In this post, we’ll show you how to turn an old chest of drawers into a simple and rustic, yet beautiful and elegant faux card catalog cabinet (apothecary cabinet)!
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Ahhhh, the town dump! Is there any finer place to shop for your home furnishings? There’s plenty of fresh air, and the prices are always rock bottom! A few years back, Handan and I came across a hideous chest of drawers that must have crawled straight from 1965 right into the dump. I swear I could hear The Monkees and The Yardbirds and The Animals still drifting up from its dirty brown drawers. Still, ugly or not, it was sturdy and sound, so into The Donkey (our car) it went. We’d find a use for it.
And we did. Sorta.
It sat in our garage and collected dried-out plant bulbs, expired vegetable seeds, and forgotten odds, ends and doodads in its drawers, while the top grew stacks of old cushions and decaying cardboard boxes. The whole lot was sprinkled with three generations of mouse crap and left to fester.
Until Handan had an idea.
As it usually happens, I was happily minding my own business and probably thinking about food when she ambushed my serenity with a new project idea. She wanted some sort of faux card catalog/apothecary cabinet, she said. It’ll be easy, she said. She stressed the easy part.
“My babes, you need to do this in an easy manner that people can understand and follow, so they can try it themselves if they have an old furniture.” She said.
“Easy? Woman, if I wanted easy, I would have stayed single!” I said.
Phew! I think I lost her. Anyway, here’s the piece. And I gotta tell you, I cleaned it for this picture. You should have seen how much mouse crap there was. And just so you don’t go around telling your neighbors that the Navages live in a mouse-infested rat-hole (wait, what?), I have since, ahem, dispatched the foul vermin.
(Actually, I think mice are lovely creatures, and I’d keep them as pets, if I could. But as a responsible, married, family-tending homeowner, I’m only allowed to eradicate them with remorseless efficiency).
Now, I know a lot of you are all googly-eyed over “mid-century modern” or whatever the hell they call that period of stylistic misfortune, and after seeing the picture of what we found, you might feel compelled to tell me that I’m an idiot for destroying its beauty. Don’t bother. I have a wife for that sort of thing.
She heard me.
That was a close one! She almost caught me! Now where was I? Ah, yes, the mid-century modern monstrosity. I pulled out the drawers and carried the carcass down to the basement to assess the piece and formulate a plan.*
*“Formulate a plan” is loosely defined as “Hammer first, ask questions later.” This methodology generally leads to problems, delays, complications and an angry wife.
For the first time ever, Handan followed me downstairs. I was starting to feel like I had a boss staring over my shoulders. I kept saying things like, “Ooh, I can make it so it has cabinet doors AND real drawers!”
And she’d be like:
“But babes, how about if I use my router to make some rabbet joints and then…”
“Okay, but what if I…”
In the end, I saw that her way was indeed the best way, and I was wrong and a very bad man for suggesting otherwise.
It’s time for me to take on projects that almost anyone can replicate, just like Handan does. So that is what I did with this project. Though you may not have the exact 1960s chest of drawers, it doesn’t matter. Any chest of drawers will do. You will see what I am doing, and you can do it too. Though I may have used tools you don’t have for this build – a table saw and router for example – the same results can be obtained with a handheld circular saw and sandpaper. Though this project did take some time to complete, there was nothing difficult about it.
This re-purpose would be pretty straightforward. I needed to gut the existing carcass, pretty it up a bit inside and make doors with faux drawers on them. Let’s take a look.
It was an old piece, and most everything inside was secured with glue and flat-head screws. I started with the screws…
…and then worked the pieces off by any means necessary. I used a reciprocating saw for some parts (a hand saw would work just as well)…
…a mallet for other parts…
…a mallet and pry bar for the stubborn glued bits…
…and my fist for the back.
Once I had Hulk-smashed the piece into submission, I cleaned up various protruding bits and bobs with a hammer and pry-bar and then did a quick stain-job on the inside surface. I didn’t prep the wood or sand or do anything. This cabinet will store my photography gear, so the inside didn’t need to be perfect.
I had an old can of 50/50 Jacobean/Ebony mix, so I used that.
