Estate sales can be one of the best places to find high-quality, unique, beautiful furniture for an affordable price. That said, furniture items often undergo a lot of wear and tear with every year of their life. Whether it’s a coffee table covered with water stain rings or a dresser missing a few drawers, older furniture often needs a little love. Even if it’s in perfect shape, second hand furniture might not fit your aesthetic or the color scheme in your living room despite its beautiful design.
The good news is that those water stains, outdated colors and missing dresser drawers don’t have to keep you from purchasing and enjoying a piece of furniture that you love. Basic furniture restoration is not only easy to learn and complete, it can also be a fun and rewarding process. Furthermore, there are a lot of reasons to spruce up that estate sale find find rather than purchasing a new piece. If it has great bones, it can be brought back to life.
Why Is Upcycled Furniture Better?
One word: quality. “We all know the old saying, ‘They don’t make them like they used to,’” says Amy Nelson of Upcycling by Amy. “It has never been more true. In the world of IKEA and furniture built of veneer and plywood, the days of hardwood pieces seems to be behind us as far as something that is readily available on the market.”
Bob Kennedy, owner of Atomic Age Modern & SFV Furniture Restoration in Mesa, Arizona, agrees that older furniture is often better constructed with more sturdy materials. “Quality new furniture is certainly available today, but the cost for that quality is considerable,” he says. “Many believe that today’s designs can never compare to vintage design, as well.”
Robin Ware, owner and creator of The WareHouse Market, agrees that character is the best thing about second hand furniture. “Every older piece of furniture has its own unique qualities that make it different than any other piece,” she says. “Maybe it’s the design or the materials, maybe it’s the nicks and scratches—in any case, you know you have a piece that no one else has. An older piece of furniture brings history into your living space along with memories you may have had or ones you create to make the piece even more personal.”
Sharon Hankins, owner of I Restore Stuff, adds that another important benefit of upcycled furniture is the reduced environmental impact. “I like the idea that we are helping our environment when we can re-purpose and recycle items rather than throwing them away,” she says. Whatever your reason for restoring it, a sturdy piece of second hand furniture, found at an estate sale or elsewhere, can end up being a well-loved and beautiful item for the home.
How to Choose the Best Second Hand Furniture
If you find a piece of beaten-up furniture that was cheap to begin with, it’s likely to make the restoration process much more difficult and less rewarding. One of the key steps of furniture restoration is choosing something with “good bones”—but what does that mean, exactly?
Consider Your Furniture Restoration Skills
When choosing a good piece of second hand furniture for a restoration project, you’re going to need to consider your skill set. Some issues are considered too much work even for a professional. “Look for red flags like surface bubbling, water damage, sand-throughs on the veneer or sagging tops,” says Kennedy. “Those issues are difficult to repair.” If something looks freshly and completely painted, that can be a cause for concern if you are hoping to restore it. “They may have been painted to hide extensive damage,” Kennedy says. “It takes a lot of time to refinish a painted piece back to original as well.”
For a beginner, the best items will be basic furniture with little ornamentation. “Stay away from blotch-prone woods like pine, cherry, maple and birch—those woods require more advanced finishing techniques,” says Kennedy. He adds that teak and walnut can be good “beginner” woods for furniture restoration projects.
Check The Back and Bottom
Nelson says that a common misconception is that second hand furniture with veneer can’t be restored. “The truth is that most antiques you see at the flea market or antique store are actually solid wood covered in a veneer,” she says. To identify if a piece is entirely veneer or solid wood covered in veneer, Nelson says to look at the back of the piece. “Along the top, if you see a thin, usually darker line, that is a veneer,” she says. “Same with drawers. If you flip them over, you will see a thin line if there is a veneer on the fronts. These can still be refinished, but you must be extra careful when sanding to not break thru the thin layer of wood.”
Hila Reicks, woodworker and owner of Chic Doctor Upcycled Furniture, also advises shoppers to look at the back and bottom of the piece to assess its quality. She warns beginners against working with flimsier furniture that isn’t solid wood. “Many items are made of plywood or MDF and are covered with veneer,” she says. “In this case deep scratches and breaks are a lot harder to repair. If you look at the bottom of a piece or the back and you still see the wood grain, there are much higher chances you’re looking at a solid wood piece of furniture and your work restoring it would be simpler.”
Second Hand Furniture’s Finish & Function
Cosmetic issues are often the easiest to fix, so don’t let those scare you away from an otherwise beautiful piece of second hand furniture. “Don’t be intimidated by water marks and scratches,” says Nelson. “Many, if not all of these, will come out with a good sanding.”
Outside of a piece’s finish, it’s important to check the function of various moving parts. “Make sure the piece is structurally sound if you don’t have intention for repairs,” Nelson says. “This can include checking to make sure all the drawers slide nicely and are not wiggly at the corners.” That said, some repairs are simple and shouldn’t make you write off a piece that you love. “Things like loose legs can be reglued easily and shouldn’t be a concern,” says Kennedy. Hankins says that dove tail joints can be a sign of a good workmanship, and she also adds that it’s important to “look all over the piece for missing parts or sections, as sometimes these are hard to replace.”
Basic Techniques for Furniture Restoration
The basic process for furniture restoration is three steps: 1) cleaning, 2) stripping with a chemical stripper or sander, and 3) finishing with a seal and topcoat. “Your first goal should be to master the basic process: strip, sand, seal, topcoat,” says Kennedy.
