You see it at a thrift store or yard sale, in your grandparents’ attic, or maybe even at the curb on trash day. It’s that piece of furniture that’s exactly what you’ve been looking for—almost.
Don’t let that almost keep you from having the piece you want, especially when it’s such a great deal. With a few tools and elbow grease, you can turn that piece of secondhand furniture into something that’s just your style.
“Refinishing is really something anybody can do,” says Eric Keen, a musician who, while stuck at his Philadelphia home during the COVID-19 pandemic, started dabbling in a “hobby side project” of fixing up vintage furniture.
“When my wife and I started, we refinished furniture to look like things we would have in our house, things that were our style,” says Keen. It wasn’t long before they had a business, Little Fern Workshop, where they find and refinish midcentury wood furniture and sell it through Instagram.
Not sure how to begin? Here are some furniture makeover ideas you can try at home. Some will go faster with a power sander, although others won’t require much more than some paint and your own creativity.
1. Start simple with paint and stencils
If the thought of a total transformation is intimidating, start with a small, simple project—no hammers, saws, or other tools necessary. This thrifted corner shelf was brown and boring, but with some paint and stenciling, it becomes fresh, stylish storage or stand for houseplants or other objects you want to show off.
What if you found this piece, or another wood piece, with some deep scratches or a small chip in it?
“Wood epoxy or the polyester putty Bondo can fill in the missing part,” says Keen. Sand the repaired part even with the wood or veneer, and then do your paint job.
2. Turn a wardrobe into a bar cabinet or coffee station
You won’t believe this is the same piece when you flip through the photos of what was once an ugly wardrobe. The doors on top have been removed, shelves have been added, and paint and varnish have been used to bring warmth to the blond wood. Don’t let the light fixtures scare you, since you don’t have to put lights in yours if you don’t want to.
This completed piece is a cocktail bar, but you can also create a coffee/tea station by swapping hanging wine glasses for mugs on hooks, a coffee maker and electric kettle on the shelf, and by filling the nooks and crannies with coffee and tea choices and accessories.
Turning an old wardrobe or china cabinet into a cocktail bar or coffee station is popular right now, so there’s plenty of inspiration to be found online for this project.
3. Contrasting colors can make an old credenza look new
Make sure you flip through all the photos in this one, because there are two projects here. The first is this sideboard with the top left natural, just polished up a bit. The rest is painted in champagne-colored chalk paint to give it a modern farmhouse feel. Like the corner shelves above, no tools are needed except perhaps a screwdriver to remove and replace the hardware for painting.
If there’s a chip in the veneer of the part of the piece of furniture you’re not going to paint, Keen says to use wood epoxy or Bondo on that, too, and then do the work of re-creating the wood grain to match.
“Use paint to repaint the color and grain lines back in to match,” he says. “That’s probably the hardest thing to do with refinishing. It’s called in-painting, and it takes some skill.”
4. Add a surprise inside
You have to make it to the end of these photos to appreciate this piece’s transformation. Paint and new hardware turned this piece many people would trash into a better-than-new storage piece. The legs were stripped to their natural wood, but the rest was painted in bold black and white with geometric elements. New knobs complete the outside look.
Open the side cabinet door, and the classic image of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” brings some whimsy. A pop of yellow inside adds some interest, too.
5. Look for furniture with ‘good bones’
Older furniture is frequently better built than newer furniture, so it can be worth putting in the work to spruce it up. So how do you know if a piece of furniture has “good bones”?
For couches and chairs, you should first sit on them to see if they feel solid. Shimmy around a bit to make sure the legs don’t sway or feel unsteady. For dressers or sideboards, open all doors and drawers. Do the drawers slide easily? Are all corners square? And give every piece a really good sniff. Bad odors can seep into both fabric and wood. Sometimes the odors can be removed, but you need to decide if you want to go through that process before refinishing the piece.
Keen advises knowing furniture brand names, too.
“Research and learn vintage brand names,” he says. “Some are really sought after.”
If you want to flip furniture to sell it, brand names are a big deal. However, if you want to flip furniture for your own home, choosing a sought-after brand name also means you’re likely getting quality.
6. Remove the skirt
Many cool things came out of the 1980s, but skirted furniture cannot be counted among them. However, you don’t have to leave that skirted furniture behind at a yard sale if you like its fabric, since skirts can be removed.
You may need to do a little sewing at the bottom after the skirt is gone. This chair also received new legs to help freshen it up. Before buying, take a look under the furniture’s skirt to see what the legs look like if you don’t want to have to replace them. You may find they’re perfectly acceptable as is.
7. Add pizzazz with a laser-cut back panel
This credenza started out as a dark cabinet with water stains on top, but ends up a completely different piece thanks to that fabulous laser-cut back panel.
“If a piece is all wood, you can really do anything to it,” says Keen. “An all-wood piece is almost never too far gone if you have the skills.”
He does warn against a few problems, though: “If there is any wood that’s warped or sagging, it’s almost impossible to fix for home refinishing purposes.”
8. Reupholster an ottoman
This makeover takes some reupholstery skills, but they’re not too extensive. The top gets an updated fabric to replace the cracked leather, and the bottom has a fresh coat of white paint. It goes from dark and drab to bright and beautiful—and it’s multipurpose, too. It can be used for a coffee table, an ottoman, or extra seating if needed.
9. Why reupholster when you can paint?
If you find a sofa or a chair with fabric in good condition but in a color that’s not your style, you can paint the fabric and even the frame. Mineral paint can work like a dye, seeping into the fabric and transforming its color into something fabulous. It may take several coats to create a saturated and even coating—but let’s face it, even five or six coats of paint is easier than reupholstering.
10. Reupholster in wild fabrics
Once you’ve moved from painting an easy corner shelf to reupholstering a chair to transforming an ugly wardrobe into a functional home bar, what’s left? Try tackling a 100-plus-year-old couch like this one, which was gutted and then recovered in contrasting fabrics.
You can see from the final photo that the frame of this 1800s couch was solid, and many of the springs were in fine condition. But it needed a lot of TLC. This type of project is for experienced DIYers, or for a professional. But once you get the furniture fixer-upper bug, you don’t know where it may take you.