Tips for Buying Used Furniture

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Are you interested in refinishing or refurbishing furniture? This post provides you with tips for buying used furniture. Specifically, characteristics to avoid, traits to look for and repairs that can be easily made.

I spend many hours looking for furniture to refinish and resell. After the many hours spent in hot, dusty attics, garages and sheds I have learned a thing or two. Today, I will share with you what I have learned when it comes to buying a piece of used furniture.

Tips for Buying Used Furniture

I should premise this post by saying that I primarily look for antique furniture, specifically, furniture that is more than 100 years old.  By the very nature of its age, the furniture made in the late 1880s generally has more issues than a piece made in the 1980s.  

How do you know if something is worth salvaging?  What can be easily fixed or repaired and what is more labor intensive? I hope to answer these questions and give you some rules of thumb for buying used furniture.

Three Hard and Fast Rules for All Furniture

I have made many mistakes over the years with buying furniture.  The vast majority of the mistakes have been the result of one of these three issues.  Now, whenever I encounter a piece of furniture with one of these issues, I pass on it.

Water Damage

I avoid furniture with substantial water damage. Warped veneer and wood is just too labor intensive to repair and sometimes – down right impossible to fix. Water damage can also include other issues like mold.  If I find a piece that has had any water damage, I pass on it.  The amount of time you need to invest to repair the damage and the unseen issues associated with it just aren’t worth the investment.

Odors

I also avoid furniture that smells like smoke or like animals may have -ugh- peed on it. Again, very labor intensive if not impossible to fix.  Although you can mitigate odors, by cleaning a piece or by setting it out in the sun – I have found the odor never truly goes away.  Mildew is another odor that I encounter when looking at furniture.  Whenever I look at furniture, I give it the “sniff” test.  

Chew Marks

Finally, I avoid furniture that has been seriously chewed or scratched by animals.  Again, this is labor intensive to fix if not impossible.  Mice chew in the corners of cupboards.  Sometimes dogs chew on the legs of tables and chairs.  For some unknown reasons, animals always seem to chew the most ornate part of a piece of furniture.  It’s always a finial or a Queen Anne’s leg that gets gnawed on and these are the pieces that are the most difficult to repair. As a side note, anything with a curved or rounded surface (think table leg) is difficult to repair. 

Other Furniture Considerations

By grouping furniture types together into specific categories, I have identified the traits that I look for as signs of quality as well as those characteristics that might look terrible but aren’t that difficult to fix.

Dressers and Bureaus

This has to be my favorite category of old furniture.  Dressers and bureaus are just as functional and useful today as they were 100 years ago.  They can be used in hallways, entryways, and bathrooms – in addition to bedrooms. These are fun projects to work on and most can be transformed in 8 hours. Here are some features I look for:

  • Solid wood construction.  Especially on the back of the piece and in the drawers.
  • Dove tail drawers. This is a sign of quality and drawers made with dove tails will withstand the test of time.

Photo: Sky Lark House

  • Legs that are in good condition and stable. Broken legs can be difficult to fix particularly for antique pieces of furniture.
  • The frame of the piece is in good structural condition.  You don’t want it to be rickety or wobbly.

Here are some things that should not deter you from buying a dresser or bureau. 

  • Missing knobs and pulls. These can be easily replaced.
  • A piece that is painted in a less than desirable color.  Dressers and bureaus are made of primarily flat surfaces.  The paint can be striped and/or sanded and new color can be applied.
  • Missing wheels or casters. You can usually remove all the wheels and leave it as is.  However, I like to replace the casters entirely.  Here’s an additional tip, finding original or antique casters can be expensive and tricky.  If you are going to replace casters, I recommend you buy new ones.
  • Dings or scratches on the surfaces.  Even if there are some gouges and scratches, that’s ok. Generally those are easy to fix with Bondo.
  • A water ring, oil mark or burn mark in the wood.  Again, if you are planning on painting the piece of furniture, these will be covered up. So don’t be deterred. Just a quick note – these marks need to be painted over and likely can’t be removed with sanding only.

