Seven Tips on Selecting Quality Restorable Furniture


People often ask me where I get my furniture pieces from, so I thought I’d share some tips for finding great pieces and what to look for.

1. Where to LOOK?

There are some great places to look for old furniture. I wrote a whole blog on “Where to Find Funky Furniture” HERE. You’ll be surprised at the number of places you can go to find “stuff”. I mention TEN of them in this blog link.

2. Look for real WOOD pieces.

I have been caught in the past with some great bargain finds only to find on closer inspection that the item is not real wood, but MDF or particle board of some kind. Learn to tell the difference.

Particle or chip board is made up of little chips of wood or shavings. These pieces can swell and warp and start to chip and flake on any open ends or dents in the piece of furniture.

Particle Board/Chipboard

Similarly MDF (Medium Density Fibreboard) is made up of compacted wood fibres and can swell easily. Sometimes you can still paint a piece to achieve a nice finish, but it is not the optimum type of wood for quality painting and restoring.

File:MDF Sample.jpg
MDF – Medium Density Fibreboard
Real wood pieces show off the grain in the wood. Take a look at the end or edge of a drawer or underneath the table to see if you can see wood grains in the piece. Some pieces are covered in very thin veneer and make it difficult to tell if it is real wood. If you are unsure, ask the owner who may know or if in doubt, just leave it out. Some pieces like night stands, are mostly wood, but the drawers are made of particle board. Sometimes these are still okay to restore, but just make sure there is not chipping or swelling anywhere.
These drawers from my daughter’s antique Study Desk Makeover are made from real wood and you can see the dovetail joins on the side of the drawers which are a good indicator of an authentic antique wood piece.

3. Look for missing pieces.

I have been caught out after coming home with a BARGAIN piece only to find there’s a bit missing somewhere. Check all the spindles of chair legs, and the struts that go across the bottoms of chairs. Here’s an example of a chair I bought with a missing strut piece, that I was able to repair using a same size piece of wood, but it could have been a disaster!
This video shows the chair and how I repaired the missing piece. Not all pieces turn out this “easy” and when you think about it, I could’ve saved a lot of time and effort, by checking it thoroughly in the first place:

4. Look for broken bits.

This is similar to number 3, but I have found bargain pieces that I thought I could repair quite easily … that are STILL sitting in my “too hard” basket. Be prepared to either let them go, or think creatively as to WHAT you are going to do to make this piece work. I was given a lovely antique desk, but the edge was badly damaged and not easily repairable. I could have done a few things to make this work, but I decided to completely cut it in two, remove the desk top and cut that in two, making two bedside tables instead. Then I had a “duh” moment when I realised that after cutting it in two, the two side tables tipped into the middle and I hadn’t thought about the fact that I’d need to also go and find some matching inside back legs! So there they sit again … waiting …
Desk: top right edge damaged beyond repair.
Desk: removed top and ready to cut in two to make 2 bedsides.
Cutting top of desk in two.
One of the bedsides – top cut to size. May need to route edge or add trim.
Okay, so I didn’t think about the fact these only have 3 feet per side! Need to find matching back feet.


5. Beware of items that are heavily varnished or painted!

These can be a PAIN to strip back or sand back. Read – A LOT OF WORK. Some varnished pieces can be painted over with paints such as Annie Sloan’s Chalk Paint or similar, but even when doing this, they may need a bit of a sanding to get the paint to stick. Similarly, Miss Mustard Seed’s Milk Paint will need bonding agent to stick to high glossy surfaces and added sanding just for good measure.

6. Be careful of older painted pieces as they may contain paint with lead.

If you have to strip back or sand any old furniture you should be wearing a protective mask, but especially if the piece is really old as it may contain lead paint – this is EXTREMELY TOXIC. Stay SAFE and if in doubt, or especially if you are pregnant, avoid these pieces if you can, or have someone else do it for you (a professional or someone with the right protective gear).
Here is a video I made of an old dresser restoration I did. It could have contained lead paint so I took precautions while stripping back. In this case I used a heat gun to melt the paint away which in any case, lead paint or regular paint, is going to cause fumes – wear a mask!

7. Think about hardware and fixtures.

You may get a great deal on a piece of furniture, but look for missing knobs, broken hinges, broken locks, etc. To replace these items of hardware can get expensive. There are great places online to by knobs and fittings. Try ebay for knobs. They can often be cheaper, if you have to buy a few, than your local hardware store.
I have an antique army box that has a broken lock on it. It has been sitting in my “too hard” pile for some time waiting for somewhere I can find a genuine antique lock/latch to replace it.
Below are examples of handles I bought for this cabinet I painted with MMS Milk Paint. (Read about it HERE)
 Handles I bought on ebay to match the locks on this cabinet.
Anything I’ve missed? What have you found the most annoying thing you WISHED you knew before you purchased a piece of furniture?
Comment below.
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Happy Painting!

We are authorised retailers for Fusion Mineral Paint and Miss Mustard Seed's Milk Paint in Australia. This blog post may contain affiliate links.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    July 28, 2014 at 6:23 pm

    Great article! Very helpful and information with excellent tips that have come from experience!

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