The Hidden Costs of Attempting a Furniture Restoration

Four things to consider before going HAM at a flea market

By The Editors
March 14, 2016 9:00 am

We’ve all been there: You’re at a flea market when you spot a $10 hunk of junk — but a $10 hunk of junk that — in the right hands — could be turned into something special.

Do you have those very special hands? Will those very special hands be very expensive to employ? Below, a few guidelines on how to manage furniture-restoring expectations.

Upholstery and fabric fixes get very expensive, very fast

New upholstery is the vintage and antique furniture world’s version of a new coat of paint — only upholstery requires the skill of a craftsman, and potentially pricey period fabrics. For example: your correspondent once found a large Bertoia diamond chair at a Maryland flea market for $300 — a steal. Cost of a new cover, however? More than twice that. Upholstery fabric can easily run over $100 a yard; figure on at least 12 yard for a couch and around half that for a chair. Expect as well to update webbing and springs, which will add to the price.

Shabby chic often looks just shabby

Resist the urge to confront any worn stain or veneer with a “fresh” paint job — it’s a trend that’s come and gone, and purists ache at the sight of a handsome piece of woodworking redone in eggplant chalk paint. Not to mention: You’re knocking your resale down substantially. “I’m happy to live with much of the light wear to the pieces I find,” says Sarah Min-hui of Sergeant Sailor. “I like to see the vintage charm and individual character of each piece and to daydream of its previous life and use.” She recommends tidying up with light sanding and staining.

Getting it home

If you’re away from home, consider very seriously not just shipping charges but taxes, packaging costs and delivery time. One good, if weird, option is Greyhound, which offers a comparatively inexpensive shipping service but is not recommended for anything remotely fragile — pack pieces well, as the boxes may arrive banged up. See their site for a shipping calculator. If you’re shopping overseas on vacation, consider renting a fraction of a shipping container — services like this offer transport by weight or by volume.

Going DIY

Other fixes are easier: enamelware holes can be plugged and chips in the finish covered with enamel paint, though these are both fixes that will make it unsafe for food. Unstuffed pillows can easily be given new pillow forms or repurposed as wall hangings. Caners can recane damaged chairs; they often double as upholsterers. Foreign or damaged lighting pieces can be rewired for use at home — new bulb sockets can be as little as $25, though the fix typically also involves a new cord. Tarnished or bent silver can be repaired and buffed at a jeweler’s, though this can be expensive and makes more sense for an heirloom than a new-to-you set.

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