Choosing Products for Furniture Restoration
When working with second hand furniture, you need to be careful when selecting what materials you use for cleaning and stripping, as well as the materials you use for sealing in all your hard work! “The types of products used for refinishing vary,” says Kennedy. A lot of your purchasing decisions for what products to use will be specific to a given project, but there are some key rules to keep in mind.
Kennedy, who is an advocate for industry-standard lacquer finishes, says that most American furniture from the 1930’s through present day were finished with lacquer. For this reason, he advises against using popular “miracle” products, scratch cover products or other products containing wax or silicone, because they can cause harm to old lacquer finishes. “I don’t recommend them,” he says. “Danish oil or teak oil also should not be used on lacquer finishes. What should be used on lacquer finishes? Fresh lacquer.”
This highlights the importance of identifying your furniture’s history and material before moving forward with a restoration project. The better you know what kind of wood or material you are dealing with, the more effectively you can restore it to its former glory, or a new glory entirely.
1. Cleaning Second Hand Furniture
“Sometimes a simple cleaning of a piece is enough to bring the piece back to life,” says Ware. “I usually vacuum out all interior spaces, take off all hardware and clean the entire piece with a TSP solution and allow to dry.” The key is to remove all the oils on the furniture before refinishing. Kennedy says that “naphtha on a clean rag followed by a good, silicone-free polish goes a long way.”
2. Stripping and Sanding Upcycled Furniture
This stripping process often exposes the beautiful raw material beneath cheap covers like veneer or paint. “In most cases you need to sand or strip the paint/sealant or top coat off the furniture to get to the wood underneath,” says Reicks. “Just by doing that you can shave years off the furniture.”
Your ultimate plan for the piece of furniture can also inform how you proceed with the stripping and sanding process. “If the piece is going to be re-stained and not painted, I would use a stripping compound to take off the old finish,” says Ware. “Then sand, sand and sand some more until you are satisfied the entire finish has been removed. You can also wipe the piece down with mineral spirits at this time.”
3. Staining and Sealing Refurbished Furniture
You have some choices in this final step for basic furniture restoration, as well. “Once the wood is bare you can stain it, oil it or lacquer it to achieve a beautiful, fresh look,” says Reicks.
If you’re planning to paint the piece in one, solid color, Ware recommends checking the piece for light scratches and damage before doing so, especially if you’re going to use a light paint color. “You may want to sand these imperfections prior to painting if you are not going for the rustic look,” she says. “Paint only covers so much. If you are painting a piece a light color, priming may be needed so you don’t end up having to paint layer after layer for coverage.”
“Once you have painted or stained your new piece of furniture, be sure to top coat it to keep it fresh for years to come,” says Nelson. Ware agrees that the final step should always be to seal all your hard work. “I like to use a water-based poly that I apply with a sponge, sanding between coats,” she says.
Furniture Restoration Inspiration
These before and after photos prove that upcycled furniture can be just as-if not more-beautiful than new!
This antique hutch with beveled glass doors was a custom project for Ware, whose customer fell in love with it but wanted it painted. “The piece was in great shape and my client only wanted it painted, but with 8 different colors,” she says. “I painted the entire hutch a deep, navy blue and accented with seven other colors by blending, spraying and dripping the paint. It isn’t a finish for everybody but my client was in love with it. Needless to say, after completing this hutch I have another set of tools in my painting toolbox!”
Restoring second hand furniture can be full of surprises, just like Hankins discovered when she restored this old chairs. They were stuffed with 100-year-old newspapers!
Furniture Restoration for Beginners
As with any new skill, it’s important to take it slow at first. “If you are just starting out I would recommend work on your basic techniques and don’t try to take on anything too advanced,” says Ware. With the right piece, a one-color paint application that is done well with a durable top coat will get you far.”
There are some techniques that are rather advanced, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try them on a cheap piece or one you don’t feel very inspired by. “Upholstery can be a little more fiddly if a piece has tufting or is a fabric covered lounge chair for example,” says Hankins. “Fixing veneer can be tricky, and some painting techniques like blending, or texturing or adding graphics to furniture can be a little more advanced, but a lot of fun to try.”
Perhaps the most important piece of advice is not to start with a piece that you love. If you found your dream dresser at an estate auction and want to upcycle it, allow yourself to practice on a less meaningful item. “The best way to learn is by trial and error so start with a cheap piece you found in the alley or something you got at a garage sale,” says Reicks. “Buy some sand paper, wood stain and get to work.”
Nelson agrees that it’s important to establish a skill set before working on more beloved items. “Once you are more comfortable with your techniques, estate sales and auctions are great places to shop,” she says. ” You may pay more for a piece but you are less likely to have to do extensive repairs and can refinish them quicker.”
Another great tip for beginners? Consult, consult, consult. Ask for help. The community of furniture restorers is a friendly, helpful one. “Take the time to seek out professional advice and start practicing,” says Kennedy. All of the restorers in this article invite your questions and inquires. Kennedy of Atomic Age Modern even runs a Facebook group called The Mid Century Modern Furniture Refinishing Resource, a wonderful place to get advice and connect with other restorers and upcyclers, both amateur and professional.