We got this dresser off of craigslist for a whopping 20 bucks! The guy was moving the following day and needed to get it out that night so we bartered from the 40 asking price down to 20.
Step 1: Thoroughly clean the outside of the piece with soap and water getting all excess grime, gum, candle wax, etc. off.
Step 2: Begin sanding all of the flat surfaces with 100 grit sandpaper. The outside of this piece was wood veneer - a lot of sites will tell you not to sand veneer, and while you do want to be careful there is quite a bit of stain and lacquer that you have to sand through before you even get to the veneer. I used a hand sander and was able to remove all of the water stains, burns, and most of the scratches out of the top by sanding through the lacquer and stain down to the wood.
Step 3: Remove all hardware. Use a sanding pad or sanding sponge (Fine or 150 grit) to sand all of the corners and crevices and do a final oversand of all areas to smooth it out.
Step 4: We used a stain + poly blend instead of doing it separately and ultimately I really liked how it worked! It goes on quite a bit more like paint than it does like stain.
I applied with a 3 inch stain sponge. The most important thing I learned was to apply in full strokes - you paint it on with the brush (DO NOT WIPE OFF!) going in full strokes from end to end of the piece making sure the coat is even. Painting it on like this allows for the shiny poly finish to come out, if you wipe it off it is more of a matte finish.
Step 5: Let that coat FULLY dry and do a gentle sand with the 150 grit sanding sponge to prep for the second coat. Apply a second coat of the stain. Repeat this step until you have reached the deepness of color you want.
Step 6: Reattach or replace the hardware. We had to replace the hardware because one was missing and two were broken. We got really lucky that the desk I purchased had beautiful period appropriate drawer pulls that I could take and use on the dresser! To use the new hardware we had to drill new holes - determine which drill bit will be the same size as your screw and predrill the hole. (After you have measured carefully where you want your new pulls to go!) Screw in the new hardware.
Step 7: Stand back and feel good about restoring a beautiful piece of furniture!
All in all this took me about a month to a month and a half to finish and was a lot more involved than I thought it would be. I'm very happy with the outcome and will no doubt dive into another piece of furniture sooner rather than later!