A tansu is a traditional Japanese cabinet or chest of drawers, usually made from wood. While tansu have historically served as practical storage furniture, their simple and elegant designs have made them popular decorative pieces as well. With some creativity, you can teach an old tansu new tricks to give this classic furniture item modern functionality.

Assess the Tansu’s Current Condition

Before attempting any modifications, examine the tansu closely to determine its current condition. Look for any structural damage, rot, or instability that could make alterations unsafe or unwise. Check the joints and hardware to see if anything needs repair or reinforcement. Examine the finish for any significant scratches, gouges, or fading that you may want to touch up. Make notes on what needs attention so you can factor that into your project plan. Address any major issues first before introducing new elements.

Thoroughly clean the tansu inside and out with a wood-safe cleaner. Remove any smells or stains. Inspect all drawers to ensure they slide smoothly. Lubricate hardware and tighten any loose joinery. You want the tansu restored to its best possible base state before customizing it.

Brainstorm Creative New Uses

With a blank slate, think creatively about how you can modify your tansu to serve new functions:

Add Interior Organization

Install drawer dividers, trays, racks, or bins inside the tansu for specialized storage. Tailor compartments to hold specific items like jewelry, toiletries, office supplies, linens, or hobby gear. Label drawers to create a tidy system.

Adjust Shelving

Remove upper drawers to install open shelving for display. Or add new shelves inside lower cabinets for more storage space. Glass shelves or doors create visibility.

Create Display Space

Replace some drawers with open cubbies to use the tansu to display decorative objects. Install risers or blocks to elevate special items. Add lighting for drama.

Build In Media Options

Cut out sections in the tansu’s back panel to insert power strips and cables to create a space to charge devices and organize media components. Customize storage for DVDs, gaming consoles, streaming devices.

Add Specialized Storage

Incorporate sliding trays, hanging files, or custom inserts to accommodate specific hobbies or interests. Make designated spaces for craft supplies, sewing notions, workshop tools, or fishing tackle for example.

Give It Work Space

Take out lower drawers and replace with a slide-out work surface to create a writing desk or work station. Add storage below for office supplies.

Provide Hidden Storage

Use false backs, bottoms, or sides to hide valuables. Conceal power outlets and charging cables. Create secret cubbies accessed only through hidden latches or devices.

Make It Multi-Purpose

Use a combination of open, closed, and display storage to create an all-in-one entertainment center, home office, jewelry station, bar, or other functional mix.

Add Hardware, Lighting, and Accessories

Don’t limit yourself to just the tansu’s existing features. Look for ways to embellish it:

  • Install touch latches, magnetic catches, or bullet catches for a modern look.
  • Add pull-out work surfaces like slide-out trays or drop-down desk panels.
  • Incorporate lighting such as battery-operated puck lights inside, rope lighting on shelves, or discreet LED strips to show off displays.
  • Attach mirrors to the inside of doors using adhesive.
  • Install hooks on side panels to hold keys, headphones, or rechargers.
  • Use risers, cubbies, racks, and display blocks to better showcase favorite items.
  • Affix chalkboard panels for notes, menus, or artistic expression.

Change the Look with New Finish Options

Refinishing or repainting the tansu opens many design possibilities:

  • Sand and restain using a trendy color like grey washed or charcoal for a contemporary look.
  • Paint with chalk paint and distress for a vintage flair.
  • Use decoupage or wallpaper inside for a decorative touch.
  • Replace hardware with modern brushed nickel or matte black for contrast.
  • Stencil patterns on the sides or drawer fronts for whimsical effect.
  • Wallpaper the back panel for an unexpected pop of color and texture when doors open.
  • Accent with trim like molding around top and bottom or beadboard inside backs.

Distressing, glazing, and other finish techniques can also customize the tansu’s style.

Add Functional Features

Look for ways to enhance usefulness:

  • Install interior electrical outlets, USB ports, and cable feeds.
  • Use Moisture-proof finish inside bathroom tansu to withstand humidity.
  • Add breadboard ends or reinforce joints if tansu will hold heavier items.
  • Use drawer liner or foam matting to keep stored items from shifting.
  • Mount tansu on casters for furniture that can move as needed.
  • Add cushioned pads, rocker glides, or feet to floor-protecting tansu bases.

Make Tech Connections

Integrate technology so your tansu can handle the demands of modern life:

  • Insert power strips inside to create charging stations.
  • Add integrated LED lighting with touch switches or remote control.
  • Install hardware mounts to hold TVs, speakers, or displays.
  • Use sliding trays and cubbies to organize media components.
  • Incorporate docking stations for devices and conceal connecting cords.

Customize with Paint Techniques

Beyond basic painting, try specialized finish techniques:


Water down paint and apply lightly for a washed, weathered look. Works well with navy, grey, and other dark base colors.


After painting, purposefully damage the finish by scraping corners, sanding edges, and nicking to mimic vintage wear and tear.


Use custom stencils to create patterns on drawer fronts. Geometric designs or nature motifs work well.

Faux Finishes

Replicate finishes like marble, wood grain, patina, and more using sponges, rags, glazes, and specialty tools. Great for making new paint resemble old wood.

