Tips for Finding Furniture Pieces to Refinish

Apr 21, 2021 | Furniture FAQs and Tips | 2 comments

I got an email from one of my Instagram followers asking for tips on finding furniture pieces to refinish. They wanted to know where I find them and what I look for. As I was replying, I thought, “This would make a good blog post!” So without further ado, here are my tips and answers to FAQ’s when it comes to all things furniture.

Tips for finding furniture pieces to refinish, Eight Hundred Furniture

Where Do I Shop for Furniture?

Thrift Stores

I go everywhere for furniture. When I first started painting, I frequented Goodwill and my local Habitat for Humanity Restore. My budget was small, so I needed pieces that were cheap. Like, $50 or less. (Now that may seem cheap to me and expensive to you, so keep in mind that price is relative to where you live.)

I didn’t do many yard sales because I only had a 4 door Honda Civic sedan at the time. I wasn’t able to take pieces with me right away, so I needed to shop where I could come back and pick up with a bigger vehicle. Despite my early limitations, I scored some great pieces like this dresser that I refinished in Persian Blue Milk Paint by General Finishes.

Freebie Furniture

People also gave me furniture they didn’t want anymore. As long as it was sturdy, I painted it. I didn’t care too much about the shape or style. If it was free, I took it!

This Queen Anne side table came from the formal living room in my parent’s home. I used to play with it and open/close the drawers as a child. It felt funny painting it as an adult, but I was happy to give it a new lease on life. It too got a Persian Blue makeover.

This piece was painted in my early days as a furniture refinisher, long before I knew anything about bleed-through or priming. Looking at this photo now makes me cringe a little bit. Primer definitely should have been used!

After a little while, I got more selective about the pieces I wanted to refinish. My taste and style developed over the years, and I stayed away from 1980’s – present style furniture. I didn’t want to paint the super shiny and glossy Ethan Allen dining room furniture anymore. My paintbrush was eager for antique pieces! Plus, my workshop kind of turned into a dumping ground for unwanted furniture, so I started saying “no thank you” more often.

Nowadays, I’ve added Craig’s List, Facebook yard sale groups, antique shops, and used furniture stores to my repertoire.

Furniture Auctions

I started to buy at auctions, but they’re tricky for me. You have to keep a strategy in mind when you’re bidding at an auction. Most have a buyer’s premium that gets tacked on at the end when you checkout. So if you bought a piece for $20, there may be anywhere from a 10 – 30% upcharge tacked on to that price. I always forgot about that part!

A lot of antique dealers who had a much larger bankroll would often be on side and would outbid me. They were able to go up as high as it would take to get the piece because over the course of the night, they would buy thousands of dollars worth of furniture. They would spread their costs out over 20-30 pieces while I needed a deal on just one.

As time went by, and I was able to take a bit more cash with me to auctions, I could spread out my final cost across more pieces. At first though, that was tough to do. I was better off buying one piece at a time from less expensive sources.

With all of that said, I’ve gotten some fabulous pieces for reasonable prices at auctions.

Antique Stores

One of my favorite places to shop for furniture to refinish is in antique stores and co-ops. You know, those stores that have individual booths? I find that they have some pretty good deals most of the time.

Empire dresser waiting to be painted in Miss Mustard Seed's Milk Paint
This is what my piece looked like before I started

If the shop owner knows you, and you’ve developed a relationship with them, they may give you 10% off of everything. Every shop is different, but we have a lot of antique stores in my area that are wonderful to work with!

Antique Oak Buffet

What’s My Budget for Furniture?

My budget for pieces of furniture depends on a few factors including the size, quality, construction, and age.  I’ll pay more for amazing and unique pieces that are old and in incredible condition, and less for more plain, run-of-the-mill furniture.

The price I pay for furniture may be completely different than what you pay. Antiques are pretty common in my area of Southeastern Pennsylvania. You can get a great washstand for around $45 and a nice tall dresser for $60.

Depression era mahogany dresser

My prices also depend on what I think I can sell the piece for. That varies quite a bit in my area! There are some counties that pay top dollar for furniture like mine, and other areas that want a bargain. I typically sold in the latter areas, so my selling prices were pretty reasonable.

