$econdhand First Class

A thrift store fanatic shares her shopping secrets


A Puck pan I got for under five bucks!

Building a cookware set can be expensive and take time. If you don’t care if your cookware matches, buying pieces at thrift stores can take the sting out of filling your cupboard with good quality pots and pans.

There are a lot of conflicting opinions about the relative safety of using various forms of cookware. Before you shop for pots and pans, you may want to research and have an opinion about the dangers of cooking with:

  • Aluminum cookware
  • Non-stick coated cookware. There is a useful article in Psychology Today on whether – pans are dangerous.
  • Glass cookware

Snopes is a great source to do your research for some of these items. They provide objective and factual information about rumors, urban legends, etc.

Once you know what you want and don’t want, you are ready to shop. Here are just a few tips:

  • Check the condition. No matter what type of cookware you buy, make sure it isn’t dented, chipped, cracked, or burned on the bottom.
  • Grab it by the handle. Make sure the handles are in good shape, not burned or cracked. If the handles are loose, make sure there is a screw you can tighten. If the handle was welded or glued to the pan and has come loose, give it up.
  • Put a lid on it. If you find a pot you like and the lid is missing, find one before you leave the store. It can be very difficult to find a lid that matches without the pot or pan.
  • Get the good stuff. Since your thrift store pot costs so little, look for name brands such as Farberware or better. I like a pan with a heavy bottom since I am a forgetful and scatterbrained cook. A heavy bottom (on the pan) gives me a little more time to get to the stove before the house burns down!

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!


Many of our son’s favorite toys were from thrift stores. One such toy was a wooden tic-tac-toe board with Xs and Os. Cars, superheroes, games, you name it, he played with it. 

With the high cost of toys, thrift stores can be a real lifesaver. You just need to take a few precautions. When shopping for toys, follow these guidelines.

  • Buy what you can clean. Not only was the toy likely well-used before it was donated, but while at the thrift store, a multitude of kids have probably played with it while waiting for mom and dad to finish shopping. Click on these links for information on cleaning and sanitizing toys. Plastics (Clorox or Family Management), Wooden toys, and Stuffed toys.
  • Choose a toy in good shape. No cracks, splits, or dangerous edges. For stuffed animals, look for items with no tears, worn spots, spilled stuffing, or missing parts.
  • Check for odor. If you get a whiff of anything, pass unless it’s Strawberry Shortcake and you’re smelling dessert.
  • Make sure all parts present and accounted for. Be sure to apply common sense rules about buying toys for kids such as no sharp edges or small pieces for younger children.
  • If the toy is battery operated, insert the batteries you brought in your kit and test. Nothing is more disheartening to a kid than finding out too late that the airplane doesn’t soar and the car doesn’t zoom.

Once you get the toys home, always clean and sanitize the toy before giving them to your child.

Handcrafted and Heavenly

Handmade covered bowl

Handmade covered bowl, signed on the bottom

‘Tis the season for craft shows, with booth after booth of the creative and clever. But handcrafted items such as walnut candle holders or carved Santas aren’t just at craft shows. People buy a handmade vase, use it for a while, then donate it. Or they receive a ceramic bowl as a gift, decide it’s not right for their decor, and into the giveaway pile it goes.

That’s where you come in. If you want to fill your home with beautiful handmade collectibles, bargains await at your larger local thrift stores. Crafted items tend to be regional so you may not find baskets but see pottery aplenty in your area.

Here are a few tips to help you cull the handcrafted from the mass produced:

  • Signatures and dates. These are usually on the bottom or the back of a piece. Artists mark baskets on the underside of the handle or the base.
  • Uneven edges or rims. You’ll see this on handmade glass and pottery pieces especially. This imperfection is part of the appeal—the handmade quality. If a vase was thrown on a pottery wheel, you may see faint rings on the base or body of the item. Warning: if a piece has a faint ridge running from top to bottom that looks as if two pieces were joined together, it is not handmade, even if it has a signature.
  • Weight. Handcrafted items, such as baskets, glass, or pottery, are usually heavier than molded or manufactured pieces. For example, basket makers and potters use better quality materials in their handmade items.
  • Finish. You can often feel the layers of glaze on a handmade piece of pottery or the dashes of colored glass applied to a vase.