Metallic Accents

Mix a pearl, copper, silver, gold, or other metallic paint with a clear base for a shimmering accent. Brush lightly over base color.

Chalkboard Paint

Use chalkboard paint to cover all or part of the piece to allow writing notes and messages directly on the furniture.

Find Inspiration for New Designs

Looking at examples helps spark innovative ideas:

  • Search online for “tansu repurposing” or “tansu makeover” to see what others have done.
  • Look at images of modern cabinetry and storage solutions for creative adaptations.
  • Browse home organization sites and magazines to find ways to incorporate specialized storage.
  • Follow furniture flippers on social media and DIY blogs to discover clever upgrades.
  • Visit antique and thrift stores to see display solutions and hardware options.
  • Look at photos of contemporary home interiors for on-trend paint colors and finish ideas.

Studying others’ designs will fuel your own creativity.

Make Safety a Priority

While getting creative with your tansu transformation, be sure to keep safety in mind:

  • Use furniture repair epoxy and clamps to reinforce joints if doing any major modifications.
  • Check that new doors and drawers open freely without hitting each other.
  • Install drawer stops so drawers cannot be pulled all the way out and drop contents.
  • Anchor tall tansu and hutches securely to wall studs.
  • Avoid excess weight that could make piece unsteady and prone to tipping.
  • Keep flammables away from light fixtures and electrical additions.
  • Use child safety locks if young children will access the tansu.

Work in Stages

Don’t feel you need to do everything at once. Transforming a tansu allows you to get creative with both form and function. Work in stages:

Structural Stage

Do any repairs first. Check for sagging joints or damage. Tighten hardware. Lubricate slides. Examine overall structure.

Cleaning Stage

Thoroughly clean inside and out before making changes. Remove odors, stains, dust. Get the tansu in its best base state.

Design Stage

This is when you start your creative conceptualizing. Sketch ideas. Gather inspiration. Pick your design direction.

Organization Stage

Figure out what will go where and how to configure the space. Select storage accessories. Map out your organizational scheme.

Modification Stage

Now execute your plans. Paint, add hardware, install lighting and accessories, repurpose space as designed.

Decor Stage

Style your newly transformed tansu. Add personal touches that show off form and function.

Decide on Your Design Direction

Before starting your makeover, determine the overall style you want:


  • Sleek hardware
  • Bold colors
  • Removable organization
  • Hidden storage
  • Mix of materials


  • Distressed paint
  • Visible wood grain
  • Worn finish
  • Weathered appearance
  • Farmhouse charm


  • Mix of colors, textures
  • Global inspiration
  • Unexpected combinations
  • Conversation starting


  • Soft neutral colors
  • Hidden clutter
  • Calm, serene vibe
  • Purposeful organization
  • Only the essentials

Make Small Changes for Big Impact

Even minor upgrades can give your tansu a fresh modern look:

  • Replace dated hardware. Brushed nickel knobs feel current.
  • Lighten wood tone with a natural stain wash. Grey and white wash are popular.
  • Paint interior backs a bold color for a dramatic accent when opened.
  • Remove doors and paint inside fun colors to show off contents.
  • Use chalkboard paint to create a graffiti wall or leave messages.
  • Install modern fixtures like puck lights, rope lighting, or discreet LED strips.
  • Add eclectic global accents like Moroccan tiles, Indian textiles, or Turkish kilim rugs.

Salvage Unique Materials

Look beyond big box home improvement stores to find one-of-a-kind elements that will make your tansu transformation unique. Salvage materials from old buildings, antique shops, flea markets, thrift stores, yard sales, and auctions to find interesting design details.

  • Old barn wood for rustic shelf fronts
  • Vintage glass doorknobs for novel hardware
  • Weathered tin ceiling tiles for a backsplash
  • Old window shutters for door fronts
  • Architectural corbels for feet
  • Salvaged bricks or tiles for open shelving
  • Repurposed frames around mirrors or chalkboards

Mixing salvaged materials into your design adds charisma and sustainability.

Make the Most of Small Spaces

Tansu come in many sizes. To make the most of more compact tansu:

  • Use vertical space. Install floor-to-ceiling shelving or racks.
  • Incorporate dual-purpose furniture like a desk with a drop-down work surface.
  • Use interior organizing accessories like divided turntables, risers, multi-tiered trays.
  • Take advantage of dead space with hardware like side-mounted racks or hanging bins on inside of doors.
  • Built in slender sliding trays or pull-out cutting boards.
  • Maximize every inch. Use racks and cubbies for small items, vertical dividers for narrow spaces.

With some creativity, you can transform even smaller tansu into highly functional storage.

Research Handy Conversion Ideas

Searching for “tansu conversion” online yields many clever ways to adapt these versatile cabinets:

  • Convert to bathroom storage with a custom sink top and plumbing installed.
  • Make into an arts and crafts cabinet fitted with drop-down work surfaces, organizers, and supply storage.
  • Use as a bar by adding wine glass racks, interior lighting, bottle organizers.
  • Create a charging station with power strip, device docks, cord wraps, and headset hooks.
  • Build a workshop tool chest using stacked tool trays and custom inserts for supplies.
  • Make an office cross-file to store hanging files using lengthwise divided drawers.
  • Turn into a display hutch with glass door fronts, mirrored backing, and lighting.