Again, this may vary in your area, so understand that this is all relative.

Here are my typical maximums, but these vary quite a bit.

  • Hutches and cupboards – $150
  • Buffets – $100
  • Dressers and vanities – $70
  • Kitchen tables – $50 (these are pretty common in my area)
  • Side tables – $20
  • Mirrors – $50 for large, $20 for medium, and $10 for small
  • Trunks and chests – $75
  • Shelves – $30
  • Chairs to Reupholster – $20 (again, these are super common in my neck of the woods)

Again, these are really loose numbers and they may be totally different than what you pay in your area.

What Do I Look For?

The very first thing I do when considering buying furniture projects is to check the structural integrity. Just ask my husband. He’s seen me shake, shimmy, open, close, and lay on my back to check the underside of any potential prospect. I always pull out the drawers to check out the joinery, specifically looking for dovetail or Knapp joints. If you find a Knapp joint or hand cut dovetails, that means the piece is pretty old!

Here’s a Knapp joint. These were used on pieces between 1871 and 1900.

Knapp joint on drawer of victorian dresser with drop pulls

You can tell these dovetails are hand cut because they are uneven and rather skinny.

I also make sure the drawers slide easily, the runners are in tact, and the bottoms aren’t damaged.  Some drawers require a tiny bit of TLC, but others are so far gone that I pass over the piece entirely. I don’t really want to spend time rebuilding drawers. If a piece is really pretty and has wonky drawers, then I’ll outsource the work to my carpenter friend, Greg. If I do that though, I make sure I get the piece cheap enough to compensate for the repairs.

Assessing the doors is also a must! Do they close easily? Are the hinges broken?

Wavy glass in aviary hutch, door of hutch

What Types of Furniture I Avoid

I have come across a handful of complete and utter stunners in the past that needed repair work that was completely outside my skill set. With a sad heart, I skipped over them. In the past, I’ve gotten myself knee deep into pieces that practically needed to be rebuilt and I wound up losing money, so I definitely learned my lesson the hard way. Now, I steer clear of any pieces that are too far gone.

For example, I got this rocking chair for about $15. The back was wicker but it was completely destroyed. I got it into my head that I could re-weave a new back for it. It soon became obvious that I had no idea how to weave anything, let alone a new wicker back. I wound up paying a professional to do some rushing, which turned out beautifully but it more than quadrupled the cost of the piece itself and the sale was a total wash.

Here’s a close up shot of the rushing. Even though it was beautiful, it ate all of my profit. That said, it was a good lesson to learn.

When it comes to mdf, laminate or particleboard furniture, I move on. That includes Ikea style furniture. Not that I have anything against Ikea, but 9 times out of 10, I choose wood pieces. Wood is sturdy, can be sanded and stained, and it paints like a dream.

Before and After Shot of the Perfect Gray Buffet

I also like finding furniture that has a texture to its original finish.  If it has been exposed to the elements, sometimes you’ll feel an alligator-like bubbling.

See what I mean?

I also try to stay away from retro furniture like this cabinet. Even though it was cute, it was a pain to paint! It had a hard enamel paint finish that was a beast to cover.

Pieces that have already been painted are a hard pass for me. At first I took them on, but over time, I’ve learned that underlying coats of paint can cause a LOT of trouble. For example, this Victorian Eastlake washstand was painted in a white latex first.

I had to sand the dickens out of it to get the latex paint off. In the end, it turned out pretty well, but there were some lingering brushstrokes and drip marks from the latex that made my paint job look bad.

That’s another good point! An existing paint finish that’s pretty terrible will most likely make your new finish look bad. I don’t want my customers thinking that those drip marks are mine, because I’m a really careful painter. Sanding off existing paint is also super time-consuming. You want to be able to sell your piece to compensate yourself for the time you put in to refinish it.

Plus, I don’t want to deal with lead-based paint.

I hope these tips and suggestions will help your furniture hunting journey!

Welcome to my happy place!
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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