4 Tips for Buying Old Furniture to Restore

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It seems that I have become the local “expert” on all things old and junky, particularly buying old furniture.

Not a week goes by without a friend or family member asking me about some old table they want to redo or an old dresser they saw on Craigslist.

While I don’t at all consider myself an expert on furniture refinishing, I love sharing what I have learned with people who want to try it out themselves.

Just last week, a friend approached me at church and wanted to know if an old vanity she found at a flea market was worth trying to save.

We took a few minutes to look at the pictures she had taken on her cell phone and talk about the vanity’s cost, it’s current problems, what could be fixed, and how hard it would be to fix it.

I love that I was able to help her think through the process, and I believe her plan was to go back and get the piece!

So I want to share with you all what I shared last Sunday with my friend: What are the things I look for when I’m considering buying an older piece of furniture to makeover?

Buying Old Furniture

1.  Familiarize yourself with furniture maker names

Thomasville, Dixie, Basset, Henry Link, all of those are classic vintage furniture makers who made quality pieces.

If you are considering purchasing a piece and you can find a maker’s mark (usually in a drawer or on the back) and it mentions one of these companies or another you learn about, you can bet it was built with quality.

Buying Old Furniture

2. Look for quality details.

If you can’t find a maker’s mark, look at the details of the piece’s craftsmanship.

Dovetailed drawer joints, solidly built legs, and sturdy wooden interior drawer sliders are just a few characteristics that you want to look for in any piece you consider buying.

Also, is the piece solid wood?  That doesn’t mean the piece can’t have any veneer or thinner wood on the side or back, but that it’s not made of particleboard (which is wood splinters glued together to make a board).

Most older pieces will be solid wood, but if you are looking at newer used furniture, watch out for particleboard.

Buying Old Furniture

3. Be realistic about your woodworking skills.

Some problems you will encounter with older furniture can be fixed easily, others take more skill.

A loose drawer joint is a very easy fix–wood glue and a bungee cord, and you’re good to go.

Replacing a drawer bottom is about a medium skill level project because it requires measuring and cutting with a power saw.

Watermarks and wood stains are no biggie, they can easily be sanded out or covered with paint.

Chipped veneer is the next level up, where you will need some skills with wood filler and sanding.  You can camouflage a few pieces of missing trim with paint, but replacing half the trim on a piece is a major fix that takes major skill.  You see what I’m getting at?

If you’re a level 1 handy-person, don’t buy a piece that needs level 5 repair. You will become quickly discouraged and shove it over to the corner of your garage, where it will sit for months until you get tired of it and decide to give up and sell it on Craigslist.

Buying Old Furniture

4.  Don’t judge the book by it’s cover.

It takes some creativity and imagination to see through the ugliness of many old pieces.

I recommend before you go out looking for a makeover project, spend some time doing a Google image search or looking on Pinterest to get ideas for how old furniture can be made over.

You need to see some of the “afters” to have a vision for the “before.” Stain color can be changed, paint can be removed, hardware can be swapped out, seat cushions recovered.

Often the ugliest pieces are the best bargain, so learn to think outside the box so you can take advantage of the low price on that ugly dresser nobody else wants.

Buying Old Furniture

Buying Old Furniture

I hope these ideas will help you shop for old furniture with greater confidence.

Also, I am always open to help you think through a project you have or a piece you are considering, just drop me a comment or email me and we’ll chat furniture flipping!

With a little practice, I think everyone can learn to give old pieces a new life.

Redoing older furniture will save you money and save some trash from the landfill. Sounds like a win-win to me.  Give it a try!

Buying Old Furniture

tips buying old furniture



Wednesday 1st of October 2014

Going through the description and other fine print so that the furniture you are buying online meets your specifications and expectations is also another good factor to be kept in mind.

Diane | An Extraordinary Day

Friday 30th of May 2014

These are terrific tips Melanie! Hopefully I'll get a little more brave to attempt some 'ugly' pieces. ;)

Thanks for sharing your fab tips with us at Project Inspire{d}!!

Corey @ Tinysidekick

Thursday 29th of May 2014

These are great tips. I'll admit that I get overwhelmed when it comes to knowing if I'm getting a good deal on an old piece or not. It has helped to get familiar with the brand names and to know why they are unique. Thanks so much for these tips and for linking up at The Makers. We are so glad to have you!

Gigi Harlan

Wednesday 28th of May 2014

Your work is beautiful! Thanks for all of the tips!

Gigi @ Old World Patina


Wednesday 28th of May 2014

Great post. I had the exact same piece as your blue chest in the pics. I redid mine in a mustard yellow with a natural top. It's beautiful in blue!


Wednesday 28th of May 2014

Thank you Suzanne! That's fun you had the same piece. When I found that one, it had 4 coats of paint on it! It was a beast to get that top sanded down, but worth it in the end :)

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