When you find that special item, eye the piece for cracks and missing parts. Run your fingertip around the edges to feel for chips. Make sure that handmade goblet is worth pride of place in your home.

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!

Building a Nifty, Thrifty Wardrobe


Matching is easier with
colorful pieces like this

Thrift stores are wonderful resources for helping you construct a good-looking and versatile wardrobe. Here’s a quick overview of what to look for and why.

Thrift stores aren’t great for basics. Think about it. Your go-to pieces such as your ruffled white blouse and black pants or navy skirt are clothes you wear season after season. Eventually, you notice a frayed cuff or a hole and you toss them. Most everyone else does the same thing. You can look long and hard in a thrift store for a simple white tee in good shape. Better to just buy it new and plan to get a lot of use out of it.

Thrift stores are ideal for wardrobe fillers, those pieces that put punch in your outfits, such as a colorful jacket or blouse. This is where you can have fun shopping and then feel like a million wearing your finds.

Here’s a way to construct an outfit:

Find a blouse or jacket with multiple colors. This could be a print, a plaid, or a weave with different threads. This is your starting point.

Next, look for pieces, such as pants, skirts, blouses, or tees in matching or coordinating colors. For example, in the pictured jacket, the print has several colors, such as greens, pinks, orange, gold, with black accents on a white background. I can wear any of these colors with the jacket. I like to combine a print with a strong color from the print and a coordinating neutral, such as black, white, or beige.

When matching colors, have the item with you. No matter how good your memory is, it’s hard to match shades unless you have a sample. Having tried to match a medium blue, I can tell you there are about 3,231 shades of medium blue, none of which look good with my skirt.,

If you have to visit more than one thrift store to complete your outfit, show the item to the manager or cashier when you enter the store. They will usually mark the item so there’s no misunderstanding when you leave.

Back to the example: Starting with the one jacket, I now have several outfits I can put together. I found olive green pants and pair them with a pink knit top. I toss the jacket over my black pants with a white blouse. I am currently on the hunt for some pink jeans. I know they are on the next rack.

Happy thrifting!

Bling It Home!


Thrift stores are great sources
of fun jewelry.
Photo courtesy: Morguefile, abpphoto

I’m not a gemologist or a jeweler. But, I’m happy to share what I have learned.

Thrift store pricers often go a little crazy over jewelry. One thrift store had a set of fake pearls priced higher than retail for several months. Other items in the case sold but those “pearls” had been there so long they practically had their own lunch order.

Take the phrase buyer beware to heart. Before you fork out big bucks for a piece of jewelry at a thrift store, have a jeweler with you. Or, if your cell has a web connection, check the price of a comparable new item while you’re browsing.

And always do the following:

  • Buy what you like. Most pieces will be costume jewelry so make sure you want it enough to wear it proudly.
  • Look for wear, such as finish wearing off the metal or beads.
  • Open and close the clasp a few times to make sure it works.
  • Test how secure the stones are in their setting. Check that all stones are present and accounted for.
  • See how well the stones reflect the light. If the stones are scratched they’ll look dull.

You’ll also want to check the metal for marks. Marks are usually on the clasp, the back of a pendant, or inside the band of a ring. The marks are tiny so a magnifying glass comes in handy. Here are some marks you may find:

  • 925 means the metal is sterling silver.
  • Nickel silver or German silver means no silver content. The piece is copper, nickel, and zinc. 
  • A number and a K such as 14K can mean the item is real gold but beware: Unscrupulous types have put this stamp on items that were not gold. The wearer’s neck or finger turned green and the giver’s face turned red. That could be how the item ended up at a thrift store.
  • A number and a K followed by GF (10K GF) means the item is gold-filled, not solid gold. The mark could also read: 1/20 14K.
  • 925 (sterling) but the finish looks like gold. The item is probably vermeil which is usually karat gold electroplated over silver.

For more information about gold and silver marks see Enchanted Learning.

Happy thrifting!

