3 Shopping Tips for Project Pieces

Dec 19, 2017 | Business Topics, Furniture FAQs and Tips | 2 comments

Instagram is probably my favorite social media platform out of them all.  It’s so much fun interacting with people who follow my feed (and meeting them in person while I’m out and about).  Yesterday, someone sent me a photo of a lovely Jacobean buffet and asked me if the list price was reasonable. 

It got me thinking about the criteria I use to determine if a project piece is worth buying, and I’d like to share them with you!  Perhaps this will help with your next piece, and give you some food for thought.

After you find an interesting piece, and you take a look at the price, ask yourself…

1. Is it stable/structurally sound?

This is the most important question to ask yourself when purchasing furniture.  Over the years, as furniture gets used (and sometimes abused), it develops some quirks.  Sticky drawers, broken joints, chipped, cracked, or missing veneer, missing hardware, busted drawer bottoms, wobbly legs, water marks, burn marks, etc.  I’ve seen them all!

This trunk had a lid that didn’t line up when it closed, and the hinges needed to be re-aligned.

Ask my husband, Marc. This was not a fun project to fix and I got so frustrated that I gave up and sat on the couch while he patiently worked it back into place. In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have bought it, but this was early on in my painting days, so I didn’t know better.

When your eyes wander to a potential winner, assess its structural integrity. Look at the drawers and make sure you open every single one. Are any of them broken? Do they open? Better yet, do they open smoothly? Give it a wiggle back and forth. Does the entire piece shift or is it solid?

The longer your list of structural repairs grows, the more money and time you’re going to have to pour into that piece to get it in working order again – especially if you want to ask top dollar. If someone is asking a lot of money for a piece that needs a lot of work, it might be a good idea to ask them if they’re negotiable. Now don’t rip the piece apart and list everything that’s wrong with it, but rather tell the seller the truth. Say you’re a furniture flipper and you need the price to be lowered to compensate for the time needed to make it beautiful again. (See how much better that sounds?) For all you know, that could be their grandmother’s heirloom and it’s taken them a long time to put it up for sale. Insulting it won’t get you a good deal.

When I shop, I stay away from broken drawers. Some minor repairs are OK, but if the runners are gone and need to be rebuilt, that’s beyond my skill set. If the bottom is busted, I won’t spend the time to cut a new one. I probably could, but the reality is that I won’t. I know that about myself, so I shop accordingly.

I’ve also learned to stay away from really bad burn marks because they don’t sand out. Here’s one on an old washstand I worked on. No matter how many passes I took, the ring stayed there. I even dug in a bit and this was the best I could do.

It didn’t blend in once I added stain, and it was still noticeable when I was finished.  Fortunately, the new owner didn’t mind, and it was lovingly purchased for its character.

The other things I say away from are wobbly legs.  If a tightening of screws or nuts won’t do the trick, then I’m out.

I don’t know how to rebuild joints, and I don’t have a Kreg Pocket Joint kit, so I pass in search of something that doesn’t shake so easily. I find this problem to be common with little side tables. When I find one, the first thing I do is shake it. If it gives, I move on. There’s no shame in that either! Just because you are a furniture painter, that doesn’t mean you have to work on every single project that comes your way. Stay within your skill set and work within your comfort zone.

This little table was solid but it had chipping veneer on the top and bottom. Fortunately, I know how to fix that so I scooped it up and made short work of the chipping spots. It turned out lovely and I didn’t spend much time on repairs.

2. What can you sell it for?

This is my next question that I always ask myself when I’m buying furniture. Over time, I’ve developed price limits for certain types of pieces, and I won’t deviate too far from them. I’ve been able to do that because I’ve learned what I can and can’t get for furniture in my selling area. I’ve also learned (and am still learning) what’s popular in my neck of the woods. Nightstands disappear almost immediately but large cupboards and china cabinets sit for a few months until they find new homes. Dressers and buffets are somewhere in the middle along with desks. If you’re brand new to the game, ask the sellers in your area these kinds of questions. Hopefully they’ll be kind enough to help you. If you’re a member of an antique co-op or mall, ask the owner. I’ll be he/she is filled with tips and suggestions!

What determines how much I can sell things for is complicated and it depends on the uniqueness of the piece I finished. Is it a common style of furniture? Have I seen one of these before? Did I finish it in a way that’s unusual? Did I use a custom color that few can replicate? Does it have a special story or function like a secret drawer? It is made from an unusual material?

So let’s look at an example to illustrate what I mean.

I wanted this piece the minute I saw it. It was unusual in its construction and it looked as if it had been stripped at some point, leaving the surface raw wood. That’s ideal for Milk Paint! I hesitated to purchase it for two reasons – size and price.

