Aug 28, 2023

5 Ways Secondhand Furniture Can Shine

By Perri Ormont Blumberg

What do you get when you mix a penchant for vintage and an uptick in moving? An obsession with secondhand furniture. “With rising costs, long lead times, and awareness for preserving the planet, clients are more interested and willing to reupholster that outdated yet well-made accent chair or give their great aunt’s dining room set a new look with high-gloss lacquer,” says Ellie Redders of the luxury design firm Ellie Redders Interiors in St. Louis. The designer also points to a 2021 Zillow study showing that homeowners report that they’re more likely to move as a result of the pandemic, and more than 1 in 10 Americans moved in the past year from when the survey was conducted in March 2021. Supply chain issues have also created limited inventory, more expensive pricing, and lengthy delays in shipments, all of which may have contributed to people embracing secondhand housewares. Used-furniture marketplace Kaiyo, for example, found that 70% of its sellers have bought and/or sold secondhand furniture online for the first time in 2022.

Yes, previously loved furniture is more affordable than something out of a catalog, but it’s not the only reason for its popularity. “[People] yearn for more interesting, creative pieces such as vintage and antique furniture that offer so much more than new furnishings,” says James Stanley, the principal and founder of James StanleyNY, a boutique architectural design firm in New York. What’s more, the stories passed on through furnishings create an emotional connection, a sense of nostalgia that gives a piece a whole other layer of comfort. And when you mix old with the new, well, then the interiors are imbued with character, Redders notes.

Still, the perks of scoring thrift store furniture finds can dampen, if you’re not sure how to spruce up previously owned pieces. Worry not. A little TLC is all it takes to transform a piece from lackluster to lovely. Ahead, pros share how to revive furniture and maybe even give your DIY project a story to pass on.

Aged paint gives secondhand furniture a shabby chic allure.

Distressed wood creates a feeling of nostalgia and works with numerous design styles: French cottage, modern farmhouse, or industrial loft, Redders says. To achieve the worn wood look on furniture, doors, and cabinetry, consider the extent of the full effect. A chisel and a hammer can create gauges, while water and paint work to mimic the farmhouse look. One of Redders’s favorite distressed wood techniques is to use a credit card or scraper to bestow the wood with a subtle weathered look. “This easy one-step process involves scraping when the paint has formed a ‘skin’ but the surface is still a bit tacky to the touch,” she says. The key to achieving the chipped paint effect is to tackle random spots, but especially the areas that get bumped naturally, such as corners and edges.

To distress wood, you’ll need:

To minimize excess dust and rogue particles, wipe the wood surface using mineral spirits. Use a gentle back-and-forth motion and work in the direction of the wood grain. Firmer strokes help pick up loose dust particles. Let dry for one to two hours prior to sanding.

To add some age to furniture, while letting it retain its character and the existing color, start with more abrasive sandpaper (80-grit) and rough up the corners by hand, exposing the natural wood. Expand that to surface areas in a way that blends the sanded patches with the rest of the piece. When you’re satisfied with the aged look for your secondhand piece, use a finer abrasive (220-grit) to smooth out the texture.

A wire brush works wonders on areas with ornate molding or crevices. Press down firmly, but not too hard, to create authentic lived-in scratches on the paint or stain finish. Sand lightly with fine sandpaper.

Though you can use a microfiber cloth to wipe away sanding particles, a dust brush attachment on a vacuum ensures that the debris is picked up. As you clean, pay attention to crevices and joints. To finish the furniture-aging process, take a cloth with mineral spirits to wipe down the entire piece. You can now add paint, stain, or a clear-coat finish.

Designer Angela Chrusciaki Blehm makes secondhand furniture shiny and bright.

“Powder coating, great for a highly durable finish, is excellent on metals, outdoor furnishings, or any items susceptible to wear and tear,” says Sarah Barnard, LEED and WELL AP–certified interior designer, in Los Angeles. “Powder coating is beneficial on metals, as it often sticks better and applies more evenly than typical paints. Sometimes, it may offer a protective barrier between the metal material and moisture.” Barnard cautions, however, that powder coating is not for a novice DIY’er as it requires safety precautions, special tools, and equipment (a powder coating gun can cost a couple of hundred dollars.) Plus, once you spray, the furniture has to be cured in a large oven. That’s not to say that the satin or matte finishes are out of your reach. Just be sure to arm yourself with safety goggles, gloves, and a ventilation mask while you work.

