DIY Dry Brush Painting Technique

I love finding DIY projects.  Not only does it let me release my creative juices, but it also saves me money (sometimes!).  I have been seeing this technique called dry brushing and I really wanted to give it a try.  I decided to dry brush our two second hand dressers black to match the rest of our bedroom.  This is what I did:

Step 1:  Find Your Dresser (or other piece of furniture)

When my hubby and I first moved out of our childhood houses we went to our college dorms/apartments, which included dressers.  Then when we moved out into our first apartment, it included built in dressers (I know, weird right?).  So when we moved to this apartment, shocker, we now needed dressers like big kids!  For more months than I would care to admit I literally used cardboard apple boxes as my dresser drawers (they were all lined up on the floor of my closet, it was really bad).  My husband was able to steal the dresser that he used at his parents house so he was set.  Eventually Nathan and I had a free weekend and set out to find me (and possibly him) a new dresser.  We went to a few big chain stores like Target, Walmart, and Ikea.  Target and Walmart didn’t have the quality or size we were looking for (that didn’t shock us but we figured we would give it a go anyway) and Ikea was freakishly expensive considering it is made out of particle board.  We checked out a few local furniture stores, but all were either out of our price range or didn’t have what we were looking for (again, the Ikea vibe).  Finally we realized, let’s check out our local thrift shop!

We found our local thrift shop and strolled inside.  We found the furniture section and quickly looked around.  I have been to thrift shops before so I know that it is very “first come first serve” and “once you find it death grip it” kind of atmosphere.  We quickly realized there wasn’t anything there for us, and we were just about to turn and leave…when the back door opened and the workers started wheeling a few pieces of furniture in that must have recently been dropped off.  And then I saw her: my dresser.  She was exactly what I wanted, larger than anything we had found before, smaller drawers for my “smaller garments” and then a lot of nice large drawers for all my mounds of clothes.  I was sold.  I noticed a few other people eying her, so before the guy was completely through the back door I was standing right next to the worker with my hand on the dresser (a thrift shop sign for “Back off, it’s mine.”)  I asked the worker how much for her (she didn’t even have a price tag on her yet) and the worker had absolutely no idea and told us to ask the manager.  I stayed right next to my dresser with my hand on her while Nathan went hunting for the manager.  He finally found him and brought him over.  The manager looked over the dresser, then looked at us, and said, “$40?” Sold!  My hand did not leave her until we loaded her into the back of Nathan’s truck.

Even though she was very nicely built, she had a few physical flaws, a scratch here, a small dent there.  Nothing major.  Oh, and her stain was much to be desired.  I always had the idea to refinish her, but for the time being I just used her as-is.

Thrift Shop Tips:  If you see something you want, seriously don’t leave it’s side and be prepared to throw daggers.  Come prepared with a truck (or SUV or van) if you intend on buying something large.  Many stores will hold your already purchased furniture for a few hours, but I personally wouldn’t trust it.

My dresser (Note the big dark circle at the top right, that is my fault)
My dresser (Note the big dark circle at the top right, that is my fault)

Nathan and I happily used our dressers as-is for almost three years.  This summer I really got the itch to refinish my dresser, especially since we bought the new bed frame, mirror, and night stands.  I really just wanted our bedroom to finally be finished!  If I refinished my dresser, I really wanted to refinish Nathan’s dresser so ours could match, but Nathan’s old dresser had been painted and repainted a few times and Nathan said it wasn’t worth refinishing.  He was also starting to outgrow the size of it, and secretly wanted a larger dresser.  I finally announced to him that I was going to refinish my dresser this week, and I was going to refinish his, either his old one from childhood or we would find him a new one.  He finally caved (as long as I did the work).  We (I) started looking at different websites to see what was out there before we got in the truck and started the search.  We did the rounds again, and once again all the stores we found were out of the question for many reasons (generally price vs. quality).  I drove to my local thrift store and they didn’t have anything the size Nathan wanted.  I have read in my Better Homes and Garden Magazines about people finding furniture on Craigslist, and I was a bit skeptical, but I decided to give it a shot.  There were quite a few dressers that met Nathan’s very picky standards, so I started contacting the owners.  I texted Nathan’s top pick first and they texted back saying that someone picked up the dresser 10 minutes ago.  Darn!  Then I convinced Nathan to let me text my favorite dresser (he said it was too fancy).  He responded saying that he had someone coming at 3 to take a look at their dresser (it was 2:15) so if I hurried I could look before.  Luckily they lived literally a few miles from our house, so I jumped in clothes, we sped to the bank, and then to their house.  The guy said he lowered his price to $165 and really wouldn’t go down any lower, but we were fine with that so we quickly looked over the dresser, handed him the cash, and threw the dresser in the back of Nathan’s truck.  We jetted out of there by 2:50.