I knew I could make it look amazing but I had to strategize a bit when it came time to sell it. My antique booth didn’t have the space, so I needed to coordinate with my other retail locations to see if it could be accommodated.

The price was more than I usually spend. I won’t say how much exactly, but it was more than $200. Typically, I like to double or triple my money when I flip a piece, so doubling would be more than $400. I had to really sit and think about whether I could sell this piece in the $400’s or even the $600’s. If I was selling closer to the East side of PA, it would be a no-brainer. The closer you get to Philly, the more you can charge. The conundrum was that I wasn’t selling in Philly.

In the end, I decided to take the gamble and I made it over. It turned out amazing and it got a lot of attention.

It’s size, shape, and construction made it unusual enough to sell for the price I asked, but it took some coaxing and reassurance from the shop owner for me to price it the way I did. This one was a stretch, for sure!

Here’s an example I’m currently reasoning through. I absolutely LOOOOOVED Miss Mustard Seed’s daybed she sold at Lucketts this year.

Photo via Miss Mustard Seed 

I really want to make one and sell it because I think they’re beautiful!  I haven’t seen one in my area for sale, but a lot of the farmhousey blogs showcase gorgeous daybeds in living rooms and guest bedrooms.  (By the way, is “farmhousey” a word?)  Apparently this isn’t anything new and cribs have been used for daybeds for years, but I’m late to the game and they’re new to me!

Here’s one from Liz Marie Blog:

And this one from At Home on Sweet Creek is exactly what I want to make:

The problems that I’m running into are many. Finding the right crib, at the right height, at the right price is proving to be tricky. Plus, once I find the crib, I have to factor in the cost of a mattress or padding, linens, and pillows. Then, I need to make sure it’s stable enough to hold the weight of a person or two.

So once I’m done, if my total cost just to get the piece up and running is $200, what would I sell it for? Would someone pay $400 for a crib daybed plus all of the linens and bedding? In my head, the answer is “no”, so until all of those factors line up to a reasonable price, my crib daybed project will remain tabled.

So when you’re looking at a piece that’s stable enough for you to work on, think to yourself, “what would I price this at once it’s done?” If you double or triple your money, is there still room to go higher? Can you make any money off of it? I’ve walked away from A LOT of pieces because they were simply too expensive, and have scrapped projects because they’re too pricey to sell. They checked off every box…except price.

3. Is it what you like?

There are a lot of furniture painters in the world and there is a lot of furniture available to paint. As an artist, you have absolute freedom to hone in on the styles and shapes you love! As I have walked down the endless aisles of thrift stores, gazing at piece after piece, I’ve come to develop a radar for what I like. I always feel bad for my Mom when she comes with me on furniture hunting trips. Most of what she suggests to me receives an, “Ummm, I don’t think it’s my style, but thanks for looking!” Either that or, “Ummmm, it’s too expensive. What would I sell it for?” (See item number two above.) Sometimes, I don’t know what I’m looking for until I see it!

As you shop for furniture, ask questions and do research, you’ll start to gravitate towards your favorite styles too! Here are a few of my go-to’s.

Anything with Hepplewhite style handles!

I absolutely love the shape of this style of furniture!

Carved details are always a plus in my book

Jacobean furniture always delivers on that front!  I’ve worked on two mini buffets in the past. This one was just delivered to its new owner the other day.

This one was finished when I worked for a furniture painting store in Downingtown.

It took a while to highlight all of these details with a complimentary paint color, but it was worth it in the end!

I also enjoy distressing carved details to draw the eye to them, but keep them subtle at the same time, like on this Grain Sack Plantation Desk.

This was  a fun one to work on!

I’m also a sucker for a sweet little washstand.  They make lovely nightstands, side tables, and entrance way catch-alls.  They’re the perfect size to pick up by yourself, and they make for a quick makeover!  If you’re looking for a good project to start with, I highly recommend washstands!

They come in all shapes and sizes.

And best of all, they’re typically not that expensive! I don’t pay more than $50 for them, and they do sell for more than double! Just make sure the insides are clean.

So as a furniture artist (yes, you ARE an artist!), start to think about what you’re drawn to. Not sure what you like? Create a board on Pinterest and pin photos that have something you like in them. It could be a handle, the paneling on the front of a door, the curved shape of a dresser top, anything at all! Then, when you’re out looking for furniture, pull up your Pinterest board and shop for the elements you pinned.

I hope my tips and suggestions will help you shop smarter, wiser, and more effectively. Your time and talent is precious, so make the most of your furniture excursions! If you have any questions about specific pieces or projects, feel free to email me. I love hearing from you! Click the logo below to shoot me a message and we’ll talk furniture.

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I'm Jenn Baker - Milk Paint lover, photographer, blogger, and QVC Guest Host. Click below to learn more about me and my creative business.  LEARN MORE ABOUT JENN

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