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Refinishing and Bleaching Wood: My Heirloom Cedar Hope Chest

My mom was given her Lane Cedar “Hope” Chest at sixteen. She was gifted this piece to start saving items for marriage and starting a home. She passed it down to me when I was married and I plan to pass it to my daughter one day. This piece holds a special place in my heart and I hope to give it an updated look for our home! In this post you will find how I updated it and tips for refinishing and bleaching wood!

Refinishing a cedar lane hope chest from orange and red wood tones to a natural whitewashed color.

What is a Lane Cedar “Hope” Chest? It is a cedar chest that was marketed towards young women to store clothing or home furnishings in anticipation of marriage. This was summed up in the company’s tag line: “The gift that starts the home.” Also, Lane advertisements reached a high point during World War II, persuading thousands of GIs leaving for overseas to purchase a Lane Hope Chest for the sweethearts they were leaving behind. – Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

Refinishing and Bleaching Wood Furniture

Removing the Varnish

This piece was covered in a thick varnish that was difficult to remove. I tested sanding through the varnish but it left a sticky residue on my sandpaper. I was running through sandpaper quickly so I decided to try and strip the varnish. Next, I tested one of my favorite methods, Citristrip, and didn’t have much luck. While I have loved using Citristrip and received great results in the past, this time I wanted to try something with less mess!

Removing varnish from cedar hope chest using orbital sander.
Removing varnish from cedar hope chest using orbital sander.
Varnish stuck to sanding discs while trying to remove the varnish from a cedar hope chest.

I tested Minwax Antique Furniture Refinisher. I applied it to fine steel wool and scrubbed to remove the varnish. It worked quickly, but it did leave remnants of varnish. Imagine pouring something on ice to make it melt, but as the water redistributes, it freezes again. That’s what happened with the varnish as it was removed, it settled back in some places. I decided to move on to sanding again, the remove the remaining varnish.

Using Minwax Furniture Refinisher to remove varnish from cedar hope chest.
Using Minwax Furniture Refinisher to remove varnish from cedar hope chest.

I came back through with my sander and the varnish was easily removed. An important step that I’ve missed in the past is this: transitioning from lower to higher grit sandpaper when refinishing furniture. I used 60-grit to remove the varnish, then I went up to 120-grit to help smooth the rough patches. Finally, I used 220-grit to buff out any remaining rough patches. This is an important step allowing the furniture to properly accept the stain and topcoat.

Sanding the rest of the varnish from the cedar hope chest.
Cedar hope chest in natural state with red wood tones.

I was left with a beautiful natural cedar chest. The wood was stunning, but I didn’t want a red tone in my home. This is where it got difficult. Cedar IS A RED WOOD. So it is only natural to have red tones. Much like Mahogany, Red Oak, and etc. Never fear, there are ways to minimize those red tones though.

Bleaching cedar

I’ve shared different methods for bleaching wood here. I prefer to start with with the methods that I have on hand like household bleach. However, household bleach did not work for this project and I was not surprised. It does not lift the actual color of wood. The next method I tried was using oxalic acid. This comes in crystal forms and has to be activated with hot water. Oxalic acid is typically used for removing black stains, like mildew, from wood. You can get lucky and gain a lighter appearance by removing those stains, but overall, this method did not work for the chest. Finally, I tried a Two-Part A/B Wood Bleach.

WHY HAVENT I USED THIS BEFORE? In the past, I was intimidated to work with anything labeled as “harsh” or “toxic.” The idea of mixing chemicals made me nervous. However, once I researched the simplicity of the method, I decided to give it a try. This process is made of up of two products, sodium hydroxide “Solution A” and hydrogen peroxide “Solution B.” First, I applied Solution A to the chest and let it sit for 5-10 minutes. Then I followed up with Solution B and let it sit overnight. The following morning, I went to check the progress and OH MY GOODNESS. It lifted most of the red from the piece. I immediately ordered more of the product to repeat the process and get the remaining pink out of the wood. I repeated the process three times to remove all of the red color. The best part? It did not alter the color of the woodgrain.

Using two-part wood bleach to remove red from cedar.
After bleaching wood using two part a/b wood bleach.

After using any of these products, it’s important to “neutralize” the bleach before moving forward. I used half water and half vinegar to neutralize it all. Then, it is important to sand and buff out any roughness caused by the chemicals.

Neutralizing wood with household vinegar and mixing with water.