Craigslist Tips: Check Saturday morning.  That is most likely when people will post their best goodies, but it is also when people are all waiting around to pounce on the best offer.  Be ready to literally jump in your car and go.  Always bring cash with you.  Even though we didn’t, be prepared to haggle a little bit.  Generally posters know people will haggle so they post their prices a little high.  Most importantly when dealing with Craigslist, go with your gut.  We hear in the news now and again about people meeting someone on Craigslist and getting robbed or worse.  There is no way I would have gone without my husband (safety in numbers).  We also were going to a real house address, not some back alley, and we were also going in the middle of the day, not at night.  These are all little clues that these people are hopefully not crazy.  If it feels sketchy at all, DON’T go.

Nathan's new dresser
Nathan’s new dresser (It was almost too pretty to refinish!)

So now that you know a little back story of how we got our amazing dressers, now here are the steps that I took to dry brush paint them.

Step 2: Collecting Supplies (Links are the products I actually used from Lowe’s)

  1. Electric (Power) Sander: I highly, highly suggest an electric sander, if you do it by hand it will take you literally a thousand years, your hand/arm will fall off, and your sanity will fly out the window.
  2. Hand Sander/Sanding Sponge: I know what I just said above, BUT for dry painting it is nice to have a hand sander around in case you make a mistake, or you can use it for the tight spaces an electric sander just can’t reach.
  3. Paint Stripper: I refinished these in our apartment garage, which happens to be next door to our maintenance garages, so we have gotten to know the guys over the past couple years.  When they saw what I was doing, one of them stopped and talked to me for a while.  He also refinishes furniture and sells them at local swap meets.  He suggested I get liquid paint stripper for the curved edges, and I am SOO glad he said that.  Nathan assured me I could “just sand” all of it, but I really could not.  And if I did find a way to do it, I would have damaged the dresser.  Paint stripper comes in spray and paint on, and it comes in a variety of ways to make it “less dangerous” (aka the fumes aren’t as strong but it doesn’t work as fast).  So read up on what exactly you want and then pick your poison. (Note: Lowes.com does not have the same product I used, so it is linked to something similar.)  I used 2 1/2 cans and only used it on the very curved parts on Nathan’s dresser.
  4. Paint:  I went to Lowe’s not really caring about brands, all I wanted was something in black and this was the only little can in black, so I bought it.  Overall I like the the job the brand did, so I would recommend it if you have no idea what to look for.  You can also ask the people working in the paint department for help.  I highly recommend buying the smallest container you can if you are dry brush painting.  I literally only used less than an inch of the container I bought (if measuring from the top).
  5. Paint Brush(es):  We already had a medium sized paint brush, but we bought a larger and smaller paint brush and I ended up only using the medium brush.  It doesn’t really matter what type you use, just make sure the bristles are in good shape since dry brush painting really relies on the quality of bristles.
  6. Wood Filler:  If you are drilling new holes for the handles or if you have some dents and dings you need to fill, you will need wood filler.  They make a ton of different types, but I really liked the liquid(ish) kind I got because I really wanted to fill the old screw holes, not just cover them, and it did that job nicely.  It also dried very quickly, which gave me more time to do all the other stuff I needed to do.  It also came in a few different wood colors, and so I just kind of chose one in the middle.
  7. Polyurethane:  This is your top coat that will protect your dresser from the elements.  They make a ton of different types with different finishes.  I chose semi-gloss because I didn’t want it too shiny, but I didn’t want it matte either.  I am content with the amount of shine in the end.
  8. Handles:  If you want to use the handles your dresser came with, great!  You just saved yourself an infinite amount of headache.  If you don’t like the ones it came with, you will obviously need to buy new ones.  You can find some really unique handles and nobs online at places like Etsy, or if you want something more traditional Lowe’s had a pretty good selection in-store (I couldn’t find our exact handle on Lowes.com, so I found one similar).  If you can find handles that have the same width as your old ones, this will save you the headache we had drilling new holes.
  9. Other Tools:  Screw driver (for handles), metal wire brush (for paint stripper), plastic scraper (for wood filler and/or paint stripper), gloves (for paint stripper), a fan (for the paint stripper fumes and just because garages can get hot), a radio/music player (because you are out there for a LONG time), a broom and hand broom (because it WILL get dusty), paper towels (for wiping down wood filler, cleaning up messes), and newspaper type material (to lay down on the ground).

