Furniture Tips: Buying Second Hand and Refurbishing


Furniture Tips: Buying Second Hand and Refurbishing

At the risk of sounding cliche, I have to say it - furniture was better in the olden days. The furniture available today is intended to be bought, used for a few years, and then thrown away. The disposal and purchase of household goods is a major contributor to water pollution, carbon dioxide emissions, and landfill waste. I am very guilty of this - I have moved four times in the last five years, and each time I get rid of the furniture that can not withstand the move and replace it with additional low quality furniture in my new home. To fix this habit, I took up the hobby of refurbishing furniture for both my own use and for sale. Here are my tips for purchasing furniture second hand and simple ways to fix up your existing furniture.

When shopping for second hand furniture, I am always on the lookout for real wood. Real wood is more valuable, more resilient, and more timeless than its imposters. Here are three of the most frequent non-wood materials I come across:

  • MDF (medium density fibreboard). MDF is a wood composite made of sawdust and fibers held together with glue. It somewhat resembles corkboard and is very hard. Sometimes you are able to see it on the inside of the furniture - such as inside the drawers or body of the piece. This material is very sturdy, however it is an indication of a cheaply made piece. The product coating the outside of MDF to make it look like wood is likely veneer or laminate, which will not remain properly glued to MDF over time. 


  • Laminate. You want the top of your furniture to be hard and resilient towards scratches or dents. While laminate is very durable for the tops of your furniture, it does not have the same classic appeal as actual wood. A laminate top is often VERY shiny and hard to the touch. It is a plastic surface that can not be repaired in the same way that wood can be. 


  • Veneer. You have done it! You found a beautiful piece of furniture with wood grain. The texture seems right, it isn’t too shiny… but wait. Veneer is real wood, however it is only a very thin sheet that is placed over a cheaper material. This is not necessarily bad, as veneer is usually an interesting wood pattern purposefully chosen for its beauty. I am usually very excited when I find a piece with veneer in good condition! Veneer can be sanded, stained, or painted like real wood. You want to make sure that there are not any chips in the veneer and that it is still well sealed to the material behind it. If attempting to refresh the wood’s finish with sanding, you need to be careful not to break through the veneer as it is generally very thin. You can check if a piece is veneer by looking at the side of the drawers or top of the piece. Sometimes it is possible to see the edge of the thin layer of veneer on top. 

Now that you know some basics of looking for good new pieces, let's talk about fixing up the ones you already own! There are some easy ways to either improve the look of your furniture at home or to fix up second hand purchases. When shopping for second hand furniture you can know these are easy fixes and not let them hold you back from a solid purchase. 


  • Squeaky drawers - Some drawers are especially difficult to pull out or make a terrible noise. Be sure to check slides on the inside of the drawers - if they are broken they will need to be repaired. If they seem to be in good condition, however, the drawers can be improved with a bar of soap. Rub the soap on the inside of the tracks to decrease noise and improve the drawer’s mobility.


  • Change the hardware - There are many stores that have fun and unique hardware. Some of my favorites are World Market and Hobby Lobby (there is a 50% off sale every other week on hardware). Some other options are amazon or even making your own hardware.       




  • Holes or large Dents - Wood filler can easily fix your problem. There are also wood fillers that can be stained so that it is more discrete. An example wood filler:



  • Small scratches or dried out areas - Restor-a-finish is a very easy fix for refreshing wooden furniture. Find the product that matches your stain color, and an easy buff with the product should have it looking like new!


  • Painting. Painting furniture can bring it back to life and add an accent piece to your home. While it is more labor intensive than the other options, it can be done with only a hand sander, paintbrush, sealer, and some chalk paint. My recommendation for an easier option is “paint washing.” The most frequent colors I have seen used are white, gray, or black, but any color will work! This technique involves sanding down your piece to its original wood, then applying paint like you would a stain - putting it on and wiping it off with a rag. It is easier to do this technique, more resilient, and requires less materials. Below are some examples of this technique:


Good luck thrifting! 

Written by Morgan Brazeau