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Just a recap: Jess and I both wrote about why we purchase secondhand here and here.  And last week started the beginning of our “Choosing Secondhand Furniture” series. Read Jess’s thoughts from last week about Reality vs. Vision. Right now, I’m passing along everything that I know about determining quality while thrifting furniture.

All that I know, I learned from my momma and through experience. My mom has fantastic taste in good quality furniture. Her bedroom suite she bought back in the 70s has survived four children, a dozen or more moves, and did I mention four children? Also, she only purchased one nightstand at the time and so when she married my dad she’s always needed another one. That was 30+ years ago. When in Lubbock, Texas recently, I found her a second nightstand at an estate sale! It was an awesome and the price reflected the quality.

So here are thoughts to consider:

1.) When considering purchasing anything that has drawers check to see if they’re dovetailed. (i.e. dressers, nightstands, cabinets, crates, etc.) Dovetailing consists of “pins” and “tails” that fit nicely together. Example:

(Hello, pile of laundry in my desk chair!)

Dovetails indicate quality. Yes, there is still quality furniture out there that is nailed, glued, or screwed drawers, but in my experience the drawers don’t last as long. Dovetailed drawers hold together because the two pieces of wood are made in such a way that they fit together. That’s important when it’s going to be a piece of furniture that you use often. Keep in mind that dovetail joints can pull apart over time if not taken care of properly. So make sure it looks solid and the fit is snug. The face of the drawer should not be able to easily pull away from the body.

2.) Does the bottom of the drawer look like it can handle the weight of the items you’ll be placing in it? This is really something to investigate. The bottom of the drawer should be snug and not gaping on any of the edges. It should also be able to handle some pressure. Also, is there water damage? If so, this might be a piece you should pass on.

3.) What’s the finish like? Is it veneer, paint, stain, or something else? And what condition is the finish in? For veneer: Check to see if it’s chipped. If veneer is chipped badly, it will more than likely be really difficult to make it look good again. Most of the time, even if you take the piece to get it refinished, you’ll spend more money redoing the veneer than the piece is actually worth. So, the condition of the veneer is definitely something to consider. For paint: if it’s an older piece make sure to ask the dealer/seller if it’s been tested for lead paint. This is really important especially if you’re thinking about stripping or sanding the piece. Here’s an example of chipped veneer from a piece I bought recently (details in a post this week!):

4.) Look for a name brand which is sometimes called a mark stamp. With furniture, they can be hiding anywhere. Check the inside, side, underneath, and back of drawers or the back of the piece itself. Just remember that it’s usually tucked away but not too hard to find. Don’t be worried about pulling the piece out and investigating it. I used to be really shy with this and never wanted to disrupt, but honestly if you’re going to buy the piece you of course need to know what you’re getting! Here on my Drexel desk, the mark stamp is hiding in the top drawer on the right:

5.) I’ll cover this in greater detail in a later post about researching, but the easy way to recognize a brand is just to bring along something with the ability to Google (i.e. iPad or smart phone).

Do these guidelines work ALL the time? NOPE. No way. They are just that, guidelines. Things to consider. Hell, it’s entirely possible that I will find the most awesome piece of vintage furniture without dovetailed drawers. And guess what, if I love it, it’ll probably go home with me.

Alright, that’s all I’ve got for quality. Anything you think I’m leaving out or you’d like to add?

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Happy Thrifting!

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3 responses to “Choosing Secondhand Furniture: Tips for Recognizing Quality”

  1. Van says:

    Glad I found your fun blog today. Love the noise texture and splashes of color.

    I learned something new in those post, I wouldn’t have thought of/looked for dovetailed drawers. I don’t consider my apartment a permanent home so I don’t look for the best of the best when it comes to furniture pieces, I’d like to be able to sell any of if when the time comes without much worry, so I look for curbside pieces with character that will do the job. When I purchase, I try to find the best quality for the lowest price. If it’s high quality but out of my low budget, I still pass.

    I found an amazing mid century modern hutch at a yard sale once for a mere $15! I’ve seen plenty of furniture in perfect condition on curbsides. Keep hunting and you’ll find cheap treasures.

    • Mary says:

      Hi, Van! Thanks so much for the compliments! I’ve got a post coming soon that discusses where to buy secondhand, so you’ve just brought my attention to something that hadn’t crossed my mind to include in there: CURBSIDE! That’s awesome. I don’t buy the best of the best either because I rent and so that means moving again one day possibly. So that’s why I like to get quality secondhand for the best price. Thanks so much for stopping by! ~ Mary

  2. […] June 8, Mary shared her knowledge about recognizing quality furniture. She explained to us how to recognize dovetailed drawers — and let us know why we should prefer […]

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So Eclectic is a blog dedicated to great ideas for home design. Austin, Texas-based writer Mary Marcum and Savannah, Missouri-based writer Jess Rezac feature affordable decor, decorating solutions, and inspiration. At So Eclectic, we experiment with design together. So Eclectic posts new content every weekday.

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