$econdhand First Class

A thrift store fanatic shares her shopping secrets

Archive for the category “Furniture”

What NOT to Buy

From reading my blog, you might think that, like Alice’s Restaurant, you can get anything you want at a thrift store. Well, almost. Here’s a short list of what I don’t buy at thrift stores.

  • Toiletries. Yes, opened and used lipsticks, creams, shampoos, etc., are donated regularly. If no one else in your family wants it, why would someone else want it? And, thrift store pricers, just cause it comes in the back door doesn’t mean you have to put a price on it. Come on, people. Show some sense. What would your mothers say?

    Oh sure, they look innocent,
    but what’s that stain? Photo courtesy of
    morgueFile, elemenoperica 

  • Underwear, such as panties, briefs, etc. Normal laundering does not kill some bacteria and germs. Repeat, washing does NOT kill some critters that would love to come home and cozy up with you. So, really, why take the chance?
  • Mattresses. I have one word. Bedbugs. Many thrift stores don’t even accept these items but if they do, don’t take them home.
  • Stuff that smells like pee. This goes back to the stink and stain test. This can be rugs, pillows, sofas, clothes, etc. Stink tells a story. Listen and then walk away.

Happy thrifting!


Driven to Re-Purpose or How Else Could I Use It?

Thrift stores aren’t just great places to buy clothes, furniture, towels, sheets, etc. They are also a treasure trove of craft materials. Here’s just a few ideas for using clothes and


Have a gaggle of young girls around the house? Fill a box with fancy clothes, hats, and gloves for dress-up.

I covered this footstool
with a leather skirt.

Recover footstools or dining room chair seats with the leather from old skirts or coats. You could also use the leather to make purses, vests, book covers, etc.

Felt wool skirts, dresses, or coats to make pot holders, quilt pieces, or penny rugs.

Worn wool sweaters or scarves can become gloves, hats, or pieced together, a warm and cozy throw.

Long skirts in beautiful fabric but outdated style get new life as a sleeveless blouse.

Whip up a cozy pillow from a man-sized shirt. Place the buttons so the cover is removable.

Tie a knot or two in a long wooly sock. Pull the knots tight. You’ve got a great and inexpensive dog tug-of-war toy. For more excitement, drop a squeaker in the toe before tying the knots.


Sheets are just big pieces of fabric waiting to be transformed by your next project. Or toss those sheets over the sofa to protect it from splatters when you paint your living room.

Use white cotton sheets as fabric for your tie-dye creations.

Got pets? Cover your bottom sofa cushions with a twin sheet that coordinates with your décor. Removing and washing is a snap.

Fashion great looking pillows out of pretty curtains or old tablecloths.

A friend sewed this cozy
pillow from a sweater.

Sew two cotton or linen napkins together for a quick and easy pillow cover.

Reupholster footstools or small chairs using heavy-duty curtain fabric.

Kitchen aprons hold your tools, brushes, or craft items as you work.

Need more inspiration?

Check out these websites:




How NOT to be a Thrift Store Hoarder

Ok. Take a deep breath. So far you have found a Tommy Bahamas shirt for $5.99, a wonderful walnut veneer side table for $35.00, a handmade pottery vase for $4.98, and a silver and amethyst cross for $12.99. Load ’em up and race for the register, right?

Uh, wait. Didn’t your significant other say if you came home with another wobbly table you would be living under it and not in the house?

So many wonderful things! What’s a bargain hunter to do? Here are a few ideas to keep your house from looking like a warehouse.

  • Upgrade. That walnut veneer table is in great shape. And the side table in your living room is showing the effects of too many late night drink cans and wrestling matches with the kids. Buy the walnut table and donate the other.
  • Buy for a friend. If that shirt or cross is just right for your best friend, whip out your cell phone and send a snapshot to her. Let her know it’s a limited time only opportunity. If she wants it, buy it. If you don’t hear from her, you can always buy it on the chance that someone will want it, but be warned:  down that path lies stuffed closets and 12-step programs.
  • Deco-rotate. That vase is perfect for your dining room table. But you already have carved candlesticks on your table that you nabbed at a thrift store just a month ago. You can’t put everything on the table; your family has to eat somewhere! One fact of human nature is that we often stop seeing things, no matter how beautiful, after a time. So deco-rotate. Display the candlesticks for a couple of months. Then, rotate out the candlesticks and showcase the vase. Both items will look fresh and appealing when they are up in the rotation.