Supply Tips: Be prepared to go back to the hardware store many times!  I only had four trips, which is probably a DIY record for me.  I personally feel like it is better to buy more than you think you might need, it is easier to return all unused materials at once at the end than run to the store to get more mid-project.

Step 3: Removing Handles/Nobs

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Removing the handles (Note: you can still see the outline of the old finish underneath my old handles)

Even if you are keeping the old handles, you will want to remove them so you can paint underneath.  This should be the simplest part of the refinishing process.  Generally they screw in from the back and can be removed with a screwdriver.  Total Time: 15 minutes

Step 4: Fill Holes

If you are using your old handles or you found handles the same width as your old ones, this step will be easy.  Just fill in any dings or holes you find (follow instructions on bottle/tube/container, they are all slightly different).  If you are using handles with a different width, you will need to fill your old holes. Total Time: 30 minutes

Filling Tips: It is OK if it is not perfect at this time, you will sand off extra filler in the next step.

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Filling the holes (Note: We couldn’t find our plastic scraper so I used a plastic knife and it did the job. Also, remember to fill in the backs of the drawers)

Step 5: Removing Old Stain/Paint/Polish With Rough Sanding

I used our electric sander with 60 grit sandpaper to remove the old stain.  The nifty attachments came in handy and helped me get in the tight corners and weird angles and curves.  I used the electric sander for all of my dresser and all the major flat parts (sides and top) of Nathan’s. Electric Sanding Total Time: 7 hours

Rough Sanding Tips: It is OK if you make little marks with the electric sander during this stage, you will go back with a fine sander to remove all those little marks.

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Electric Sanding the top of Nathan’s dresser. (Note me standing on a bucket to get better leverage. Sanding is all about using your own body weight as force!)

Like I mentioned above, I am SO glad our maintenance man mentioned the liquid paint stripper.  It saved me hours (and hours and hours) of hand sanding, plus it didn’t damage the wood as much as my hack job hand sanding would have.  Like I mentioned, paint stripper is fairly dangerous.  I am not the kind of gal who listens to warning labels, but I actually did (kind of) with this product and I am SOO glad I did.  Let’s not beat around the bush, this product is fairly toxic.  They make “healthier” varieties made out of orange oil (but they don’t work as well or as fast), but let’s face it, it is still poison.  I figured I would rather get a super poisonous variety that works really fast and just get it out of the way.  I had the fan on in the garage the entire time, but it was extremely important during this stage and I used it as close to the outside door as possible to help the fumes escape.  I used rubber gloves, which you HAVE to do, there is just no way around it.  Even though the gloves, the paint stripper started melting the gloves and making my hands very hot and uncomfortable.  It said on the bottle to make sure to not come in contact with your skin, and boy are they right!  My leg brushed up against one of the dresser drawers and I didn’t think much of it…until it started to burn…very badly.  Like, to the point where I dropped everything, ran in the house and jumped in the shower to wash it off.  I learned that if a little speck got on my body it would burn quite a bit, but after a few minutes the burning would stop (if that makes you feel any better).  Once I was done I took a VERY long shower.  I used the paint stripper on the top and bottom parts of his dresser where it was very curved, as well as the curved parts of his dresser drawers.  It was quite easy to use the paint stripper, I sprayed it on to where I needed it, waited a couple minutes, then used the metal wire brush to scrape it off.  The first round removed most but not all of it, so I did another round on the parts that needed it.  One thing worth mentioning, the stripper actually stained the already sanded parts a dark color, so make sure you do your best to spray it only where you want it.  I had to re-sand the stained parts.  Paint Stripper Total Time: 3 Hours (not including the two trips to Lowe’s to buy the first can, and then when that ran out the other two cans.