Thrift Stores: Party Supply Central


Examples of vases I bought
at a local thrift store

Planning a party and want to wow guests with your creativity and decorating flair? On a limited budget? Don’t worry! Light out for your local thrift store to pick up bargain-priced party supplies and ideas. Since supplies are limited by donations, you might have to visit a couple of thrift stores to get all you need.

  • Candles. Nothing sets a mood like candles. You’ll find candles of all sizes and shapes at many thrift stores: tapers, pillars, tea lights, etc. Mix the colors and sizes for an interesting effect. If you plan to light the candles, check the label on the candle base to make sure the candle was made in the U.S.A. or that the wick is lead-free. Candles made in the U.S.A since 1993 have lead-free wicks.
  • Candle holders. Buy an armload of small juice glasses or tumblers to display your small candles. Or pick up a variety of mismatched cups or small planters. To stabilize the candle in the container, put sand in the glass first, then nestle the candle into the sand.
  • Napkins. Mix and match is the key. Mix a print with a coordinating solid. Or pair solids that match your theme, for example yellow and white for spring.
  • Vases. People get vases in floral arrangements and toss the vase after the flowers fade. You can find large and small vases galore at thrift stores.
  • Glassware. Short of goblets, wine glasses, or just plain any-kind-of glasses? You’re likely to find shelves of glasses at a thrift store, just waiting to make your guests’ drinks memorable. Check for chips by running your fingertip around the rim of the glass and the base.
  • Wreaths. Looking for sprigs of greenery to brighten a table? Pick up a few wreaths and pull out the greenery you want. Toss, recycle, or donate what you don’t use.
  • Ribbons and lace. Tie those sprigs of greenery with bits of ribbon and lace. Give the wine bottles a festive look with lace wrapping. Loop different colors of ribbon around the wine glasses so guests can identify theirs.

Once you start browsing, you’ll find dozens of ideas to make your guests say wow!

Happy thrifting!

Jeans, Glorious Jeans

Shopping for jeans at a thrift store

Jeans can be a great
value at a thrift store

Jeans, the staple of most wardrobes. Jeans, the symbol that it’s time to have fun and relax. Good news! You can find jeans of all types, styles, and stripe at thrift stores. A huge benefit to buying thrift-store jeans is that they are preshrunk (if they have been worn and washed). Unlike the person who plunks down cash for new jeans, takes them home, tosses them in the wash only to pull out a pair that would fit a poodle, if the jeans fit the first time, they’ll fit every time.

But, before you snap up those cropped cuties, you’ll want to give those jeans a complete check-up.

  • Zipper: Most zippers lock at the top. If that lock fails, your zipper slides down, and you’re showing more than your good taste. Zip that zipper to the top and press the tab down. Then tug on each side of the waistband. If the zipper holds, you’re good. If not, move on. While you’re on the zipper, check out the fly. Make sure the fabric on the flip hasn’t twisted to the side.
  • Button: A button’s job looks easy but sometimes the buttonhole stretches out and sproing! Apply a similar test to the buttons. Button them, then see how they stand up to the pressure.
  • Snaps. Press the snaps together, and then see how much force it takes to get them apart.
  • Stitching. Most jeans have top stitching which makes them very resistant to ripping. But sometimes the sewing machine needle is on a coffee break and misses a few stitches. Check the areas of greatest wear, usually the fly, the crotch and around the pockets.
  • Leg seams. When you hold up the jeans, check the leg and the side seams. Do seams stay straight or do they twist around to the front of the jeans, so the wearer looks as if he is doing the hokey pokey? This means the fabric wasn’t laying properly when the pattern pieces were cut. No amount of ironing will set those jeans straight.
  • Holes. Some holes say I’m edgy and original. Some holes say my mother should choose my clothes. Whether you want holes or how many is up to you. Where the holes are, say, the crotch, can be a matter of public decency.
  • Fabric. Generally, the more cotton the better. Rayon doesn’t hold its shape as well as cotton and cotton/polyester blends fade and wear out faster than all cotton.

Whatever style you like, be it relaxed, boot-cut, or skinny, you’ll find jeans that flatter you and don’t flatten your wallet at a thrift store.

Happy thrifting!

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