Happy thrifting!

What’s What with Wood Furniture

Every well-furnished home needs tables to eat at, chairs to sit on and end table to put stuff on.

The first decision you’ll want to make is what type of material you want: solid wood, veneer, or laminate. To identify the type of material, look at a corner, especially near the top of the piece.

Solid Wood

Example of a solid oak table

Solid wood furniture can be made from hard wood such as oak, maple, ash, or walnut, or soft wood such as pine. Here’s what to look for:

  • Surface: Run your fingers over the surface. You should feel grooves and uneven areas.
  • Grain: The grain should be irregular and uneven. You might even see knot holes.
  • Edges: The edges should have a grain pattern, but look as if the grain was cut off.
  • Uses: Good for quality furniture, such as tables, chairs, cabinets. Solid wood generally refinishes more easily.Do not use soap and water on solid wood. True solid wood pieces are around but are scarcer every day.

Veneered Wood

Example of veneered door. Notice the edges.

Veneer wood is a thin sheet of real wood is glued or sealed to particle or fiber board or cheaper wood.

  • Surface: Should feel and look the same as solid wood.
  • Edges: There is usually a thin dark line just under the top of the plank. It looks layered, like a layer has been glued down, which in fact it has. Also, the edges and side grain may not match the top grain.
  • Uses: Veneer wood can make good quality furniture, such as tables or cabinets. Make sure the veneer is in good shape, smooth with no cracks, splits. You can refinish veneers but they require a lot more care.


Example of laminated door. The laminate sheet wraps from the side to the top.

A laminate is a sheet of plastic or vinyl printed with a wood grain pattern. The sheet has been pressure sealed or glued to particle or fiber board.

  • Surface: The texture may be flat, like paper.
  • Grain: The grain pattern repeats like a print. The end and sides of the piece may look “wrapped” in the paper. The side grain and end grain are the same.
  • Uses: Laminated furniture is useful for any piece you need to be able to scrub with soap and water, such as a child’s play table. If the finish is scratched but the laminate is in good shape, consider painting the piece.

Want to dig a little deeper into this topic? Check out Wood Furniture Definitions.

You’ll find all types of furniture: solid, veneered, and laminated at thrift stores. Veneered furniture is most common, followed by laminated, but every once in a while, you’ll stumble on that special solid walnut bookcase that will send you running to the register, pronto.

Happy thrifting!

New Life for Your Thrift Couch or Chair

A wood frame chair

With seating, there are a couple of options. Chairs and couches with wood frames and loose cushions are great for do-it-yourselfers. You can refinish or paint the wood frame and replace/recover the cushions quite inexpensively. Presto! You have attractive and comfortable seating at a fraction of the cost of new furniture. I re-covered the cushions on the wood frame chair in the picture.

Chairs and sofas that are completely upholstered, covered with padding and fabric, tend to be more common. If the fabric is worn but the brand is good and piece is in good shape, re-upholstering could get you a great custom piece of furniture.

Slipcover or re-upholster?

There are a couple ways to go if you want to give your thrift store treasure new life. You can slipcover or re-upholster it.

A slipcover is just like it sounds, making a cover for your sofa or chair that you can remove and clean if needed. If you have kids or pets, slipcovers can be a lifesaver. Creating slipcovers takes considerable sewing skill. If you’re strictly a sew-on-a button type, you can buy slipcovers or work with a seamstress to make custom slipcovers. For more information about making or buying slipcovers, check out About.com, Interior Decorating.

You can also have the piece re-upholstered, which means completely removing and replacing the fabric and sometimes the padding, if it is a little deflated. Check your local listing for a professional upholsterer.

I had this sofa slip-covered.

For both slipcovers and new upholstery, the fabric and labor charge can be considerable. For example, a local seamstress created a slip cover for my large, 3-cushion sofa. Twenty-two yards of fabric cost $330.00. The labor, zippers, and thread were another $350.00. Not an inexpensive proposition. When you are finished though, you’ll have a custom piece with exactly the right fabric and look for your home that could give you 10 years of service. Pretty good for a do-over.