Paint Stripper Tips: I hardly follow instructions, but I repeat, follow the instructions on the spray can/paint container.  And most importantly, WEAR BODY PROTECTION!!

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Paint Stripping the curved parts of Nathan’s dresser

Rough Sanding Total Time: 10 Hours

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Finished with the rough sanding! Thank the lord!

Step 6: Re-Fill All Holes

If you were talented enough the first go around and all your holes are totally flush with the rest of the wood, then good for you!  You can skip this step.  But at least for me, all my handle holes were indented a bit, and I knew it was important to make the holes as flush to the wood as I could possibly get. Total Time: About 5 Minutes

Re-Filling Tips: Make sure the holes are flush, I mean it.  You don’t believe me?  You will see later…

Step 7: Fine Sand Everything

I used 220 grit sand paper on my electric sander and quickly ran the sander over all surfaces.  This really helped get out the little marks made by the rough sanding and made the wood nice and soft and pretty.  Total Time: 4 Hours

Fine Sanding Tips: Now is the time to get rid of ALL the little marks.  I thought that some of them would be covered by the paint, but I was wrong.  Dry painting does not cover imperfections, if anything it accentuates them, so make sure all little dents and lines are gone.

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Both dressers finally ready to be painted!

Step 8:  Sweep EVERYTHING

So, I knew sanding would make a mess, I really did.  But the garage got RIDICULOUSLY dirty.  The electric sander even had a filter and a dust catcher, but it only helped a little bit.  Before you paint, I highly suggest you sweep the floor, walls, and every piece of the dresser.  If dust gets in the paint it can cause the surface to look really rough.

Step 9: Painting Time!

Finally, the fun creative part!!  I started on my dresser drawers, because they were small and flat and I figured it would be a nice starting point (which it was).  If you are really worried, you can practice on the back of the dresser or a part that won’t be seen, but my personal motto is “only happy accidents” so I just went with the flow.  I laid out some papers underneath, but to be honest the whole point of dry painting is to use as little paint as possible, so it did not drip on the floor once.

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Top Left: The amount of paint I used for each dip. Top Right: The black paint I used. Bottom: My set up for painting the drawers.

Now, for the dry brushing technique.  Dip your clean, dry brush about a third of the way in to the paint.  Other blogs recommended wiping the wet brush on paper towels, but I found that just wiping it against the edge of the paint can worked just fine.  Whatever way works for you, wipe off as much of the excess paint as you can, so the bristles are damp but nowhere near dripping.  As for the painting itself, you want to use as long and light strokes as you possibly can.  For the drawers, I tried to go from end to end in one large stroke.  The heavier you press down in the strokes, the darker the paint will be.  For my dressers, I varied the amount of pressure I used so the paint strokes showed depth and a variety of layers.  While you are getting a feel of the process, go as light as possible.  You can always make it heavier if you want, but it is almost impossible to remove a stroke that was too heavy.  If you did make a mistake (which I made a few) and you didn’t remove enough paint or made too heavy of a stroke, you can use sand paper (I used 60 grit) to lighten the paint.  Warning, if you do this, the removed paint will become thin strips that looks like pencil shavings that will accumulate in your paint.  Do your best to remove them immediately before the paint dries (I didn’t and now I have little shavings in my final paint).  Keep doing long light swipes of paint until you get it as dark and covered as you want.  The nice part about dry brushing is there is almost zero wait time for it to dry.  Once you are done it is dry enough to handle.  Total Time: 2.5 Hours

Dry Brushing Tips: I thought I would get the best and most uniform brush strokes if the surface I was painting was always horizontal, so I rotated the dressers each time.  I also did the brush strokes in the same direction as the wood grain, that is also very important to make it look the most natural.  Also, since you will be painting it each drawer at a time, once you are done with the next drawer compare it to the previous drawer to make sure you have the same amount of paint, this way at the end it will all look uniform.  Remember, don’t forget the sides of the drawers!  They will be seen too.

