7 Key Things to Know About Restoring Used and Antique Furniture (and Signs It Might Not Be Worth It)

Painted and upholstered furniture

by Pamela Siegel

Smart home decorators often look to vintage and antique furniture for both unique and classic styles. Shopping for furniture at estate sales and thrift stores is a also great way to save a big chunk of change as opposed to buying new. Oftentimes, the quality is better, too. That’s especially true in comparison to build-it-yourself “fast furniture.”

If you’re worried about the condition issues that might crop up with used furniture, that’s not as big of a problem as you might think. With some simple tips and guidance, you can learn what’s needed to refresh and update furniture to make it ready for use in your home. And, if you enjoy a good DIY project, you’ll have even more options when shopping for secondhand home furnishings.


A table like this with an inlaid top and intricate detailing would be difficult to restore.

1. How to Buy Wisely 

The most important decisions made about refreshing and restoring old furniture pieces happen before you even get them home. When you’re shopping, keep your skill set in mind. If you have experience stripping and refinishing, great. If you don’t feel comfortable tackling a project like that, choose furniture that just needs some cleaning or minor repairs within your wheelhouse, like changing out hardware.

When pondering a piece of furniture, examine it carefully on all sides and the bottom. Open doors and pull out all the drawers to check for hidden damage. If you’re shopping online estate sales for furniture, look at all the photos carefully, read the description, and ask the seller questions, if needed. There are times when even the loveliest piece of furniture is beyond repair for anyone other than a skilled woodworker, and you don’t want to wait till you get a piece home to find that out.

With this in mind, steer clear of condition issues such as:

  • Major structural damage or missing parts.
  • Excessively damaged or warped veneers.
  • Extensive rot from improper storage and rodent or insect damage.
  • Finishes or decorative techniques (marquetry and other inlays, tiger oak finishes, etc.) that are difficult, if not impossible, to repair or replicate by a novice.
  • Upholstered pieces with extreme soiling, stains, or holes (unless you’re willing to consider reupholstering them).



A Mid-Century Modern dresser in great condition may only require light cleaning. 

2. Tips for Cleaning Old Furniture

After you’ve made a wise buy, the first thing to do when you get your used furniture home is to clean it appropriately. That usually means giving it a good dusting with either a feather duster or a soft cloth and taking care to wipe out any drawers thoroughly. That may be all you need to do to get it looking good.

If your furniture needs a bit more attention, keep these tips in mind when cleaning:

Wood. Solid wood furniture can be more extensively cleaned using oil soap. These cleaners, specifically formulated for cleaning wood, are mixed with water to create a mild yet effective solution. Keep in mind that you’ll probably have to apply a paste wax after the piece dries to completely refresh the finish. Follow the package instructions for the products you choose for this purpose.

Wood veneers. Wood veneers need to be cleaned using less moisture than solid wood. You can still use an oil soap mixed with water according to package instructions but only dampen the cloth. Add an extra step and thoroughly dry the veneer using another soft cloth.

Upholstery. Upholstered furniture can be spot cleaned as needed. As recommended by HGTV, use a quarter of a cup of vinegar, three-quarters of a cup of warm water, and one tablespoon of mild dish soap mixed in a spray bottle. Lightly mist the dirty surface and wipe with a soft cloth until the stain is gone. Anything more than that will likely require professional upholstery cleaning.

3. How to Make Minor Repairs to Wood Furniture

After your furniture is clean, you can assess whether any other minor repairs are needed since most people can easily take care of them on their own. This includes remedying minor scratches and chips that frequently occur on wooden furniture surfaces.

Both scratch-cover furniture polishes and repair markers can be used for this purpose. Scratch-cover polishes come in both light and dark tones. Some furniture repair kits also come with wax sticks that can help you repair deeper scratches in a variety of wood tones. If the damage is more extensive, painting or refinishing are both options to consider.  


This painted buffet estate sale find is usable as-is or it could be repainted. 

4. Guidelines for Painting Furniture

If a piece of solid wood furniture’s surface is beyond revitalization, changing the color with paint is an option that can transform a piece from drab to fab. This is a popular type of DIY project for many ambitious individuals.

Some things to keep in mind if you decide to tackle a furniture painting project include:

Choosing the right primer, paint, and topcoat. When you’re at the paint center, look for a primer specifically made for wood. Applying one will help the paint adhere better and make the finished surface more durable, according to Family Handyman. Paint should be chosen to fit your decorating color scheme, but also according to the surface being painted. The professionals in your local paint store should be able to assist you in choosing the right one for the look you’re trying to achieve. While applying polyurethane topcoats after you paint is not absolutely necessary, they can be a good idea if you’re painting furniture that will get heavy use.