Since it was a chest of drawers in its previous groovy life back in the 60s and 70s, there wasn’t a shelf floor on the inside. I had a few boxes of weathered hardwood boards that I bought from Home Depot about a year ago, and I decided to trim them up and use them as a floor for my cabinet. I put a bead of glue on the existing wood supports and laid the pieces that I had cut.
I had to notch the center piece around the center support post.
I secured each piece with two brad nails on each end. A hammer and finish nails would work just as well and would add to the look.
The weathered boards gave a perfect rustic look to my DIY faux card catalog cabinet.
I then sanded the sides, top and the forward-facing edges. I wasn’t sure at first if I would re-stain the piece or put a new top and sides over the old, but after sanding the wood, I saw that there was some interesting stuff going on with the grain and with the wood’s natural color.
Once I had it sanded smooth, I filled in some of the deeper scratches with wood filler. Again, since I was going for a rustic look, I wasn’t concerned with getting it perfect. I brushed on some pre-stain to condition the wood for the stains I had in mind.
I like to experiment with stains, and I’ll be preparing a full stain-layering tutorial in January, but I’ll just briefly explain here. I kept it pretty basic, since I didn’t want it too weathered or distressed. Here is the lineup I used:
That’s pre-stain, Weathered Oak, Classic Gray and Jacobean. The Weathered Oak doesn’t give much color, but it’s fantastic at drawing out the wood’s natural color. I followed that with Classic Gray and then a light coat of Jacobean. In my tutorial in January, I’ll show you techniques to get a more weathered and aged look, but that wasn’t what I was aiming for here. I just wanted to highlight the cool colors of the wood and make the whole piece darker.
You can see some of the imperfections that I couldn’t sand out. That’s fine. It gives character. Call it “Farmhouse” and move on 😀
I wanted to add a bigger base to the bottom that would protrude a bit on each side in order to break up the squareness of the cabinet. I used good-quality 3/4 inch birch plywood for the base. I cut it to size on my table saw, but it’s usually easier to cut large plywood sheets with a handheld circular saw, two saw horses and a circular saw guide.
I placed the base against the cabinet bottom to make sure I had my measurements correct.
It looked good, so I laid it flat again and stained around the edges.
I again placed it against the base of the cabinet and then secured it with clamps.
I pre-drilled counter-sunk screw holes around the base and then screwed the base to the cabinet. I didn’t use glue, because I wanted the base to be removable, just in case Handan didn’t like the way I had built it, or in case I messed up with the feet later on.
I liked the look of the base.
This is how the cabinet looked so far.
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That was a big empty hole. I figured it would benefit from a shelf. I cut one to size from 1/2 inch birch plywood, making sure to cut it just the tiniest bit too long, so I would have to hammer it tightly into place. This allowed the shelf to sit in place without me holding it, so I could level it and install supports.
I removed the shelf for staining and started planning the doors.
The doors would be the heart and soul of this project. I wanted them to look great, but I needed them to be easy. I decided that I would use 1/2 inch birch plywood for the cabinet doors and 1/2 birch plywood rectangles for the faux drawer faces. Before I got into building them, I had to figure out my hinge situation. Since this piece was a chest of drawers, it didn’t fit neatly into the frame/frameless cabinet classification. It was technically frameless, but there were wooden drawer stops (I think that was their purpose) on the inside that would interfere with hinges intended for frameless cabinets. To solve this, I needed to cut notches in the stops to accommodate the hinges. I used a small hand saw for this.
I later made these notches even bigger, as that eased my job of installing the hinges.
With the hinge situation worked out, I turned my full attention to building the doors. My idea was to install 9 faux drawers faces to each door. I measured the space for the doors, accounting for a 1/8 inch gap all around and then cut the two pieces of 1/2 inch plywood. I then did some arithmetic to figure out the best dimensions for my faux drawer faces and the optimal spacing between them. I ended up making my drawer faces 8 x 7 inches and leaving about a 1/2 inch gap between the drawers. I had two different sheets of 1/2 inch birch plywood on hand. One sheet, I had just bought, and the other, I had bought a while back. They were very different in color – one much darker than the other. I decided to cut drawer faces from both sheets and to mix up the grain pattern. On some, the grain would be horizontal and on others, it would be vertical. I hoped this would give a cool effect. After I cut all the faux drawer faces, I arranged them on each door.