Decorative Fabrics website has useful tips for estimating fabric needs for slipcovers and upholstery.

It’s all in the fabric

Whether you slipcover or re-upholster, buy the best fabric you can afford. This isn’t the time to get that bargain fabric that you can see through. Look for dense, tightly woven fabric. For households with kids and pets, a fabric with high cotton content is great. Cotton wears much better than synthetics. I have a friend who cleaned a stain from her microfiber sofa. The stain came out okay. But now there’s a hole where there used to be a stain. Check out the eHow article on the best fabric for re-upholstering sofas for the lowdown on fabric.

Happy thrifting!

Assessing Upholstered Furniture

Here are a few tips for finding just the right comfy seating:

Stand back and check the structure.

  • Is the item even, no leaning or sagging? If the legs are loose but the item is in good shape otherwise, you may be able to have the legs repaired.
  • Are the arms the same height and firmly attached? Wobbly arms or uneven arms can be a sign of poor construction. An upholstery expert might be able to fix wobbly arms but there’s no guarantee.
  • Are the cushions present and accounted for?

Get close for the next phase:

  • Apply the stink and stain test, especially to the cushions. A little dirt can be cleaned but beware yellow or brown stains.
  • Is the upholstery in acceptable condition? Wear around the edges might be okay but rips and tears might be unforgivable unless you want to invest in a slip cover or reupholstering the piece. Reupholstering can run into bucks but if the item is good quality, it could be a worthwhile investment.
  • Remove the cushions and feel the springs. Push down. Do the springs spring back with enthusiasm or begrudgingly? Any points sticking up or twisted loose? Maybe the spring hasn’t yet poked its way through the fabric but you’ll eventually get the point when you sit. And the point is pain either way; pain in the bottom when you sit or pain in the wallet when you have the piece “re-sprung” and reupholstered.

If the item has passed all the tests above, take a seat.

  • Listen for groans or squeaks. This is the sofa telling you about its hard life. Listen carefully.
  • Cushions should support you, not gasp and collapse. If you sink to the floor, the foam may have lost its bounce. Replacing foam can be pricey but worth it if the brand is good.

If that sofa or chair is still under consideration, turn it over if possible or tip up the legs to look underneath. Check for signs that critters made their home in the piece such as tears or holes in the fabric. See gobs of nice soft fibers fashioned into a cozy nest? Stains and streaks? Beady eyes peering out? All of these could be signs of an infestation of bugs or pests. A friend once brought home a used sofa. Problem was, the sofa was already occupied by a family of mice. That night, there were some surprised humans and rodents!

In another post, I’ll talk about the cost of re-upholstering a chair or sofa.

Happy thrifting!

Furniture: Good Bones

I bought my first piece of thrift store furniture, a maple nightstand, when I was 24. Now, several of my favorite pieces of furniture have thrift store pedigrees. There are great deals in secondhand furniture; however, with changes in our culture in the last few years, buying used furniture presents some challenges.

Apply the stink and stain test

Before you shell out cash for that adorable chair, check out “Caveat Emptor.” Every item should pass the “stink and stain” test.

My thrift store cabinet

From ugh to unbelievable

Look for good bones

Good secondhand furniture may not have a shiny finish or matching knobs, and it definitely does not come in a box. It will likely be worn, scratched, and a little shabby. But under that forlorn facade, you may strike gold, furniture gold, that is.

For months, I had a small cabinet on my thrift store wish list. Finally, I saw a cabinet that had been marked way down. It had a dark dull finish, cheap knobs, and loose doors but it was the right size and style. I stopped to check out the cabinet’s bones:

  • Materials: The cabinet had a veneer top and sides with solid wood doors.
  • Finish: There were a few superficial scratches but nothing I couldn’t sand out. The veneer was still firmly attached to the base wood.
  • Construction: The piece was square and solid. It didn’t sag or creak or lean. The door hinge screws were loose. Tightening them would solve the door problem. And knobs are just jewelry, easy to replace.

To my husband’s horror, the cabinet came home with us. I stripped off the old varnish and stain, applied a light oil finish, re-hung the doors, and attached new knobs. Now we have the perfect place to store games.

By looking beyond the scratches and the worn appearance at the bones of a piece, you can score furniture that, with a little tender loving care, you can proudly display in your home.

Happy thrifting!

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