser, leaving me our bedroom’s closet. I pressed both antique dressers into service then, which made the room look like a crowded antique shop, but that’s what happens when you have too many clothes and a very small closet. The downside was that I had to look at the ruined finish every day.

water damage 1

water damage to dresser top

water damage to side

I didn’t know when I’d have time to sand and refinish the dresser, but then my friend Jessica at Cape of Dreams wrote about her trusted three-step method of reviving tired wood furniture. Dare I hope for a quick fix? Meet the mighty trio: Murphy Oil Soap, Howard Restore-a-Finish, and Howard Feed-N-Wax.

Murphy Oil Soap, Howard finish and wax

OMG, Jessica, your system really works!! First, I gave the dresser a nice sponge bath with Murphy Oil Soap. Then I applied the Restore-a-Finish in neutral. (My only other option at Ace Hardware was dark walnut, and although the dresser is walnut, I didn’t want to add color.) It’s a stinky process, as you might expect from a refinishing product, but I had the windows open. The can warns, “This product contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer.” No worries—I’m in Washington!

This stuff is nothing short of a miracle. Can you tell what I’ve restored and what I haven’t?

dresser half restored

Finally, I slathered on a coat of Howard Feed-N-Wax, which is made with orange oil and looks and smells so yummy I may try it on toast. What do you think of Mom’s dresser now? Here she is, topped with Eric’s Eastlake mantel clock.

dresser with finish restored

Of course, she made Pop’s dresser look shabby. Before the roofing disaster, I thought it was his dresser that needed refinishing. It had always looked a little faded and uneven, and it also had some water damage toward the bottom. I was so excited about Mom’s dresser, I tackled Pop’s the next day instead of pulling dandelions. Pop’s dresser before:

pop's dresser before

And after:

Pop's dresser after

What a handsome couple! Mom and Pop dressers. My parents would be so pleased.

These pieces are sometimes called bachelor’s or gentleman’s dressers. The small upper drawers are for handkerchiefs.(Considering how many Kleenex I go through in a day, if I’d lived in the 1890s, I’d have had to store my handkerchiefs in a bigger drawer.) Befittingly, Mom’s dresser has narrow, rounded molding and delicate turned accents. Pop’s is more masculine with chunky appliques. Both are walnut. I’m sure they sprang from the source of all my family’s treasures: the dark and mysterious depths of my grandparent’s basement, where furniture from my great-grandmother’s lake house was stored.

two walnut Eastlake dressers

Mom’s has one more unique detail … when I was very young, probably around 4, I grabbed a pin from a dish on her dresser and carved a die into the top—complete with an attempt at perspective! I must have witnessed my parents playing a game with dice and thought it would be a good idea to commemorate it. I was always drawing on something—not necessarily paper. Look closely and you’ll see the three sides of the cube with one, two, and three spots. I got the perspective backwards, but I was impressed with myself. Mom was less impressed. I clearly remember her walking in on me before I could finish my artwork. The critique did not go well.

carving of die on dresser top

I’m so happy to have given these old friends the renovation they deserved. I know they’ll be with me for the rest of my life, even after I have a giant walk-in closet with room for all of our clothes … and 60 pairs of shoes.

[I received no compensation for mentioning Murphy or Howard products in this post.]




13 thoughts on “Murphy and Howard take a shine to Mom and Pop

  1. Jessica@CapeofDreams

    WOW! I know how amazing those products are from experience and I am still impressed with how well your dressers turned out. It helps that they are beautiful pieces of furniture, and now they really shine again.

    I can only imagine how awful it was for your mother to walk in on you carving her priceless antique. Then again, maybe you would be a famous artist today had your mother fostered your budding talent. 😉

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      I had a history of drawing on furniture, like the lamp base in a previous post … and on our TV when I was 9. I was always getting in trouble for that! 🙂

  2. Jo

    Such an improvement. If I ever get the dust out of my house I’m going to try Jessica’s sure-fire remedy on some of our old pieces. Jo @ Let’s Face the Music

  3. Africadayz

    Are you serious about the ‘Known to cause cancer’ warning?? . I know about warnings on cigarettes but not on furniture restoring products…. But the dressers do look lovely. Well done! I’m feeling quite desperate about my never-ending house build at the moment. Good to read about things actually accomplished:)

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Yes, it actually says that on the can! I didn’t get any on me and I had good ventilation, but if I used this stuff routinely, I’d wear gloves and a respirator.
      Don’t despair, your house will be finished someday! 🙂

  4. Karen B.

    Wow and wow! I have all three products and have used the restor-a-finish on a few frames, but I will visit the link to get the step by step process. Our china cupboard could use some TLC, as with all antiques. What a wonderful improvement and so nice to have these treasures in your home.
    Really? 60 pairs of shoes?! 🙂

    1. Karen B.

      There are no precise directions on your friend’s site (but boy did her dining table look great, or what?)…did you dilute the Murphy’s Oil Soap before applying the restor-a-finish?

      1. D'Arcy H Post author

        I did dilute the Murphy Oil Soap in warm water, probably weaker than what it says on the bottle. I just used the Howard products according to label instructions. Nothing to it but a lot of rubbing! Amazing results!

  5. Anita

    Oh SO nice! They look beautiful and your die is a masterpiece. And oh how I remember the fiasco of the roof leak in to the bedroom below!

  6. Tom & Judy

    I will have to remember these products the next time I want to refinish some piece of furniture. Sure is a great deal easier than the old fashioned way. Probably healthier despite the cancer warning than what was used back when. Both pieces look beautiful and should be prominently displayed.

  7. Nine Dark Moons

    Amazing! They are gorgeous pieces and now you have brought them back to their original splendor! I love how you can see the different natural color variations in the wood in the “after” pictures! Gorgeous. I am going to have to try Jessica’s 3 step process one of these days, myself!


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