Finishing Inside the Drawers of a Fine Walnut Vanity

Advice on whether to finish the drawer interiors of a period furniture piece, and with what. February 26, 2007

Just getting ready to finish up a walnut vanity. I am using a varnish oil and finishing that with beeswax. Should I treat the inside of the drawers and the cabinet boxes? My panels are solid wood and want to avoid any warping later on.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor L:
What you do on one side you should do to the other - that gives a balanced panel. As for the drawers, it makes it easier to clean if it has a finish on them. I have many pieces of older (inexpensive) furniture that the drawers are just raw maple, used for clothing. They don't really get dirty.

From contributor J:
I agree with contributor L - I've also seen a lot of older pieces with unfinished drawers. However, since this is a vanity, it will be exposed to a lot more humidity variations, and many things not as clean and soft as clothing. (Think of what's in your own vanity). I would recommend finishing the drawers for durability.

I finish my vanity drawers the same as kitchen drawers, with a wb lacquer, one coat sealer followed by two topcoats. The finish or application method doesn't matter as much as making sure you apply the same number of coats to all surfaces. Just as long as it's a finish that can take some abuse.

From contributor L:
I posted before I thought of this - I don't think it is necessary to wax the inside of the cabinet; just use the varnish oil, same with the drawer innards.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the input, but I think I need to clarify. This piece is a stand alone, like the old fashion vanities where women would sit and brush their hair and store their underclothes. It will be placed in the master bedroom. My concern for the inside of the drawers with the oil finish is transfer to clothing.

From contributor L:
Then use a true drying varnish, shellac, polyurethane, lacquer for the inside of the drawers. Like we said, you could always leave them raw. But I think it makes it harder to clean up a mess and they do happen.

From contributor T:
I think shellac is the best finish for the drawers of the piece you have described. Mix your own and apply two coats of a 1lb. cut. You can brush or spray it.

From contributor C:
Leave it unfinished. All period pieces are left unfinished on the insides and they are all fine. If you really want to finish it, only use shellac. Anything else will just smell really bad and may get sticky.

From contributor J:
I think you could go either way, finished or raw. If you go finished, it should be something that will dry completely - shellac, thinned varnish, etc. - your choice. If it's only clothing going in the drawers, then leaving unfinished should be fine too, as long as the client is okay with it. My personal experience has been a little different than contributor C's - I have seen quite a few older pieces where there were stains, checking, splitting, and/or warping on the unfinished wood. Just the effects of time and use on a piece of furniture.

One last thing. What is the top of the vanity made of ? If it's wood, I would be a little nervous with the finish you're describing. That's often the place where perfumes, makeup, nail polish and remover, and other such goodies are kept. Many things which, if spilled, will eat through wax and oil. If it's marble or something else, you won't have to worry. Just thought I'd throw that out there. I guess in the end, what's most important is what the client wants and will live with.

From the original questioner:
Thanks again. I'll probably leave them dry. As far as the top, it's an inlayed 3/4" floating marble top.

From contributor D:
Clear wax is what you need for period pieces. A coat or two of wb or shellac first wouldn't hurt nobody's feelings, though. And in 100 years, your drawers will look dry, too - authentic.

From contributor R:
Never use an oil or solvent based finish inside a drawer. It will stink forever! I made a desk for my son at least 15 years ago when I was using conversion varnish. You can still catch a faint smell when you open the drawer. I like a really thin wash coat of shellac followed by a wipe down with 320 grit paper. It cuts off all the fuzz and it doesn't even look like there is any finish on it at all. It really feels good to your hand, though, nice and slick.