Making Over Old Furniture Can Be Surprisingly Therapeutic -- And Affordable

There's something about a 50, 60, 100-year-old piece of furniture that evokes in me a sense of wonder.
Publish date:
July 30, 2014
furniture, antiques, refurbishing

I caress old furniture the same way people affectionately run their finger down the spine of a familiar book. I love to tap the wood with my finger nails, gently run my fingertips back and forth against the grain, and breathe in the woody air that escapes from a just-opened drawer.

While I can appreciate new furniture built to look old, it isn't quite the same. There's something about a 50, 60, 100-year-old piece of furniture that evokes in me a sense of wonder. How long did this sit in someone's window before it was donated or passed down? Exactly how many generations are responsible for the now-tarnished hardware? What were the circumstances of the original purchase? Newlyweds? A new home? And what were the circumstances that lead to it being sold or donated? Divorce? A passing? Relocation as someone moved on to grander -- or less grand -- things?

What was it used for? Was it in the living room stuffed full of children's toys and crocheted blankets? Was it housed in a bedroom where his and her clothing was neatly separated?

Sometimes you find little clues about a piece. For example, this old leather office chair I found for $15 in Arizona had a yellowed, fragile receipt stapled onto the bottom from when it was originally purchased in 1967 in Ohio. And one time, while taking out all the drawers of a credenza I refinished, I found a 40-year-old tattered coupon for cheese dip. I like to imagine that was a junk drawer formerly full of myriad odds and ends at one point.

The dilemma with vintage furniture, of course, is that it's often seen better days. Outdated hardware is an eyesore, as are deep scratches, non-functioning parts, missing legs or metals so tarnished they're unrecognizable as such. You can certainly meander into an upscale antique store where blemishes are nonexistent, but price tags that soar into the quadruple digit range are like a knife to the heart (and wallet).

Alternatively, you can take the more creative -- albeit more time consuming -- route of refinishing a piece yourself. I've found that this process, while somewhat daunting, is actually quite rewarding. In recent years, it's also become therapeutic and has even turned into a bonding activity for my husband and me.

Every time I make over a new piece, I delicately navigate the fine line between upcycling and retaining their essence. I don't want to make a piece completely unrecognizable, but there's something to be said for the transformation of something dingy to something new and worthy of onlooker admiration.

Here are a few of my most recent furniture "makeovers" that I'm proud of. I always enjoy seeing where other people's creative intuition leads them and I hope that you can find the same inspiration in my pieces -- even if you would have redone them differently!

I found this desk for $17.50 at a thrift store that benefitted Hospice of the Valley. For months I had searched every single thrift store in the greater Phoenix area for a Midcentury desk, even driving as far as an hour away with a hopeful lead, but with no luck. And then this sweet girl appeared. I had actually just purchased a gorgeous mirror (for only $10!) and had to bring my car around to pick it up. As I approached the store entrance, I saw this desk sitting outside and ran toward it with the kind of wild abandon one has when meeting a best friend they haven't seen in years.

The frame was striking, no doubt, but it certainly needed work. The original color had a sort-of sickly yellow tint to it, one that I couldn't forgive. There were also lots of fine scratches and stickers that had melted into the wood as well. I gently soaked the stickers off, sanded the entire desk down with a palm sander and then applied a mixture of red and brown wood finish on top. I also replaced the drawer pulls, which were very dated, and painted the front drawers a crisp white.

This was my first foray into painting wood a non-wood color, but I wanted something clean and fresh looking for my office. And if I don't like the white in 10 years? I'll just sand it off and refinish! At the end of the day, I spent $20 on this entire project.

I feel like everyone who drinks is forever trying to figure out a creative storage solution for their alcohol. For some reason, I decided I wanted to house mine in the husk of a retro TV.

It took me a while to find what I was looking for, but I eventually found this one for $25 on my neighborhood's message board. The woman selling it was relocating from the home she grew up in and needed to get rid of lingering furniture stat. This was her father's TV console, which no longer worked, and she was excited about my plans for it.

My husband and I gutted it and properly disposed of the insides. This was surprisingly easy, though it did require careful hands. Is anyone else as terrified of untempered glass as I am?

Anyway, the finish wasn't too bad, so we only had to sand it down a little bit. We applied some wood stain for an even finish and then built a tiered bottom to better house our drinkables. We also installed a light fixture inside, a $5 "extra" that makes all the difference.

This piece gets a lot of attention in our home. My only regret? Having to handle the cluster of dead spiders that had apparently lived, bred and died within the TV's walls.

Here's the credenza that had the cheese dip coupon in it. It's one of my favorite pieces yet and is made by Bassett Furniture. I found it for just under $40 at a furniture resale shop, which is an incredibly low price for this mid-century style and this particular brand. That said, it was in pretty rough shape.

The brass was black with tarnish and there were scratches in the wood so deep that I didn't think I'd be able to remove them. I used Brasso to polish all the brass hardware, sanded like a mad woman for a couple of days, and then refinished the wood with a chocolatey brown.

Needless to say, this was much more of a project than I'd planned for, but it was incredibly rewarding and I am so happy with how it turned out. (PS. It's actually not as dark as the picture shows. My camera was just struggling with the bright light from the window.)

Now, to move onto my next project. I'm in the market for a Hoosier cabinet to fill a sad, empty space in my kitchen. If you find something in the Phoenix area, holler at me, please?