|Solid Walnut sideboard that I bought for $60!! Now in my dining room.|
What to look for when buying vintage furniture
Timber compositionVintage furniture is usually constructed from one of three things:
- Solid wood furniture is my preference. It looks great, is a good solid weight and is easily refinished. Water rings, marks and scratches never worry me, because I know how to remove them or cover them with paint. I actually prefer my furniture a little worse for wear because then I can buy it more cheaply than other dealers who don't want to spend the time refinishing it and want to sell the furniture in its current state.
|A beautiful solid oak cabinet. It has stood the test of time and will remain beautiful and solid for years to come.|
- Veneered furniture usually has an inexpensive wood base covered by several thin layers of better quality wood. Because of the cheaper core, veneers aren't as expensive as solid wood pieces. If the veneer is in good shape or only a little chipped you can usually repair it with wood filler. Check for how the veneer is adhering to the particle board or substrate material. Veneer can be glued back if it is coming apart, but be weary of pieces that have large sections not adhering. I would test the weight of the whole piece and if it isn't too light weight I might buy the piece but unless you really want the piece or get it for a great price then I usually avoid fully veneered pieces. Ages ago I did paint this full veneer chest of drawers and while I liked my paint job I didn't like the quality of the piece, it was very light weight and a bit flimsy so I ended up selling it anonymously at auction rather than selling under my brand Lilyfield Life. You can often find pieces that are solid timber with veneered drawer fronts. If it's a good weight and well constructed these pieces are still worthwhile buying.
|These drawers have a timber veneer but are very well constructed and the veneer is in perfect condition.|
|You can see the layers of pressed wood in this photo and a small chip in the veneer which will be easily fixed with wood putty and covered with paint.|
- the final category is one I never ever buy and recommend avoiding completely: Particle board and other wood composite furniture are made from a mix of wood chips or pulp, resin, glue etc. These are the cheapest type of wood furniture and can look decent for a short time, but won't hold up for any amount of time. Think of Ikea furniture and how it sags even after a year of use. Apparently there is also concern over the use of formaldehyde in the resin that holds particle board together. Anyway regardless of toxicity, I think it is a total waste of money and time. Don't go there.
|Via Particle board is cheap and nasty - avoid it!|
Quality Construction of vintage furniture
Inspect your piece.
Check the drawers. I always look for dovetailed joints. They are one of the strongest joins and a good indication of craftsmanship. When you are looking at a piece, even at auction, make sure you open and close the drawers and that they slide well. If it's just a little sticky you can always sand the sides of the drawers smooth and wax them with a candle stub but re-constructing a drawer or trying to sell a piece that has drawers that are just made from plywood and stapled is usually not worth the effort. Unless you absolutely love the piece or you are particularly handy and have the right tools, I would recommend moving on.
|Via Look for drawers that have dovetail joins|
Tap itGet to know what hard wood sounds like when you knock/tap on it. Pieces should sound solid and not hollow. If furniture is particularly light (like modern "french" chairs made in Vietnam then don't buy them. The cheap wood will split in years to come.
Open doors.Make sure they open and shut okay. Think of the hassle I had a few weeks ago with the TV cabinet that the doors weren't hung properly due to the base sagging. Even after hours of working on them I was unable to make them swing perfectly and shut easily - you had to open both doors to shut them properly. This will often be the case with vintage furniture My client was okay with this but if you have the leisure of time for looking for a particular piece I would suggest buying furniture that is still "square". Save yourself the angst.
Check the handles and knobs.Make sure none of the handles or knobs are broken or missing. Make sure you try each and every handle. You can always replace them if they are but it's better to know before you buy so you can factor that into your cost. Handles can be expensive to replace. You will usually have to replace all the handles rather than just one as it's extremely hard sourcing matching vintage handles. However if it's just the colour or finish you don't like, you can always paint the handles to change their look.
Avoid furniture that is stapled, nailed or just glued.Look for wood joined at ends and corners, not glued or nailed in. Dovetailed joints or mortise and tenon joins make furniture studier and able to take more weight. Dowelled furniture is good also - you can always re-glue the dowel if it's a bit rickety.
Make sure your piece is not too rickety.Chairs shouldn't be wobbly or missing rungs. Chairs are unbelievably hard to fix in my opinion especially for the home DIYer. I would normally pass them up if they aren't in good condition. I have bought rickety coffee tables that are screwed together with bolts and because the bolts were loose then the table was very wobbly and I was able to buy the table extremely cheaply. The table was perfect once I tightened the bolts. Easy peasy. I have also brought chests of drawers that were a bit wobbly and just needed a new back board on them - they originally had thin ply on them and once I put a heavier weight wood on the back, they were firm. If it does wobble look underneath at its construction and see if you can fix it. But know your capability limits and your budget.
Look for Something Different
Because I paint most of my furniture I don't really care about the surface finish or colour of the vintage piece. What I look for (besides quality construction and composition) is shape. I look for unique, beautifully shaped pieces that will really accentuate and highlight your room. I try and create pieces that will be statement pieces as well as functional. So I am always on the look out for curves, scrolls, ornate carvings, pretty legs and pieces that really speak to me. You will have your own style. I suggest using Pinterest or a scrapbook to keep pictures of pieces that speak to you while you develop your style and work out what you want in your house or as your brand if you are painting and selling furniture.
Buying old chairs
Chairs can be recovered but poor/cheap furniture construction is difficult to remedy. If you are looking for a chair to reupholster, make sure it has a good frame. If you want to save even more money make sure that the webbing and foam is in good order as well. See my tutorial on recovering/easy upholstering. If you are not into DIY know that reupholstering is expensive: Get a quote before you buy, so you are not in shock.
Every now and then you'll find fantastic upholstered chairs in perfect condition such as the one below. this sold for around $300. (bad iphone photo, sorry) A similar chair brand new would cost around double or triple that and would probably not be as beautifully constructed. (once an engineer, always an engineer)