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5 Ways Secondhand Furniture Can Shine

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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long lead times, and awareness for preserving the planet, clients are more interested and willing to reupholster that outdated yet well-made accent chair or give their great aunt’s dining room set a new look with high-gloss lacquer,” says Ellie Redders of the luxury design firm Ellie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.

1. Distressed wood

Aged paint gives secondhand furniture a shabby chic allure.

Photo: Molteni Motta

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:

Step 1: Sanding prep

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. 

Step 2: Sand

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.

Step 3: Detail

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. 

Step 4: Dusting 

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.

2. Powder coating

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