Staining and Whitewashing the Chest

While the bleached wood was beautiful, it was still a little warm for my space. I tried White Wash Pickling Stain with no luck. Next, I tested Weathered Oak Stain and again, no luck. Finally, I decided to use paint and whitewash it. In the past, I have used Valspar Limewash Glaze. Which is exactly that, a thick glaze. I have had trouble rubbing it in and buffing it out, so I decided to try something new. I found an old can of white paint and created my own white wash, with approximately 1 cup water to 1/4 cup of paint. It is important to note, you will need to play around with the consistency and find the right mixture for your piece. Also, the paint will settle to the bottom, so it’s best to continue and mix as you go! I also found that dipping my rag in the settled paint and then in the water helped it spread evenly. After applying one coat, I used a dry cloth to buff out any excess paint.

Sealing the Chest

Finally, I applied my favorite topcoat, General Finishes Flat Out Flat. When you bleach a piece of furniture, there is nothing more frustrating than applying a topcoat that makes the piece appear darker. Flat Out Flat does not alter the color of the wood. I’ve found that it gives the most natural appearance of all topcoats that I have tried. It is not recommended for some areas so make sure you check the instructions first!

Using General Finishes Flat Out Flat as a Topcoat to seal the refinished furniture, without making it darker or appear wet.
Using minimal topcoat on brush, applying long and smooth applications.

Refinishing and bleaching wood methods used

Here is a quick review of my methods for refinishing and bleaching the cedar hope chest. Please note, every piece of furniture is different and you may need to test several methods to find the right one for your piece! As always, follow the instructions from the products used below for safety!

  • Remove Varnish – Using Minwax Furniture Refinisher in a glass bowl and fine steel wool to scrub and remove the old varnish. Clean the wood with water after this step. It left a sticky residue on the chest, so I repeated until most of the varnish was removed. Let it dry completely.
  • Sand Remaining Varnish – Using my favorite Ryobi Orbital Sander and 60-grit sanding discs, I removed the remaining varnish. To create a smooth surface, I followed up with 120-grit, then 220-grit sanding discs. Clean the wood to remove all dust, I like to use a blower and/or vacuum then wipe it clean.
  • Bleaching Cedar – I tested every method for this piece fo furniture (all bleaching methods can be found here). The only method that worked was Two-Part A/B Wood Bleach. First, apply Solution A with a sponge. It will make the wood look much darker. Let it sit for 5-10 minutes. Then apply Solution B with a new sponge. Allow it to sit for several hours or overnight. Repeat as necessary. I did this three times. Neutralize any bleach left behind by wiping the wood with a vinegar and water mixture.
  • Prep to Stain – Lightly sand after bleaching wood. Anytime you use chemicals on wood, there may be damage that is not visible. You will want a nice and smooth surface prior to applying any stain. I used 120-grit sandpaper and followed up with 220-grit sandpaper.
  • Condition with Minwax Water Based Wood Conditioner – In the past, I skipped this step and now I’m a firm believer that using this product will give you better results in the end.
  • Whitewash – I mixed leftover white paint (Chantilly Lace) with water until I created a favorable consistency. You will need to test until you find a mixture that works for you. I found that 1 cup of water to 1/4 cup of paint worked well. Continue to stir while applying. Simply wipe the mixture on the wood with a rag and wipe off any excess with a dry rag, until you reach the color you hope to achieve!
  • Apply Topcoat – Using a brush, brush on one thin application of General Finishes Flat Out Flat Topcoat. Avoid picking up and putting down your brush multiple times to avoid brushstrokes. Let dry for at least 2 hours. Lightly sand and wipe clean. Apply another application of top coat and lightly sand.
Refinished cedar hope chest that was passed from my mother, shown in coastal living room with natural whitewashed tones.
Refinished cedar hope chest that was passed from my mother, shown in coastal living room with natural whitewashed tones.
Refinished cedar hope chest that was passed from my mother, shown in coastal living room with natural whitewashed tones.

Can you believe this is the same piece? Did I convince you that you can bleach red wood? I hope these tips for refinishing and bleaching wood were helpful for your projects. I was skeptical going into this, but now I’m a believer! The hope chest is now fit for a princess and she is currently storing all of her dresses for her future prince!

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  1. This is great! I too have a cedar chest that, with me, is on it’s 3rd generation!!! It’s the traditional red undertone, just like yours, so having a simpler method for bleaching is music to my ears!

  2. Can I bleach wood that has a stain to it. My kitchen cabinets have a flat face with wood grains. Not liking the chocolate brown. I’m worried if I sand it down I might get down to the mdf or the wood grain will all be gone. Is there a method you would suggest to lighten them?

    1. Hi there, you have to be careful because if you sand down to MDF, there is no going back. I haven’t tried the wood bleach on mdf, so I’m not sure how it would work sorry!

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