Project Refresh

Tips and tricks on restored furniture

By Rebecca Berfanger

If you’re one of the 4.9 billion viewers of the hashtag for “furnitureflip” used for before and after photos of restored furniture on TikTok, or just looking for a new and creative hobby as a new year’s resolution, we talked with a few local experts for their tips, tricks and when to leave a project to the experts.
Marty Miller, a regular customer of Habitat for Humanity of Johnson County ReStore in Whiteland, who has a booth selling her work at Salvage Sisters in Franklin, has been doing restorations “probably my whole life.”
She said her home is filled with “primitive” furniture — pieces that are handmade or look handmade. She has been working on these items to sell, give as gifts or just keep for herself. Not only does she paint and restore furniture, but she also can repurpose items like furniture, hardware and other small items into decor, including Christmas decorations she’s been working on for the holiday season.
Anywhere she goes, whether it’s ReStore, thrift stores like Goodwill, or yard sales, she says one of the things she does is “just make sure it is fixable.”
“One thing is quality,” she said. “A lot of times, if a dresser or a hutch, I look for markings, to see if it has a name on it. I look at how it’s made, does it have dovetail drawers and is it a solid piece of furniture.”
“We’ve been very blessed to have a lot of donations from our community. We get everything from a tiki hut to any kind of lighting, building supplies and furniture. With that, we try to manage that merchandise coming in and we try to sell it on the floor,” explained Vickie Hite, ReStore’s donations coordinator.
She added all of the money they raise from selling their donations stays in Johnson County, supporting the work of the local Habitat for Humanity.
“We can’t do a whole lot of maintenance on those things because we don’t have the time or the staff or the materials,” she added. “So we put things out in a condition that needs to be updated, refinished and painted. We don’t sell soft furniture — couches and chairs and things like that — with tears or rips, but we do have some things that are scratched up.”
Some of the items have already had some work done to them, said Amie Shoemaker, the manager for the ReStore.
“We sometimes get people’s unfinished projects as donations. Sometimes you can see the progression,” she said. “Some of them are completely untouched, some of them are primed and one even had the paint almost done.”
But regardless of the process or why the earlier owner didn’t quite finish, she said, “We sold those. People buy those items. Even the items that have already been redone, or items that need to be redone. Pieces that were in the process of being redone and someone has given up. Somebody does pick those back up.”
Regardless of the item or reason, it is all donated. ReStore is open only two days a week — Fridays and Saturdays — and has new items all the time. Shoemaker compares their Friday morning openings to Black Friday sales around Thanksgiving. She added, in 2021, there were many customers buying from ReStore after waiting several months for their orders of new furniture to be delivered. Some people would sometimes donate the items back after getting their new pieces, but she doesn’t think that is still the case in late 2022.
For those just getting started, especially at the height of the “shabby chic” moment that was popular on renovation shows and among designers, Hite said, “A lot of people were looking to try it on their own for the first time and didn’t want to invest a whole lot into it. Maybe a coffee table or an end table or something like that.”
Miller agreed that a small item is a good starting point, adding that even if an item isn’t old, it’s easy enough to distress it to look old, if that is the desired look. She also said to consider the investment in materials.
“Basically you’re looking at your profit line all the time, so I’m a real bargain shopper, which is one reason this place [ReStore] is so good,” she said.
She also suggested looking for regular sales at craft stores for items like paint and brushes.
Shoemaker mentioned the paint sections at big box and hardware stores will sell their “mistints,” paint colors that didn’t quite match what the customer ordered, as another way to save money on a project.
Miller cautioned, especially to those who are new at the furniture restoration game, not to get in over your head.
“If there is furniture that has wood damage or damage to the veneer, that’s a whole different ball game,” she said.
This is one area where her husband has extensive experience to give her an assist when needed, but it requires different skills and materials that aren’t a quick or easy fix.
She also said upholstery may cause headaches that aren’t worth it.  However, she will sometimes do simple reupholstering projects. She even tried painting upholstery, after looking up how to do it, and using a chair she got from the “free pile” at ReStore.
“It had two different kinds of fabric. It didn’t look right after I started painting it. And it takes like three coats of paint. It took more than a gallon of paint. I’m not buying more paint for this free chair. I just threw it away,” she said.
But back to painting those small tables, she said to start by sanding and painting, and not being afraid to fail.
“This is a perfect place to start. You don’t spend a lot of money on something. You can afford to mess it up or repaint it. If you paint something because you like the color, and it doesn’t sell, you have to paint it again. People do that all the time,” Miller said.
Shoemaker added it is common for customers to show them before and after photos on their phones. One trend she has noticed is mid-century modern furniture painted with jewel tones and metallic hardware, for instance, a navy blue paint with gold drawer handles.
Miller also mentioned furniture can be repurposed, such as cutting the legs on a dining room table to make a coffee table. Hite added she has seen customers repurpose furniture into coffee bars.
They have also seen some more surprising items.
“We do get a lot of people who love to show us on their phones pictures of their finished products,” Shoemaker said. “We’re always amazed and impressed how someone can turn something around that we just found a place for it on our floor. There are so many creative and talented people out there. I never would have thought they could make a dragonfly out of ceiling fan blades.”
Hite has also seen a trend of repurposing chandeliers into hanging baskets for plants.
Meanwhile, Shoemaker has been saving marquee letters and has been working with Miller on a project that will say “ReStore” using those letters and repurposed tools.
While Shoemaker and Hites can’t predict exactly what they’ll have available in the store at any given moment, they do anticipate selling a lot of holiday items this year, something they typically only sell in November and December after collecting from their donations year-round.
“Some donations are people just donating bins, including their Christmas bins,” Shoemaker said. “We just peek in and see that it’s Christmas and we put it away. So it’s like Christmas for us when we take out an entire year of donations.”
While the main Christmas event already took place in mid-November, Shoemaker said they’ll keep putting those items out throughout the month of December as they are donated.
The bottom line is start with a small, manageable and affordable project, look for deals on furniture and supplies, and, if it doesn’t work out, you can always donate it back.