To powder coat, you’ll need:

Apply the paint stripper over the area you plan to powder coat. Let dry. Once it activates, the old paint will start to come up. Scrape off. Residual paint or metal stripper can be lifted with sandpaper or an orbital sander. Using an old cloth, apply mineral spirits, and wipe down the entire surface to be powder coated.

There is a reason why this DIY is for the pros. While a powder coating gun won’t electrocute you, without grounding the metal furniture, the powder won’t adhere as well and you won’t get that coveted finish. That’s why you absolutely must ground the metal furniture you’ll be reviving. Clamp one end of the cable to the furniture piece and the other to the rod. The rod should be placed in the ground six to eight inches deep.

Fill the electric or air powder-coat gun with desired colored powder and spray in a well-ventilated area. Hold it about 12 to 16 inches from your piece.

Bake the powder-coated piece at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about 20 minutes. Wait for it to cool down before removing.

Well-loved doesn’t have to mean worn.

“Staining furniture is a great way to give a second life to antique or secondhand furniture while letting the original material’s beauty shine through,” Barnard says. It’s also great for solid pieces with inset drawers. “Stain penetrates deep into the wood and won’t scrape off as easily, so it’s less likely to show the wear and tear as the drawers slide in and out of the cabinet box,” Redders adds.

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Staining is best done in an open space, as the sanding part can create plenty of dust. The stain itself can give off VOCs, especially if you’re using an oil-based formula. Ecos Paints offers nontoxic zero-VOC hues.

To stain, you’ll need:

Use the orbital sander to strip off old varnish or paint. You want to start with more abrasive sandpaper, say 60- or 80-grit and move the sander in the direction of the grain. While it may look smooth, you’ll actually want to sand again with 150- to 220-grit sandpaper for a super smooth finish. The wood should feel like velvet when you’re done—no kidding.

Make sure you place your furniture on a large piece of plastic to prevent the stain from, well, staining the floor beneath. Apply the stain lightly with a brush, and then use an old, clean rag (like a T-shirt) to rub it in and wipe off the excess. Follow the direction of the wood grain for an even result. Don’t forget to add stain to the space between planks, if you’re staining a table or jointry.

The sealant is applied in much the same way as the stain. Be careful not to let it pool or run down the legs of the furniture. This is where a quality top coat brushes, like those from Zibra, can come in handy. You may need to apply two to three coats. Let the sealant dry for at least 24 hours before use.

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Wallpaper can also quickly transform a piece that has seen better days. An old bookcase, china hutch, armoire, or even a door not only looks customized with a dash of print, but depending on the pattern, can look of-the-day, “Choose a wallpaper with a fun pattern, a punch of color, or a classic grasscloth,” Redders says. “If it’s a small area, use peel-and-stick wallpaper, which is a popular option, as it is easy to apply and remove when you want to give that piece of furniture yet another life,” she says. Tempaper recently released a removable wallpaper in textured grasscloth that adds just enough shimmer to make furnishings pop. If you are applying wallpaper to a piece of furniture that is in a room with water or a place where it could get wet, Redders recommends an option that’s commercially rated or a vinyl that can withstand moisture.

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By Paola Singer

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There’s much to love about the ultra-glossy finish. “Lacquer is more durable than water-based paint, so less scratching and peeling, if applied correctly,” Stanley says. “Functionally, lacquer seals the open grain of the wood, which makes it much more durable.” It also feels smoother to the touch and imbues a more professional aesthetic to your piece. If you’re new to lacquering, start with a small side table or a frame before committing to a large piece like a six-drawer dresser, Redders notes.

To lacquer, you’ll need:

Apply mineral spirits to dry cloth and wipe down the entire surface. Once mineral spirits have dried, apply primer. “A base primer will help in achieving a more uniform coat, especially if you’re doing a bright color,” Stanley says. Spray primer in an even, sweeping motion top-to-bottom (or side-to-side, if the area is wide). Allow to dry for at least two hours. Apply another coat.

To prevent the lacquer from running, you’ll want to use a light touch when spraying the furniture. Focus on making each coat a thin layer and build up to the desired consistency free of streaks.

Once lacquer has dried for at least 24 hours, apply the clear protective coat. Choose a finish that will amplify the lacquer, such as gloss or high gloss. Satin and matte sheens are a good alternative if you decide the lacquer is too glitzy for the space. Apply two coats, allowing each to dry for at least two to four hours.

To distress wood, you’ll need:To powder coat, you’ll need:To stain, you’ll need:To lacquer, you’ll need: