4 Tips for Finding and Restoring Old Furniture

Home decor can be pricey; here are 4 tips for reclaiming furniture so you can love the pieces you own.

For me, there are few things as addicting as scrolling through Facebook marketplace and looking for good deals on furniture. Will I find the perfect little corner bookcase or a faux marble coffee table for a steal?

As a college student who lived off-campus for two years, and now as a graduate in the working world, I’ve had a few years of apartment furnishing under my belt. Furniture, not to anyone’s surprise, however, can be expensive, especially when you’re looking for larger pieces.

What’s the guarantee that you’ll be able to barter on that perfect dining room table for six? In my experience, anything that looks brand-new and ready-to-use is going to come with a higher price tag, even when its being resold on places like Facebook or Craigslist.

Fear not, thrifty home-décor enthusiasts! With a little bit of extra work, some of those cheaper, scuffed, less-than desirable pieces can become something beautiful. Here are some tips and tricks for finding good pieces and making them your own!

Look close to home

For me, the first step in finding pieces was always asking around my family and seeing if there were any pieces that could be dusted off and repurposed. For instance, my new Chicago home boasts two beautiful birchwood tables from the 1950s (hello, mid-century modern!) that I use in my living room. Although the tables could use some refinishing, it’s kind of cool to see the cigarette burn on the corner that my grandfather, who has since passed away, left sometime in the 1970s. Ask your parents or grandparents if there’s anything they’re willing to part with, even temporarily for a few years until you’ve made it on your own.

Some of my other favorite pieces, such as a tall corner cabinet and a matching pair of nightstands, were found in unexpected places. Every year my mother’s church in North Minneapolis hosts a rummage sale. Aside from the usual array of clothes, books, and dishes, they also have a pretty good furniture selection — everything from random armchairs to old library carts.

A few years ago, I pulled up the garage door to poke around and spotted a beautiful piece in the corner — a tall, unfinished cabinet that the church let me grab for only $10. Since then, it has made the trip from Minnesota to St. Louis back to Minnesota and then to Chicago, where it now lives in my dining room. Keep your eyes peeled for things like local church sales or neighborhood furniture swaps (usually in the spring and summer), where you can find sturdy, good furniture for low prices.

As for the nightstands, if you happen to live by a college campus, a great way to find apartment essentials is to join the local Facebook swap page. My college had one called “Free and For Sale,” and many college students are willing to sell furniture for cheap if you’re able to pick it up.  Don’t be afraid to comb through the postings — there are gems to be found.

Spruce them up

With the exception of my grandparent’s tables, I refurbished almost every piece of furniture in my apartment by myself. Not really knowing where to start, I turned to the internet, where DIY help tips abound, especially on Pinterest. Here are a few tips that I have for making old pieces look new and fit your style.

When in doubt, chalk-paint it out. Chalk paint is a magical invention that can make anything look new. I recommend Rust-oleum Chalked Paint, which I’ve used on everything from my TV stand to my kitchen table. My favorite color is the chiffon cream, covered with the matte clear topcoat for a final touch.

Painting something doesn’t have to be an activity you dread. Depending on how large the piece is, it can even be done in a day. I pulled my car out of the garage, put down a drop cloth, and was able to paint multiple coats on the piece within a couple of hours. The great thing about chalk paint is that it dries quickly. While the first coat may look streaky, I’ve never had to put more than three coats on a piece of furniture for full coverage.  

Although I could have branched out, I’ve used the same shade of paint to cover multiple pieces of furniture, giving a sense of cohesion to my space, even though the pieces themselves are all very different.

Choose a fun accent. One of the easiest ways to upgrade a piece is to add new knobs. Places like Hobby Lobby sell a rainbow’s spectrum of knobs (that are half off every other week!). Try mixing and matching the old hardware with new knobs, or replace the old hardware entirely.

Before buying new, expensive furniture, try these 4 tips for reclaiming furniture.

Re-cover, if necessary

This summer, I discovered a dining room set that had been sitting, covered in dust, in my grandma’s basement for the last 50 years. The table belonged to my great-grandmother and dates to the 1940s. I was nervous about peeling the old vinyl off the kitchen chairs for my dining room table — they had last been re-covered in 1960. My 90-year-old grandma helped me choose and install new fabric and chair pads on them. It was surreal knowing that she had done these same steps with her own mother more than half a century ago and was now helping me do the same.

I thought re-covering chairs would be difficult, but it only took a few hours. I used foam chair pads and fabric from Hobby Lobby (bought with a coupon), and a $15 staple gun from my nearest hardware store. In total, I spent $50 (including paint) to take a cobwebby basement relic into something clean, comfortable, and practical for my home.

Where to find help

These projects have definitely taken some elbow grease but have saved me hundreds of dollars and created memories for a lifetime. While it’s impossible to expound deeply on the finer points of furniture refinishing in this article, you can pretty easily find good sources for in-depth information on how to do anything (like chalk painting and chair re-covering).

While it would have been easiest to just pick up something new at Target or Ikea, it’s fun to know that by putting in a few extra hours, I could create something I was proud to show off. With some Googling, the weekly craft store coupon section, and a vision, the home of your dreams is only a few paintbrushes away.

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