Because I've had so much luck finding used furniture at antique stores and have written about how great it is both economically and ecologically, I thought I would share some tips I've acquired in my shopping.
1. The first and most important tip when used-furniture shopping is to search for high-quality furnishings. Look for items made with real wood, not particleboard, and examine joints to see what you can discover about the quality of workmanship that went into the piece. Another tip that may seem obvious is to examine the object for obvious clues as to an item's authenticity: We've seen "antique Indian" artwork and home trinkets that have a "made in China" sticker on them! Remember: It is always better to buy a high-quality item that needs some minor refinishing than to buy a cheap and low-end piece that is in perfect condition.
2. This leads us to tip No. 2: Keep in mind that simple refinishing and cosmetic work can be fun and easy. Plus, it personalizes your items and lets you save on items that would otherwise be very expensive. For example, my boyfriend and I bought an antique table and chair set at an auction. The table had some minor imperfections—bumps and scratches, etc.—and the fabric on the chairs was stained and outdated. However, with a light sanding, we were able to buff out most of the scratches (make sure to wear a face mask when sanding antiques as you have virtually no way of knowing if any chemicals were used in the wood). Then we simply refinished it with a light coat of low-VOC stain. For the chairs, we refinished the wood the same way, easily removed all the fabric, and reupholstered them with a nice, natural burlap affixed with a staple gun. People think this table and chair set cost us thousands of dollars when, in reality, it cost about $50 altogether.
3. Ask your local antique and used-furniture stores how and when they receive their items. Some stores may simply get items piecemeal as they come in, but others get in large, weekly shipments of items. Some stores also have one set day a week for putting new items out on the floor. Finding out when this is lets you be there to get first dibs on quality pieces.
4. Ask the store if they accept trade. This isn't the most common practice, but depending on the type of store, some may offer you a discount if you bring in a quality piece you don't need anymore.
5. Ask the store if they will notify customers if and when specific items come in. For example, if you are looking for an old wood bench for your dining room, you may be able to tell the owner and leave your name and number so they can give you a call if a piece matching your desires shows up.
6. Finally, don't be intimidated by auctions. Inexperienced antique shoppers may feel an auction is out of their league. I will admit to feeling a little unsure about how the whole process would go at the first auction I attended. However, everyone was very nice and helpful, it was quite simple and we got some amazing pieces at prices way lower than we would have found at an antique store. This is a fantastic way to get great stuff at an extremely affordable price.
For more information about refinishing used furnishings, check out this piece we featured in Natural Home last year about reusing and recycling old furnishings.
We purchased this antique buffet at an auction and refinished it with a light sanding and a coat of antique finish.