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Buying Furniture to Upcycle – 6 things to take into account to save you time, effort and money!

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

When I first started upcycling furniture – other than stuff I already had in my home – I would see something I liked and just buy it. I made a lot of mistakes and wasted money. To save you from the same issues here are my top tips when you’re buying. 1. What is it made of?

Is it real wood? Or is it wood veneer? It might be chipboard / particle board with either a wood veneer or even a plastic / vinyl veneer over the top. Take a good look at doors edges, drawers and the back to help you determine the composition. Why? Well for me, if I am selling a piece I want it to be well made and solid wood or wood veneer. Sometimes when you see a piece for sale on line it looks great. Then you go to pick it up and find it isn’t. 2. Is it solid and built to last?

Dove tail joints

Look for how it is constructed – do the drawers have dove tail joints and solid wood bases? Does it feel sturdy and has stood the test of time. Or is it wobbly and flimsy? Internally is it more modern than you’d like – things like metal drawer runners or clip hinges? 3. What is the current condition? This is a big one – the better the condition the less initial work required. A piece with lots of damage and repairs takes a lot more time to complete than one in good condition. But is only worth the same as one in good condition at the end of the upcycling process. You can find furniture in good condition, so unless a piece really appeals to you, it isn’t the best choice to buy stuff in poor condition. 4. What is the existing finish? I have learnt not to buy previously painted pieces of furniture. Why? Well I have no idea how the item was prepped prior to painting, what lies under the paint or whether the paint may contain lead. And it all has to come off before I can start my upcycling process. If I were to paint over an existing paint finish I could not be sure that my work would stand the test of time. Next on the list to avoid, if possible, is waxed furniture. Paint will not stick over wax – it has to be removed. Which is hard work and very time consuming. I will remove wax if presented with a customer’s own piece that is waxed but there is a time / cost implication to doing this. So when buying items that I want to upcycle to sell I chose to avoid anything waxed. Most items I upcycle have a varnished finish. Depending on the state of the varnish this is either scuff sanded (to provide a key for primer and paint to adhere too) or sanded back to provide a smooth surface to paint on. Varnish is my most preferred exising finish.

5. What repairs are needed?

Take a good look and see if any repairs might be needed. Do doors and drawers open and close okay? Is there any damage to the piece. Ask yourself if the repairs are easy and you have the tools you need to do them. Most pieces need some minor repairs as part of the upcycle process. But it will add to your overall costs if you need to buy special tools to carry out the repairs. So have you got the things you need to do the work. If not, is it really worth you buying it?

Check the door and drawer handles. Are they all there and complete – if you wish to retain them? If some are broken / missing this has cost implications. Unless you are intending to replace them anyway. Learning how to do repairs well is a skill most upcyclers develop and so what you feel happy to tackle may change over time. 6. Check for woodworm.

Aim to buy pieces free of any signs of woodworm – even historic damage. Look everywhere – especially at the bottom, lower areas and back of the piece. Tiny holes show that there has been / may still be woodworm. It can be treated – but why give yourself all the extra work and potential worry when there are pieces out there that don’t have any wood worm issues. I hope you have found this useful and see that there is a lot to consider when buying vintage furniture. Don’t be afraid to take your time and really look a piece over before committing to buy – that way costly mistakes can be avoided.

I am sure most upcyclers will be able to tell you about “bad” purchases they have made. Sometimes we are so excited by the style of a piece or have bought it on line, and then we have to deal with what ever issues it comes with. I think that’s a topic for another time! If you'd like to learn more about upcycling furniture why not book a workshop with me. You can find details by clicking here.


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