HOW TO: Refinish Old Furniture To Suit Your Space And Aesthetic

Because Reclaim is the fourth R in green décor.
Publish date:
February 18, 2014
furniture, DIY, home decor

My apartment is, in a lot of ways, a product of divorce. As in, my parents divorced and I inherited a bunch of the stuff they either didn’t have room for, or didn’t want to look at anymore. Apparently inert objects that have been inoffensive for the last twenty some-odd years lose their karmic neutrality once you decide to leave your partner. Yeah, I’ll trade karma for a comfortable sectional.

Living in a loft means everything kind of has to match, because from anywhere in my apartment you can see pretty much all the furniture I own. The goods that were handed down furnished various rooms in my childhood homes, often with distinctly different aesthetics and themes informing each space (kind of like choose your own adventure books or funky Japanese romance hotels – do you want the medieval guest room? The country farmhouse-style den? The vintage games room?)

Furnishing my home on writer’s pay, I was super happy for what I got, but it meant a certain amount of sweat equity was going into making everything come together. From basic upholstery to refinishing wood, here’s how to rethink and reclaim hand-me-downs. Armed with these skills, you’ll never look at garage sales or flea market furniture the same way, either.


First, assess. If you’ve just been offered a freebie sofa, armchair or ottoman, or you’ve spotted one at the flea market/garage sale/curbside/craigslist, inspect carefully for signs of bedbugs – do this BEFORE you bring it anywhere near your home, because an ounce of prevention goes a long way here, and people don’t realize how costly elimination can be (into the tens of thousands, which definitely makes the upcycle savings negligible, in context). Check seams, under pillows, along the edges of piping, around tufting buttons, etc.

Now look at the fabric – is it dirty or just ugly? If it’s dirty, some elbow grease and a good upholstery cleaning product might be all you need. Alternatively, a professional will do this for you with better results for really set-in stains. Consult your local dry cleaner; if they don’t do upholstery cleaning, they may be able to recommend someone they work with and trust.

If it’s ugly but otherwise intact, think about whether the ugliness can be neutralized in context. It may be a 70s pattern that on its own is awful, but if the color is muted and matches your décor, a spread of accent pillows can make it an eclectic as-is addition. Throw blankets can help, too. If the color/print/texture is truly without redeeming qualities, consider the difficulty of the project before proceeding.

Armed with a staple gun, some pliers and a few other basic tools, you can bring a set of dining chairs with stable frames back to life in an afternoon. I won’t bother going into detailed step-by-steps here, because there are amazing tutorials that illustrate each step of the process already available online (how do you think I figured it out? Google Academy, obvs).

Instead, I’ll share the knowledge I’ve acquired over years of watching my mother rescue pieces with “good bones” from antique stores, estate sales and street corners: know when to call in a professional. Tufting, piping, or anything with rounded, upholstered arms would be a good time.

Note that having a tufted armchair or sofa reupholstered can get costly. So can fabric, but it doesn’t have to be. I recommend going to a major chain fabric store to get acquainted with the different types of upholstery fabrics available in a neatly organized, accessible setup, so you know what you’re looking for. But shop around; often cities’ garment districts will have outlet fabric stores that sell roll ends (this can easily be enough yardage for an entire sofa!) for super-steep discounts. This is an unbeatable visual guide to estimate how much yardage your project requires.

When upholstering a sofa versus buying new, the savings may initially seem minimal, but I try to apply the same cost-per-wear calculation that I use to justify purchasing higher-quality clothing. If your low-end brand new sofa costs $500 and lasts two years, it’s way more expensive than a well-made flea market rescue that costs the same after reupholstery but lasts ten years, and could be recovered again and last another ten.

I currently have two armchairs in my living room that belonged to a sofa set my mother purchased in her twenties. The couch has been reupholstered three times, and is currently in my mother’s living room. The armchairs are on their second upholstery job, and still look beautiful thirty years later (like my mama).

Lastly, if you’re handy with a sewing machine, consider making a slipcover. It’s a no-nails, low-commitment upholstery alternative. Think loose, drapey slipcovers for a Montauk-sofa style look (works well with blah-shaped nineties sofas) or tighter, more linear ones for a cleaner, modern style upgrade.


This one’s all you. There’s really no need to call in the professionals here, so feel free to say yes to that desk or table, whether the stain is too dark or light, whether you’d like it to be painted, or whether it’s got some spots missing in the varnish or surface scratches. Battle scars shouldn’t scare you away when evaluating wooden furniture. Small dents, surface scratches and even chips can be fixed with wood putty, resins and patience.

Steer clear of veneered MDF and shoddy construction (look at the joints – some looseness can be glued and clamped, but poorly made furniture isn’t worth it in the long haul.) And yeah, still check for bugs – just do it.

Plan your attack: is the piece perfect, except the varnish has rubbed off in some spots? This is super common in vintage furniture – usually the spots that see the most use, like handles, wear more than the rest. You could strip the entire piece by sanding and then revarnish. Or you could use this trick I learned from an antique dealer when I was 19: dip a rag in some watered-down varnish and rub in a circular pattern over the worn out spot. You might have to do it once more, but rub in concentric circles and let dry between the coats. It’s a quick and dirty fix, and it works.

Small scratches? If you’re planning on keeping the stain as-is, scour your local home hardware or even dollar store for stain pens. They are like Sharpies for your furniture, and they are really fine for smaller scratches, especially ones that you’re not likely to look at closely.

More serious intervention required? If the color of the piece is all wrong, whether you decide to stain it or paint it, you’ll need to sand it first. Don’t hurry this part, it’s important that you create a proper canvas to receive whatever color-treatment you intend. This guide is really helpful. It will walk you through all the steps, from sanding to finishing.

Personal favorite, and also laziest refinish solution: I enjoy giving a shabby-chic treatment to wood furniture that I’ve acquired or inherited pre-painted. Instead of breaking my back sanding down to the wood, I’ll simply sand off whatever varnish is overtop, paint an oil-based color for a new base (always oil, because it doesn’t peel off no matter what the original paint was, but VENT VENT VENT), let it dry fully, then paint another color overtop in a lighter wash. I let this coat dry a bit, then using a dry rag I’ll wipe it off some spots, in a sort of random pattern that looks like it’s been worn down over time.

Once the second coat is fully dry, I take a rough-grit sandpaper to it and wear it down some more, for additional texture. Finally, when I’m satisfied with the look, I’ll seal it with beeswax for a matte finish.

Even quicker fixes

Before saying no to free furniture, or even smaller décor items like lamps and vases, think of them in the context of your space. Not each piece needs to be a showstopper. Sometimes a rather plain and functional item will do the trick in a busy space, and other times it’s just calling out for a little sparkle.

While you’re welcome to break out the Bedazzler if you still have it, I’d recommend picking up a tube of metallic Rub ‘n Buff and doing just that: rub it on, buff it off (with a rag). Boring mirror frames, picture frames, small decorative objects – it will give them all a funky patina in five minutes flat. While you’re at the fabric store, check out the trims; tack trim to the bottom of a lampshade with the help of a hot glue gun, or hand-stitch it to the edge of a lackluster throw pillow. Sometimes new knobs from a décor shop (it’s easy to find fun ones sale at Anthropologie or Restoration Hardware) will lend a plain piece of furniture, like a set of drawers or desk, the touch of whimsy, or alternatively, elegance, that it needs.

What are some of your favorite go-to upcycling tricks? I want to know your secrets.