Prepping the piece. First, be sure to remove hardware like knobs and drawer pulls when applicable. If your furniture has previously been painted, roughing up the surface with sandpaper should be all you need to do to get the paint to adhere. This can be done by hand or using an orbital sander for larger items. With stained and varnished furniture, most experts recommend stripping the finish down to bare wood before applying one or more coats of primer. Use fine-grade sandpaper to lightly rough the finish of your primed piece before beginning to paint.

Applying the paint properly. If there are areas you don’t want to paint, like the sides of drawers or hinges and keyholes, tape those off before you begin. Also, be sure to put down a drop cloth to catch your messes and make clean-up easier. When you start to paint, stroke the brush in the same direction to apply a thin, even coating. If you’re painting a big piece like a table or desk, consider using a roller for large, flat areas and a brush for cutting in (just like painting a wall). Smooth out any drips before they dry. If you need to apply another coat of paint for even coverage, let the first one dry and then lightly sand again before applying another layer of paint. Once the final coat of paint dries, you can then apply your topcoat if deemed necessary.


A classic chest of drawers like this one could be painted, refinished, or used as-is. 

5. The Basics on Refinishing Furniture

There are times when the natural wood grain in wood furniture is too striking to cover it with paint. You might also run across a piece of antique wooden furniture with a finish that’s seen better days and want the satisfaction of bringing it back to its glory. If you’re up for a DIY project requiring some of the same skills as painting, you can learn to refinish furniture.

The basics you’ll need to master when refinishing furniture include:

Stripping. Stripping furniture is most easily accomplished by using chemical strippers. There are different types, so following the package instructions on the one you select is imperative. As mentioned by Lowes, always use these products in a well-ventilated area. Use a putty knife or other scraper to remove as much of the finish as possible after applying the stripping agent. You’ll then sand to smooth the surface after the wood dries.

Choosing the right stain. Many pieces of furniture require stain to get an even tone to the finished woodwork. Options include oil-based liquids and gels, water-based liquids, and those that combine stain and finish in one step. Oil-based stains are more odorous and less environmentally friendly than water-based stains. Look at all the options and decide what’s best for your particular project and preferences.

Applying sealer and stain. Sanding sealer is applied to keep the wood from absorbing too much stain, similar to the way paint primer is used. After that, you can apply your stain using a rag or a brush following the packaging instructions. Once it penetrates the wood to achieve the desired color, any excess stain is wiped away with a clean rag. The process is repeated if you want a darker color.

Finishing. After furniture is stained, unless you opted for a one-step stain and finish product, a topcoat must be applied. There are several different types. Penetrating oils are often good for antique furniture. Polyurethanes are very durable. Lacquers are harder to use but can impart a lovely finish with some extra work. Investigate the type of finish appropriate for the exact furniture you’re refinishing for the best results.


Reupholstering furniture with tufted and pleated features like this one is a job best left for those with experience. 

6. Guidance on Reupholstering Furniture

Reupholstering furniture, like painting it, can completely update the look of a sofa, chair, or ottoman. It can also be a daunting task for inexperienced do-it-yourselfers and one often best left to professionals. If you’re new to taking on upholstery projects, keep it simple. For example, upholstered footstools needing an update can be a good point of departure.

If you want to tackle a larger upholstery project, keep in mind that you’ll need a staple gun and sewing machine in addition to standard tools like a flathead screwdriver and scissors. Beyond fabric, you’ll likely need batting, upholstery thread, and breathable fabric for the underside of your project. Better Homes & Gardens offers specific advice for reupholstering chairs and other types of furniture.

The good news is that whether you’re having someone else do the job or accomplishing it yourself, you get to choose the fabric to match your décor. Make sure you select material rated for upholstery so that it will be durable enough for everyday use.

7. When to Replace Hardware

There are times when you can remove the knobs, handles, and drawer pulls from a piece of furniture, clean them, and reuse them. Other times one will be missing or broken. In those instances, you will likely need to replace all the hardware for a coordinated look.

As you go about choosing hardware, the easiest thing to do is to replicate the type already in place as close as possible. This is particularly important when restoring antique pieces. Be sure to choose the same basic style of two-screw pulls or handles so that the holes align. If you’re taking some license in updating a piece of vintage or newer furniture, picking hardware with a more contemporary look or something whimsical might be more in line with your creative vision.

Removing most hardware is easy. Just look for a screw on the back of a drawer or door and use a screwdriver to loosen it. If you need to remove a drawer pull with a backplate, which is a bit more complicated, visit Shades of Blue Interiors for more guidance.

Ready to start shopping for vintage and antique furniture? Browse our estate auctions featuring all types of furniture on AuctionNinja.com.

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