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My dresser drawers lined up after getting the dry brush technique.

This was about the time my doubts started setting in.  It wasn’t because it wasn’t necessarily what I thought it would look like, but I was just starting to question my choices.  It also didn’t help that others were questioning my choices either.  When I was about halfway done my neighbor walked by, looked at the dressers, then asked, “You are putting a second coat of black on there, right?”  I then had to sheepishly explain what dry painting was and that I actually wanted it to look that way.  She kind of gave me a look and walked away.  Then my  husband came home when I was pretty much completely done.  He took one look and I could see the wheels turning in his head as he carefully chose the following words, “Is this how you intended it to turn out like?”  Since my husband isn’t my neighbor, I quickly replied with some sarcastic snide remark and kicked him out of the garage.

Step 10: Polyurethane Coat

Once all the paint is dry (which should be almost instant), it is time to put the final coat of polyurethane on it.  I chose the semi-gloss coat because I didn’t want it to be too shiny (It is supposed to look antique(ish) after all!).  The container said to put 3 coats on the dresser, but “ain’t nobody got time for ‘dat,” so I chose to just do one really thorough coat.  You actually paint polyurethane on, and it is a little thinner than normal paint, so I recommend putting paper down on the ground to catch the dripping.  I used the same brush I used with the dry brushing (after cleaning and drying it, of course) and used long strokes in the same direction as the dry brushing and wood grain.  When the polyurethane first goes on, it has a white opaque look, but it will dry clear.  Because the wood is not even now that parts of it is dry brushed and part is still natural wood, it was actually fairly hard to get the entire piece covered with an even layer.  It helped to look at the wood from an angle because I could see the parts that didn’t shine as brightly and needed more polyurethane.  I did one fairly thick layer over everything that was sanded/dry painted.  Since the coat dries slower than the dry brushing, I kept the dressers upright and just painted the polyurethane the best I could on the sides.  Total Time: 2 Hours

Polyurethane Coat Tips: As I mentioned, polyurethane will drip.  It also dries fairly quickly, so you need to continue to check for drips and clean them up before they dry in a nasty clump.  Because I am anal at times, when the coat is almost dry I like to go over it with the brush fairly dry (almost like dry painting) with big strokes that go all the way from end to end (again, like dry painting).  I feel this really makes the top coat clean and uniform.  Just as a warning, I feel it stains the wood slightly darker (which I liked) so just be ready for that.

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The picture on the right is in the middle of adding the coat to the side of Nathan’s dresser. It is quite telling of the drying process. Notice the top is drying, the middle was freshly painted (you can see the white opaque look), and the bottom is untouched. You can also see the white drip marks at the base of the dresser, and if left they would have dried as a clumpy, semi-opaque mess.

After hearing Nathan’s and my neighbor’s super supportive comments (not), I was a little cautious to coat the dresser.  Once the coating was one, it was pretty much a done deal.  I was worried the new finish wouldn’t match our bed frame, but eventually I just gave up and figured I didn’t care anymore and just wanted this project over with.  Nathan came home right when I was finishing up the polyurethane coating and I was scared to see what he had to say.  Luckily he really liked what the coating did to the dressers and now he is in love with them (thankfully!!).

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The coated dressers, finally able to put the drawers back in!

Step 11: Re-Drilling the Handle Holes

Again, if you are keeping the same holes, great job!  You made a smart choice.  If you are like me and are stubborn and want something new, this is how we did it.  First, the distance between my handle holes were 2.5 inches, and the distance between Nathan’s were 6(!!) inches.  We thought 2.5 was too small (one of Nathan’s requirements was he had to be able to fit his entire hand in the handle) and 6 was excessively large.  I was looking on Etsy for pretty handles, but they were all pretty expensive ($7-$10 each).  Also, all the pretty ones I found revolted Nathan.  I wanted something dainty and feminine and with a natural (with flowers or leaves or something) theme in a silver/white to match the rest of our bedroom.  After looking at the handles they had at Lowe’s, we both agreed on a silver 3 inch handle that had leaves and vines imprinted on the top.