Never underestimate the versatility of the classic tansu cabinet.

Make Cleanup Easy

When tackling a messy transformation project, incorporate features to make cleaning easy:

  • Use high-gloss enamel paint that resists grime.
  • Select smooth hardware with no grooves that attract dust.
  • Install interior lighting so you can see inside better when cleaning.
  • Use removable interior bins and trays that can wash easily.
  • Put furniture on casters to roll out from wall for cleaning behind.
  • Use drawer liner and shelf mats that can remove and launder.
  • Attach chalkboard panel to write dates of deep cleaning as a reminder.
  • Keep vacuum, duster, and cleaning supplies in a designated drawer.
  • Set a reminder on your phone to alert you to tidy and dust.

Make It Durable for Everyday Use

Since a tansu makeover is a significant investment, select materials and finishes that will withstand regular use:

  • Opt for topcoat paint formulas that offer superior resistance to chipping, yellowing, and wear.
  • Use high-quality wood fillers, glues, and epoxies for structural repairs.
  • Reinforce joints and hanging sides with sturdy corner braces and joints.
  • Install drawer slides rated for heavy use if tansu will hold significant weight.
  • Replace original sliding hardware with modern full extension ball bearing slides.
  • Attach rubber bumpers inside drawers so contents don’t shift and rattle.
  • Anchor freestanding tansu to studs so they don’t tip when opening loaded drawers.

Add Whimsical Details

Have fun and express your personal style by embellishing your tansu with playful decorative touches:

  • Stencil or decoupage colorful patterns on drawer fronts and sides.
  • Line a drawer with red velvet to stash jewelry or small treasures.
  • Use glass knobs or fruit shaped handles to add quirky charm.
  • Add crown molding along the top for a touches of ornamentation.
  • Accent corners and feet with gold leaf or silver leaf detail.
  • Install interior lighting that casts fun colors into cubbies.
  • Replace a drawer front with a chalkboard for graffiti, grocery lists.
  • Use clever labels to identify contents like “Top Secret” or “Abandon Hope”.

Create Customized Storage

Storage needs vary from person to person. When reimagining your tansu, tailor it to your interests and hobbies:

For the Foodie

  • Slide-out spice racks
  • Bottle racks for oils and vinegars
  • Towel bars and pot lid storage
  • Cutlery organizers
  • Built-in cookbook stand

For the Quilter

  • Large divided drawers for fabric
  • Slender thread and notions case
  • Retractable cutting mat
  • Cubbies for patterns and kits
  • Pincushion and needle keepers

For the Fisherman

  • Tackle tray organizer
  • Tip-proof rod racks
  • Accessory cases
  • Drawer liner that holds lures
  • Mounted measuring board

Custom tansu storage makes hobbies more enjoyable by being orderly and accessible.

Combine Form and Function

The most successful tansu makeovers blend utility and style seamlessly:

  • Use baskets to hold items and make storage decorative.
  • Incorporate glass doors, open shelves, and display spaces to show off beautiful objects.
  • Use lighting to dramatize favorite items like collections or houseplants.
  • Let some contents be visible rather than fully hidden to add color and interest.
  • Mix colors, textures, and materials throughout for visual appeal.
  • Add ornamental hardware like decorative hinges and knobs.
  • Use asymmetrical organizational features like corner cabinets and pull-out elements to break up rigid lines.

Both beauty and usefulness work together for maximum livability.

Make It Work With Your Decor

When doing a makeover, ensure your tansu complements your existing room decor:

  • Echo colors used in furnishings, pillows, and artwork.
  • Sand down stained wood tansu and refinish to match wood tones in the room.
  • Paint the tansu a shade lighter or darker than wall color for cohesion.
  • Coordinate any new hardware with existing cabinet knobs and pulls.
  • Use same style of lighting, whether puck lights or rope lighting.
  • Incorporate some signature decorative details like beadboard panels.
  • Position in the room so layout feels balanced.

Updating a tansu should enhance your space, not compete with it.

Know When to Call In a Carpenter

While many tansu makeovers are DIY friendly, some aspects may require a professional:

  • Reinforcing structural joints may need woodworking expertise.
  • Custom built-in features like drop-down desks benefit from carpentry skills.
  • Major repairs like rebuilding drawers, replacing veneers, or filling gouges are best left to a woodworking specialist.
  • Installing specialty hardware like soft-close slides and concealed hinges can be tricky.
  • Cutting the cabinet to change sizing or install fixtures is precision work.

Don’t compromise sturdiness. Calling in help ensures modifications are done properly.

Add Interior Lighting

Illuminating a tansu’s contents creates atmosphere and makes contents easier to see. Lighting options include:

Battery-operated puck lights: Affordable and easy to install with adhesive. Stick along top interior edges.

LED strip lighting: Tape thin LED strips