How-To with Nick Olsen

We had the chance to ask the talented Nick Olsen, interior decorator and self-described “extreme do-it-yourselfer,” for the tips and tricks to revitalizing a tired-looking dresser. His instructions and insights on both painting and covering a dresser in fabric will have you eyeing every discarded dresser, dreaming of the perfect paint color or a favorite fabric. Don’t forget to check out Nick’s hilarious design blog, Nick Olsen Style, and his apartment, which was featured in Lonny last April!


1. How do you paint a dresser so it looks professional and not like an arts and crafts project from elementary school?

It really starts with good preparation: First clean the piece thoroughly, fill any cracks or holes with wood filler, and sand multiple times with fine-grit paper. Then it always helps to use high-quality paint. Hollandlac Brilliant by Fine Paints of Europe, for example, costs a small fortune but feels just like lacquer when it (finally) dries!

2. What kind of brushes and paint do you use? What would you avoid working with?

I often use oil-based high-gloss paints, and for those I find the inexpensive foam brushes are best for leaving no brushstrokes. Stay away from the bottom-shelf brushes at the store because the bristles fall out and dry on the surface.

3. We love the idea of covering a dresser in fabric; how do you do it? Can you give us a step-by-step?

To cover any piece of furniture in fabric, decide how you want the pattern to read first and take measurements of every surface you need to cover, including drawers, tops, and sides, and determine whether the pattern will look wonky if you wrap the corners and sides. Most often it will! Then cut the individual pieces of fabric and lay them out. Next, clean and lightly sand all surfaces, apply repositionable spray mount (3M makes a good one), and quickly center the fabric. This is best done outdoors because of the fumes! Working from the center, brush out any air bubbles with a hefty paperback book, using the pages like a squeegee. Continue this way until all the intended surfaces are covered. Be sure to check all the edges and corners where the piece will get the most wear and tear. It's usually a good idea to reinforce these with more spray mount or even rubber cement (which won't stain the fabric).

4. What kind of fabric works best? Is there any type that you'd advise against? Any other supplies or materials we might need?

Thin and delicate fabrics like silk should not be used for this project. I recommend tightly woven linens and cottons (loose weaves will fray at the edges) and wool felts. Cotton chintz often gets a bad rap, but the papery texture is pretty perfect for covering furniture! As for other supplies, just a yardstick and a good pair of fabric scissors will do.

5. What are some rookie mistakes to avoid when revamping a dresser?

Buying badly damaged veneered furniture is never a good idea; it's expensive to repair and not worth the agony of filling all those cracks. Also, don't overapply the spray mount. When the can says a few steady, quick sprays will work best, it's not kidding!

6. If you see a great dresser at a local flea market but it's a bit beat-up or scratched, is there anything you can do to repair it?

Sure, you can fill small cracks with wood putty or sand down layers of old paint or varnish. Also, don't discount ugly laminate furniture; that surface can be sanded and painted as well as any other and often yields better results.

7. If you don't have time to completely redo a dresser, are there any quick fixes you can recommend to instantly update it?

I'm all for changing out ugly knobs but am not a fan of the "quirky hardware on a vintage dresser" look. Colored glass, frilly metal handles, and so on scream DIY project. I'd much prefer simple brass or nickel ring pulls instead.

8. How long can our readers expect it'll take to paint a dresser? Is this an afternoon project, a weekender?

I'd say half a weekend, max. Dark paint will need a primer coat that should be left to dry; then you can apply the final coat the next afternoon. Note: oil-based paints take much longer to dry!

9. How long will it take to cover a dresser in fabric?

Depending on the size of the piece and how much of it you're covering (remember, covering just the drawer fronts is still a chic option), I'd say two to three hours.

10. Any last tips for our readers?

Try not to rush and get sloppy. A precisely cut corner and a perfectly aligned pattern will keep the piece from looking amateurish. The same for several even coats of paint instead of a single big, drippy one.

Thanks, Nick! And to view the "Before" dresser, click here.

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