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The 20 handles and 8 nobs we bought (two nobs are for the bedside tables to match) which came with two different length screws.

This was the only part of the process I asked Nathan for help.  Since he is an engineer, I let him figure out how to drill the new holes.  We worked together on the spacing, and once we knew what we wanted Nathan created the method below to easily measure the holes.

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Nathan’s engineered hole drilling system.

What he did was take a piece of string and tape it to the top.  He then tied a weight to the bottom of the string and then taped that end down too.  Then he used his tape measure to measure where we wanted the holes and put little lines in whiteout on the string.  This way all he had to do was drill a hole next to the whiteout mark, move the string to the next line of holes, and continue the trend.  Nathan might not like me to admit to this, but I will because hopefully it will help some of you.  The second hole for the handles are the hardest, because they have to be exactly the length of the handle (in our case, it was 3 inches).  Nathan was so confident with his hole drilling system he didn’t listen to the “measure twice cut once” rule and made a booboo.  The second hole was drilled a little too close to the first, and unfortunately he drilled the entire row before checking.  What we ended up doing was fill the bad holes with wood filler, wait about half an hour for them to dry, then we actually covered it with black permanent marker.  You couldn’t even see the old hole once we were done with them!  After that little mix up Nathan paid a little closer attention drilling.  Total Time: 2 Hours (with hiccups)

Drilling Tips: It isn’t and old famous saying for a reason: “Measure twice and cut (or drill) once.” One thing it did teach me, it was easy to touch up blemishes with a black sharpie!  Because my old handle holes weren’t exactly flush with the wood, you could still see them through the paint.  I used the black sharpie to go back and touch up all those holes and by the end of it you couldn’t see any of them anymore.

Step 12: Attaching Handle/Nobs 

Last step, I promise!!  And it is the second easiest step (detaching the handles was first).  Our handles were kind of bothering me because they were a little too shiny and pretty and new and the dresser looked shabby chic.  What I decided to do was take the sanding sponge (60 grit) and buff up the handles a bit.  I figured the handles were going to get scuffed anyway, I might as well help them out a bit and make them look a little more authentic.  Total Time: 15 Minutes

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It is hard to tell in the pictures, but… Left picture: The left two are sanded and the right two are not. Right picture: The top nob is the original and the bottom nob is sanded.

All Done!!

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Nathan’s finished dresser.
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My finished dresser.
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Our bedroom with the new finished dressers! (I know, our bedroom is amazingly small, but one day our furniture won’t look crazy big once we get our own house)

Time Break Down:

It took me about 22 hours to do the entire project start to finish (not including trips to the store).

Price Break Down:

My dresser: $40

Nathan’s dresser: $165

Handles and nobs: $130

Other consumables: $65

Total Spent: $400

The price of the dressers that matched our bed frame and mirror that were similar quality and size of our current dressers were $500 each.  That means we saved about $600.

Let me repeat that.  We saved about $600 because I did it myself.  Not only that, but the dressers are made out of quality wood instead of particle board, and they are the exact finish we wanted.

Final Thoughts:

Even though it felt like this project would NEVER end I am overall very glad I did it.  Yes, it took me 22 hours to complete, but I had a lot of fun (looking back, during it I wanted to burn them to the ground) and I learned a whole lot.  Plus, I was able to save us about $600 that we can put toward saving for our house.  When I look at them in our bedroom I see all the little mistakes I made and all the things I wish I would have changed or done differently, but Nathan swears they aren’t noticeable and we both are in love with them.  The cool thing about this technique is you could use it a million different ways by changing the color (I have seen this done fabulously with bold colors like turquoise or red) or by changing the amount of paint you add.  Nathan also mentioned that because there isn’t a lot of paint used it would be easy to refinish these dressers again if we wanted, but I just laughed at him and said, “You have fun with that.”

What do you think?  Are you going to try dry brush painting?  Let me know!

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