Recently, a couple of people reached out to me and asked me to share some tips for buying used furniture. I thought, hmmm, that would be a great blog post. So, here we are.
This is not an easy question to answer so I will break it down into categories of different types of furniture.
First, however, here are some hard and fast rules that I follow.
Three Hard and Fast Rules for All Furniture
I avoid furniture with substantial water damage. Warped veneer and mold just are too labor intensive to repair and sometimes – down right impossible to fix. 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. Finally, I avoid furniture that has been seriously chewed or scratched by animals. Again, this is labor intensive to fix if not impossible. When I encounter furniture with one of these three issues – it’s a hard no. I pass on it.
Now, there are some other things to consider depending upon the piece of furniture. Let me preface what I am writing by saying that I usually buy furniture that is more than 100 years old. That is my first preference. Occasionally, I will buy some vintage pieces but much less frequently. When you buy furniture that is 100 years old, it is bound to have some issues. Some issues can be repaired easily whereas others can not be repaired no matter how much time and effort is invested.
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.
– Legs that are in good condition and stable. Broken legs can be difficult to fix particularly for antique pieces of furniture.
Here are some things that should not deter you from buying a dresser or bureau.
-Lack of -or 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, 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 scared. 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.
– No laminate tops. No. Just no. I won’t consider it.
– Solid wood construction.
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 the old finish or sand off 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. They likely can’t be removed with sanding alone.
-Missing wheels or casters.
If you find a piece of furniture that looks like the image above – it has potential.
Here is the truth about refurbishing wooden chairs. Chairs are a ton of work. There are so many surfaces and so many angles. I generally do not buy chairs and fix them up.
If you see chairs that:
-Don’t need to be painted or sanded;
– Are structurally sound and aren’t wobbly or have loose joints;
– Can support the weight of a defensive lineman on a football team; and
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.
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. 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.
That pretty much sums up my tips for buying used furniture. Hopefully you have some ideas as to what to look for and what to avoid. Happy furniture shopping. I hope you find a great piece!