If you find a piece that looks like the one in the image above, don’t be deterred.  It’s probably a good find.

Tables and Desks

This is my second favorite category of furniture.  Tables are endlessly useful and tables that are 100 years old are amazing quality.  Desks are also useful and I find that some smaller ones make excellent bedside tables.  Here are some features I look for:

  • Structural stability.  Tables that are more than 6 feet in length can sag in the middle over time without proper support. Furthermore, if a table has been dragged across a room – the legs will be exceptionally loose at the joint near the top of the table.
  • Minimal checking or cracks in the legs.  Antique table legs are often made out of a single piece of wood and can “check” or crack over time.  If this becomes too serious – then it can be an issue.
  • Legs that are solid and in good condition.
  • Solid wood construction. ( No plastic “wood” laminate)

The image above shows you the kind of features I look for when buying an old table.

Now, I will tell you what I am not deterred by:

  • Terrible finishes.  It could be a varnish that is flaking. It could be a bad paint job.  Don’t be deterred by this because you can strip or sand the old finish and apply a new one.
  • Oil stains, water rings or burn marks. Similar to a bad finish, you can sand these and paint over them. It’s worth noting, however, that you will have to paint over these marks if you want to conceal them.  It’s difficult to remove these marks with sanding alone.
  • Missing wheels or casters.

If you find a piece of furniture that looks like the image above – it has potential.

Wooden Chairs

Here is the truth about refurbishing wooden chairs – they are a ton of work.  There are so many surfaces and angles.  If fixing and painting one chair requires a significant investment of time then just imagine how long it will take you to refinish 6 chairs.  I generally do not buy chairs if I need to refinish them.

If you see chairs that:

  • Don’t need to be sanded, painted or stained;
  • Are structurally sound and aren’t wobbly or have loose joints;
  • Can support the weight of a defensive lineman on a football team; and
  • Are comfortable

Then I would suggest you buy them.  Otherwise, I would recommend you pass them by.

The photo above is of two chairs that I spent many hours sanding, painting and re-upholstering. They are from the 1920s and were from an old bank in Syracuse, NY.  My Mom currently owns these chairs and loves them.  

Cupboards and Cabinets

As with dressers, bureaus, tables and desks the same tips apply to buying used cupboards and cabinets.  Both cupboards and cabinets are great for storage and are timeless.

I generally look for structural stability and ensure the piece is made out of solid wood.  If you plan to paint a cupboard, remember the interior can require a substantial amount of paint. In general, I find the interior of a cupboard requires MORE paint than the exterior.  So note to self, painting a step back cupboard inside and out will require a lot of paint.

Don’t be deterred by shelves that need to be repaired or missing knobs. It’s easy enough to have new shelves cut to size. 

Upholstered Items

Unless I know the owner personally, I don’t buy upholstered items. Upholstered items tend to be extremely dirty and can contain bed bugs.  So, I don’t buy them unless I know the person and the history of the piece.  

Items to Bring with You

If you are going to look at furniture, go prepared!  Make sure you bring:

  • an adequately sized vehicle
  • tape measure
  • moving blanket
  • rope
  • Packing tape (which can be used to keep drawers and doors closed)

There is a great article by the Apartment Guide entitled The Complete Guide to Buying and Repurposing Furniture.  

Summary

Thank you for stopping by the blog today.  I hope these tips serve you well.  Now that the weather is nicer, we can all be outside at antique fairs, yard sales, and flea markets looking for that perfect piece of furniture to refinish.   I hope you have some ideas as to what to look for and what to avoid.  Happy furniture shopping.  I hope you find a great piece!

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6 Comments

  1. So much fabulous advice! I just refinished my first piece of furniture ever (a table given to us by my mother-in-law)! I definitely have the bug now and I want to work on more projects, I’m glad to have the advice of someone much more experienced than me.

    1. Oh I love to refinish tables! They are such a good find. If you refinish any other pieces, I hope you will share some photos with me.

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