My Money-Saving Hacks: Furniture

Anybody remember that scene in Gone with the Wind when a disheveled and destitute Scarlet O’Hara pulls herself up from the dirt and clenches her fist to the sky claiming, “With God as my witness, I will never go hungry again!”?

Well, sometime around my second year of marriage and third broken IKEA dresser, I made a similar proclamation about particle board furniture.

Eight years later I can proudly claim my entire house is particle-board free and full of solid-wood pieces that I love. And while Scarlet claims she will avoid that undesirable future even if she has to “lie, cheat, and steal,” the good news is all I’ve had to do to keep my word is bargain-shop and wield an orbital sander.

Things I’ve learned:

Bargains are everywhere.

But “everywhere” is different everywhere. When I lived in Austin and Houston, I found so many steals on furniture shopping Craigslist. When I got to Wichita Falls, I was saddened that there really wasn’t much there. Until I learned about the Wichita Falls Trading Post Facebook groups, Hayes Street Market, and Dave Murray and Clean Sweep Estate Sales. If you know where to look, the deals are always there.

Side note: As much as I adore Alley Cat and others – I look for even cheaper things that haven’t been painted yet, so I can get exactly the look I want. My preferred look tends to be sharp, crisp and bright rather than distressed, which a lot of people are into and favor when redoing furniture. If you’re not into DIY, this is a great place to go!

Don’t commit mid-century sins.

My eleventh Commandment – though shalt not paint nice, solid wood furniture. Yes, I’ve painted a lot of furniture. But it was a lot of furniture with major cosmetic issues: scratches, stains, chips in veneer. All of which made them impossible to fully repair and affordable to begin with. If you’re lucky enough to find something vintage and affordable in good shape – DON’T TOUCH IT! Keep the original finish, even fabric if you can. You might be able to make some money off of it when you decided to get rid of it, but once painted the value of the vintage drops to pretty much zero.

But don’t be afraid of color either.

Some of my favorite pieces of furniture were the biggest, brightest color risks. (My Whataburger-orange hutch at the top is my all-time favorite.) But I let them be statement pieces and compensate with neutral walls throughout our house. (Every room in our house is the same color gray, but every room is still very different!)

Read instructions.

This is something I really don’t like to do because I want to be all “artsy” and “free” and “just wing it.”


Read the instructions. Especially if they are on the sides of cans of paint, varnish, topcoat, primer, polyurethane… READ THEM OR WEEP.

If you buy a specific paint or stain, go to the brand’s website. Minwax’s “FAQ” section under each product page on their website has saved my life more than once.

Paint stripper is a hot mess.

A stitch in time saves nine? Well, a light sanding saves your sanity, and is really all you need to prep a piece of furniture for painting. Chemical paint strippers are messy, sticky, often leave a residue that doesn’t come off all the way, and you end up needing to sand anyway after waiting for it all to dry.

And did I mention messy? Like, the burn-your-house-down-and-commit-insurance-fraud-so-you-don’t-have-to-clean-it kind of messy.

Prep work matters most.

Take the time to sand everywhere, clean the surfaces with a damp cloth after sanding, and use painter’s tape to tape everything off as neatly as possible. It’s a pain, but everything goes smoother – literally and figuratively – later on.

Pick a paint type and stick with it.

Whether you go with oil-based or water-based, make sure you use the same throughout – all your primer, paint color and top coat should be the same. If you’re not sure what’s currently on the piece of furniture you’re painting, you can buy a primer that accepts both and allows you to transition from one to the other.

Note: Don’t use craft paint on furniture. It really isn’t made for that and the clear coats I’ve tried to apply on top don’t respond well and whenever you try to sand it, it clumps weird. True story.

Orbital sander = mana from heaven.

I’m not sure why I lived so long without one. You wouldn’t believe what a nice once-over with a 220 grit will do to a topcoat of paint. It’s like butter. PS – Sand after each coat, including the top clear coat.

Save the hardware.

When I first started flipping furniture, I made the mistake of falling in love with knobs from Anthropologie and ended up paying more for six knobs then I did for the dresser itself. While Hobby Lobby has some cute and cheaper alternatives, sometimes the original hardware really does give you the best end result. Case in point: the yellow hutch I repainted has its original hardware, I just spray-painted it silver to match the aluminum sheet metal that replaced the wicker on the left side panel.

Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.

Like when you’re using 80 grit sandpaper to quickly whisk away three layer of craft paint and primer, only to realize you’ve made wave-like divots all across the wood because you sanded too small an area at a time. Sand in long even strokes. Or else. (Or else you’ll be sanding in long even strokes later on.)

Take the time for top-coat.

When you have kids, polyurethane is your friend. Use liberally, because you’ll need it when you are wiping peanut butter, etc., off your surfaces for the millionth time. (IE this green piece I made into a changing table, which has seen far worse than just peanut butter.)

Keep your sanity and perspective.

The nice thing about flipping furniture is you don’t have to flip out when something happens to it. Scratched surface? Chipped paint? Broken leg? I can still hear my mom crying out “THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS!” from my own childhood mishaps. Instead? Repair, repaint, or replace and move on knowing the whole thing only cost you $100-200 instead of half a grand. And if you get tired of seeing it in your house, throw it back up on the Trading Post from whence it came, knowing you’ll probably break even.


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