10 Secrets to Finding Quality Secondhand Furniture

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Couple looking for furniture in second hand shop
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In the market for a chair or kitchen table? Instead of new, why not try new-to-you? Buying secondhand is one of the best ways to save big on furniture.

Thrift stores, online marketplaces and estate sales are loaded with well-built furniture that’s served families for generations. Finding the best pieces just takes a little patience, vision and practical advice.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve bought and sold hundreds of pieces of secondhand furniture and decorated my home with some of my most prized finds. Here are my secrets to finding quality used furniture.

What to look for

As with most things in life, separating the gems from the junk takes a discerning eye. From credenzas to club chairs, here’s what to look for.

1. Good bones

Whether you want a finished piece or a refurbishing project, look for furniture with good bones.

What does that mean? Drawers should slide easily, hinges should work and upholstered pieces should have sturdy, solid wood frames. Plastic or fiberglass items should be free of cracks, chips or obvious fading.

It’s easy to be tempted by beautiful old furniture that’s simply too far gone. Some shabby pieces will never be chic. Before you buy, ask yourself, “Do I have the skills to handle this project? How much of an investment in new tools and time will this require?”

2. Strong joints

A joint is the point where two pieces of material meet and connect. Creating a strong joint — one that will keep a drawer, chair or cabinet door intact for generations — requires a bit of expertise.

When considering a piece of wood furniture, examine how it’s put together. Look for the following types of joints:

  • Dovetail: Dovetail joints are used to connect the sides of a drawer to the drawer front. These strong joints feature trapezoid-shaped “tails” on one piece of wood that interlock with identically shaped cutouts on the other.
  • Mortise and tenon: This simple joint is made when a mortise (a hole or slot in one piece of wood) receives a tenon (a tab protrusion in another piece of wood). This joint is usually secured with glue or a small pin.
  • Finger: Finger joints are similar to dovetail joints. Each piece of wood has a series of interlocking shapes that fit snugly together to secure the joint.
  • Pocket-hole: This type of joint is made by butting one piece of wood against another and securing them with a screw. The screw hole is pre-cut at a 15-degree angle to create a tight bond and flush surface.

3. High-quality veneers

A veneer is a decorative covering applied to a less expensive material. In older furniture, veneers are usually thin layers of high-quality wood — think tiger maple or mahogany — laid over solid wood.

Since matching and applying replacement veneers is an art form all its own, look for furniture with intact veneer.

Also, keep an eye out for “bookmatched” veneers, a technique that involves aligning two sheets of veneer so that wood grain patterns mirror one another. Because of the time and skill involved, furniture with bookmatched veneers is especially desirable and increasingly hard to find.

4. Hotel cast-offs

When hotels renovate, they often donate their old furniture to local thrift shops or sell it to the public at deep discounts.

Commercial hotel furniture is some of the best furniture out there — easy to clean and built to take a beating. And since dozens of pieces are donated at the same time, find matching sets is a breeze.

Word of caution: Don’t take a chance on hotel mattresses. They’ve had a rough life and may harbor bedbugs and other ickiness.

5. Valuable vintage brands

Though flipping vintage furniture might not be your main goal, it never hurts to score a hot collectible.

Look for brands like:

  • Heywood-Wakefield
  • Knoll
  • Herman Miller
  • Lane (specifically, Lane’s Acclaim series)

Not only are these companies known for high design and craftsmanship, they’re also popular with collectors around the world.

I’ve seen a midcentury period Heywood-Wakefield chest of drawers sell on eBay for $725.

6. Pieces that fit your lifestyle

Let’s face it: Furniture made generations ago was made for lifestyles that no longer exist. Huge armoires, hulking dining room tables, intricately carved china hutches — these pieces may be beautiful and well-crafted, but are they relevant for you?

Look for pieces that won’t cramp your contemporary lifestyle.

Before you buy, ask yourself: “Will this be difficult to care for? Will it take up too much space? Will it be hard to move? Does it have a single purpose, or can it be used in different ways as my needs change?”

What to avoid

Everyone knows to skip furniture with missing drawer pulls and broken legs. But let’s dig deeper. There are some things you should never buy used. In the hunt for the perfect piece, you should also avoid the following.

1. Bad smells

When it comes to bad smells, it’s not just upholstered pieces you have to worry about. Solid wood is surprisingly absorbent. Over time, odors from cigarette smoke, pets and mildew can slowly penetrate wood furniture, leaving pieces with a permanently “off” smell.

In the battle of bad smells, I’ve learned to make a hasty retreat. Trying to eliminate years’ worth of soaked-in odor can turn a fun weekend project into months of hard labor. Life’s too short. Give each piece of furniture a quick sniff test and avoid the stinkers.

2. Staples

Avoid furniture that’s constructed using industrial staples instead of screws, nails or one of the joinery methods mentioned earlier. Not only are these pieces mass-produced, they’re also mass-produced hastily and without regard for durability.

Staples can come loose easily, especially when used in particleboard. This type of furniture falls into a consumer category I cynically call “pre-landfill.” You don’t truly own pre-landfill items, you merely rent them for a short time until they fall apart.

3. Granite paint

Granite paint was an unfortunate trend in the early 1990s. This faux finish was liberally applied to lamps, dressers, end tables — nearly anything that was standing still. And because the paint had to be thick enough to produce a granite-like texture, it’s almost impossible to remove.

Unless you’re ready for a big restoration project involving chemical strippers and a lot of scraping and sanding, avoid any piece of furniture with this coating from hell.

4. Children’s furniture

While technically not something to avoid, buyers should exercise caution when shopping for secondhand children’s furniture.

Some pieces are donated after a manufacturer’s recall. Other pieces may have been broken and improperly repaired, resulting in a product that’s unsafe for youngsters.

Inspect each piece carefully and after buying, remember to properly anchor furniture that might pose a tipping hazard.

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