Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What to look for when buying vintage furniture

As you know if you've been here a while, I buy a lot of old furniture and spend a lot of time hunting down that something special to paint and bring back to life. Over the last few years I've learnt a lot about how to buy vintage furniture and what to look for. I've made my fair share of mistakes along the way also. It's such a bummer when you make a mistake and buy a really difficult piece that is beyond saving (or beyond your ability or budget to save it).

Lilyfield Life Painted vintage furniture

Following on from yesterday's post of Why you should buy second hand furnitureI thought I'd share my tips of what to look for and what to avoid. When looking for vintage furniture, I always look for quality, well built pieces.  If I'm going to spend my time, money and effort painting and restoring a piece, I want to make sure it will be worth it.  

Solid walnut sideboard.
Solid Walnut sideboard that I bought for $60!! Now in my dining room.

What to look for when buying vintage furniture

Timber composition

Vintage 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.

beautiful solid oak timber cabinet
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 it

Get 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 handlesHowever 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.

I love pieces that are a little different and unique

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)

How to find a good piece of vintage furniture

  • Always be on the look out. 
  • Have a list of places local to you that stock good vintage furniture. These may include council clean up/side of the road finds, eBay, Gumtree, Craigslist, Op shops, Goodwill, Salvos, Vinnies, Auction houses, Estate sales, markets and Antique centres.
  • Check regularly at these places. Make friends with the sellers and let them know what you are looking for. They may tip you off when they come across something you would like.
  • Vintage furniture are usually unique, one off pieces and you have to be ready to snap them up. He who hesitates is lost. If you really like something and it's perfect for your home or your brand, buy it on the spot. Don't kick yourself a few days later because you hesitated. If it's good no doubt someone else will also think so and it will be gone.
  • Get to know general prices for what you are looking for. Do your research.
  • If you are buying at Auction remember to factor in the Buyers Commission. In Sydney, this can be up to 25% on top of your bid.
  • Research the good vintage brand names of your country.
  • Inspect it - using my guide above
  • Use it - sit in it, open doors and drawers, sit on a chair at a dining table table to make sure it fits under the apron.
  • Measure it for your space. I carry a tape measure at all times and especially when looking for specific pieces, know your space at home or carry a room plan.
  • Know your budget. Make sure your budget is realistic for what you want. If you are going to on-sell it, how much will you be able to sell it for, what costs are involved in painting / transforming it, what profit do you want to make? 
  • Saying that though don't get hung up on saving $20 or so. If it's for your own house and you just have to have it then paying a little more is not going to matter in the long run.
  • Don't be afraid to negotiate especially when paying cash. Cash is king. I find the easiest way is to ask nicely "what is your best price?"
  • How will you get your piece home? Factor in delivery costs if you require. Know your car's capacity. I know my car will fit sideboards up to 1.9m long and 96 cm high. I carry a screw driver with me to remove the backing board as this usually is higher than this. I have roof racks and always carry rope with me just in case something needs to go on the roof.
Despite all the above, I have broken most of these "rules" (but not the particle board one) and still have managed to paint and sell my furniture but by using this guide you will know how to find quality pieces that are either fine to use as is or easy (or easier) to paint and transform.

If you aren't into DIY then you can always buy your furniture from people like me who paint and restore vintage furniture. We usually sell beautiful vintage furniture for way less than you would buy a similar piece new and the work of restoring and painting is already done for you. Most of us aren't just in it for the money and have a real passion for bringing life back to beautiful old furniture. You are buying what I consider to be a work of art* as well as furnishing your home. (*perhaps that may be presumptuous of me)

Lilyfield Life painted vintage furniture
Some of my recent painted furniture
Whatever you do, next time you are looking for something for your house take a look at vintage or second hand first and have fun with the hunt.



  1. great insight Fiona! very helpful... thanks for sharing.

  2. Fantastic post Fiona, thanks for haring your knowledge.

  3. Great post Fiona. No particle board here. Hopefully this will inspire somebody to give an old piece of furniture a go and they can leave all the mass produced particle board in the shops.

  4. Another well written and very informative post! This is great information for DIYers and their clients.
    Thanks, Fiona!

  5. Great comprehensive post here Fiona. Lots of good advice for a novice like me. I wish we had regular furniture auctions out where I am. Sometimes something will come up unexpectedly though, and you can find some real gems. I think you do a great job with your funrniture and it is lovely to have something that is unique and non mass produced.

    1. Glad to have helped Jo. The furniture auctions are amazing. There are amazing stuff and if I had a big workshop I would be painting the most beautiful pieces
      Thanks for the nice comments
      Cheers Fiona

  6. I love your montages! Very interesting post. I hate chip board too, I avoid it like the plague. I am an engineer too!

    1. Yay for engineers – such a great degree.
      Thanks so much Marianne xx

  7. great tips, fiona! especially for those starting out who just buy it all, not that i have ever done that....

    1. Me either, always a collector of treasures. I’d rather do without than buy what everyone else is buying!

  8. Such a great post! I couldn't agree more with what you said - especially when it comes to seeing past the flaws. You have to have a vision for what will be...

  9. Thank you for that great advice and great photos too.

  10. Such great points. Thanks for sharing

  11. So not presumptuous to say your furniture are works of art, they are beautiful statement pieces.

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  13. Some people really like to have antique furniture in their home and it sometimes really add beauty to your interiors if the particular furniture is perfect so, its really important to be careful while buying the antique furniture and need to follow the expert advice.

  14. Great tips! Thanks for sharing!

  15. Those area great tips! I'm featuring your tips in the PoPP Spotlight this week. Thanks for sharing with us.

    1. Thanks very much Maryann, much appreciated. I’ll look forward to it.
      Cheers Fiona

  16. $60?! GET OUTTA TOWN! So jealous! What a gorgeous piece and for a bargain! Great tips too. I learned a few things! xx

  17. Some vintage furniture is made from high quality wood. If we consider that one then it would last for many years if we reuse it. Somehow there is some furniture which is made from poor quality wood. We should avoid them as far as possible.

  18. Hi from Ontario, Fiona!

    I'm just starting out, getting my feet wet, in this furniture restoration adventure, and want to thank you for your great advice on what to look for in good, solid pieces to make more beautiful.

    I like what you said about doing this not to make money, but because you love to do it--though the money is/would be nice. :)

    I'm an editor and writer and, while it's lonely work and has driven me to look to something else that'll fulfill me and help bring some money to the household pot--without having to resort to office work, because I find it grim and drama filled, which I can NOT deal with!--I think that giving vintage furniture new life is a different kind of alone work, but not lonely, because it lets me be creative, and that makes me happy.

    Anyway, and sorry for the rambling, thanks for your inspiration. I'll be visiting your site often, and will develop my own once I get a little further along with this.

    Take care,

    Anne xx

  19. This was very interesting and helpful as I'm trying to figure out what to do with a sideboard I bought on whim at an Estate Sale. I have a couple of questions. I agree that particle board is hideous and I'd never knowingly buy it. But without a cross section of the wood, as you show in your photos, is there another way to identify it? When was it first used in furniture? The piece I bought has a plywood back, and seems fairly light for its size, however the drawers do have dovetailed joints and it has 1930s Art Deco style hardware. I might just leave it as-is, rather than paint it, but I did get some great ideas on your blog and may start looking for more pieces to paint.


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