Before dismissing out of hand an offer of Grandma’s decades-old dresser, it might be wise to think twice. There is something special about antique and vintage furniture that, with a bit of updating, can be transformed into trendy, eclectic pieces that set off more modern decor in spaces that feel fresh, inviting and eclectic. A little elbow grease and a coat or three of paint can result in a family heirloom for the next generation. It’s worth putting time and money into an old piece of furniture if it has good bones.
Grandmas all over agree that they don’t make furniture like they used to and they are right. Modern furniture is often put together with particleboard, veneer, staples and glue, whereas a good, old solid piece is crafted with tongue-in-groove joinings, dovetail drawers, quality wood and solid metal hardware. Well-made, solid wood pieces are available new, but modern craftsmanship is expensive. Why not update Grandma’s dresser with a fresh refinish or a new coat of paint! Painting tired furniture has the same cosmetic effect as making up a tired face: a furniture makeover can bring out old beauty and completely change its look.
Painting is only one of the many rewarding and fun options for restoring and repurposing legacy pieces. Furniture can also be retrofitted to serve entirely different purposes. One of my first repurpose projects was a piece we found for a kitchen island in our summer home. My husband and I hunted for something unique and stumbled upon a vintage elevator governor from New York City. (The governor is the piece of machinery that prevents the elevator from plummeting.) It had such a great industrial look; we added a set of legs from an old workbench and topped it with reclaimed barn wood. It is truly a one-of-kind piece; chances of seeing another one quite like it are slim which makes the piece so beautiful and special to us. Even though we’ve done many projects since, that piece remains one of our favorites.
Finishing that project jumpstarted our repurposing adventures. The next project was quite an undertaking. Missing a piece for our dining area, we already had a farm table and chairs, but needed a console and wanted another unique piece, not a traditional side table or hutch. Thus began another hunt; we combed local flea markets, auctions and Craigslist to find just the right project. Finally, one market day there it was—a 64-drawer, vintage card catalog! It was covered in stickers and painted a funky color, but I knew it had the good bones we were seeking. The project totally took over the house, with numbered drawers and hardware everywhere.
The first order of business was a good cleaning and off came the stickers. It was a start, but cleaning didn’t fix the funky paint. I wanted a dark, mahogany look and decided a two-in-one stain would do the trick. Thankfully, sanding wasn’t needed, which was key because with 64 drawers and endless nooks and crannies, it would have taken a very long time. It took two coats and polished up nicely.
It was all coming together, but not quite right; at this point, it was just an improved card catalog, not a console. Inspiration arrived in the form of a reciprocating saw ; we cut the body in half and secured it side by side, which left the piece not quite high enough and topless. We stacked two store bought wooden feet on top of each other and voila! We made three more sets and the height was perfect. We found a beautiful piece of wood for the top and finally arrived at our vintage card catalog console. It took a dedicated hunt and a few repurpose tricks, but she is a beauty!
If you’re inspired to take on an upcycle, just do it! The beauty of upcycling is that it doesn’t have to be perfect. Start with a simple, straightforward project. Find inspiration in magazines and on Instagram and Pinterest; take those ideas with you when you embark on the hunt—the best part!
There are so many places to look: Facebook Marketplace, estate sales, rummage sales, thrift stores and the king of all upcycling resources, the flea market. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to get to a good flea, the world of junk will be your oyster. Look for pieces with good bones; make sure your targets are structurally sound if you don’t have a fix-it person at the ready. Shake the table, sit in the chair, pull out the drawers as if you were buying it new. Sometimes pieces need just a little TLC and sometimes they are just too far gone. But don’t discount those “too hard” pieces either! Maybe the top could be turned into a sign; the leg can be used to make a towel rack; the apron can become a frame for another amazing piece.
Along with the satisfaction of upcycling obsolete, discarded pieces comes real pride in seeing your vision come to life. It’s fun to create pieces that are unique and to enjoy those new creations in your living spaces. Each has a special story and comes with hard work, but both the process and the result are sure to delight and inspire. ✦