The faux drawer faces all met up with the edges of the cabinet door. I made a spacer from a scrap piece of wood for the inside pieces. When everything was laid out nicely, I traced each piece with a pencil.
Then I stained the area between the lines. I rubbed the stain too much on the first door, so my pencil lines disappeared. Oops. I rubbed more lightly on the second.
While the stain dried, I ran the top edges of my faux drawer faces across a router fitted with a chamfer bit. The same result can be obtained with sandpaper and a sanding block. You can see the result below. It gives a more realistic look to the faux drawers.
As you can tell by the can of pre-stain, I was ready to start the staining process. Since I had a lot of pieces and would be using a few different stains after the pre-stain, I decided I’d had enough fumes already when staining the cabinet. I put on an organic vapor respirator. For small staining jobs, I generally wear nothing, but in my unventilated basement, I like to wear a respirator for bigger jobs. Breathing easy makes a big difference!
Plus, you can play around making breathing noises and telling anyone who will listen, “Luke! I am your father!” Since no one was around, I had to play Darth Vader with the dogs. They were entirely unimpressed with my James Earl Jones impression. What the hell do they know, anyway? Yeesh, everyone’s a critic these days.
Once I was geared up with my respirator and nitrile gloves (nitrile gloves are a must when staining – the organic solvents in stain will eat right through latex) I got to staining. Like I did with the cabinet, I worked my way through the stains. On some pieces, I favored the light stain, and on some, I favored the dark. Here are the faces after the Weathered Oak:
While the faux drawer faces dried, I prepared the legs.
I wasn’t satisfied with the bun feet and furniture legs offered at Home Depot, so I decided to DIY bigger and better feet from the ones they sell. Okay, okay, fine. It wasn’t my idea. It was Handan’s. Whatever.
I unscrewed the screw tip from the taller piece…
…and then glued the two together.
When the glue had dried, I stained the feet using pre-stain, Classic Gray and Jacobean. Since it was a different wood (basswood) than the rest of the project, it took the stain differently. The grays are more pronounced on the feet, and it gives a really cool look.
Next, I glued the faux drawer faces onto the door. I didn’t take pics of this process, since I was totally concentrated on getting the faces lined up perfectly.
When the glue had cured, I drilled holes for the handles that we found for the faux drawer faces. We had been looking online at all sorts of options, and most of the pulls and handles and rings that I liked ran about $8-$15 each. That would have added a lot of money to this project. Then Handan remembered one of her stashes of pulls that she had bought from a tag sale in the summer of 2016. We tried one out to see how it would look. It was perfect, so I created a jig from an extra drawer face so I could drill all of the holes in the exact same spot on each face.
Once the holes were drilled, I turned my focus to installing the hinge hardware. To make things easier on myself, I purchased the Kreg Concealed Hinge Jig to help align and drill the necessary holes. What a lifesaver – I wish I had known about this jig when I made the built-in bookcase and cabinet for our upstairs hallway!
After I confirmed that everything was lined up and functioning correctly, I removed the doors and put them aside for waxing.
Next, I installed the stained shelf, using a mallet to tap it into place. I didn’t glue or nail it, in case I ever want to remove it in the future.
I then tipped the cabinet on its back so I could install the feet. I first tried a mounting plate that would accept the screw…
…but since the plate wasn’t recessed, it was visible and left a noticeable gap between it and the foot. I unscrewed the plate and mounted the feet directly by drilling a hole for the screws and gluing the feet to the cabinet base.
I waxed the top, sides, doors and feet with Fiddes & Sons wood wax. It’s a great product for wood furniture products, and I recommend it highly. I buffed the wax with an electric buffer – a must-have for anyone who does a lot of waxing.
I then installed the drawer handles and then re-mounted the doors.
My final step was to put a backboard on. I didn’t take pictures of that process, but I used 3/16 inch MDF board from Home Depot. I secured it in place with brad nails, in case I ever need to remove it.
With that, my DIY Faux Card Catalog Cabinet was finished and ready for my office!
I’m sure glad I thought of this project! What a great idea I had, right? I wonder why Handan can’t think of stuff like this??
Ah, NUTS! She heard me again!
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