As a bare bones woodworker strapped for cash and lacking in tools, there is no better way to get your foot in the door than refinishing and repair. And there’s no better source for raw materials than digging through the trash on town-wide cleanup days.
Though it may seem a bit “undignified” to the average woodworker, collecting old furniture on its way to the landfill and giving it new life, is not without its own skill set. Through this practice, one can, with truly minimal tool usage, perfect ones knowledge of finishes, study examples of joinery (for replication), learn to recognize different wood types, and at the very basic level, understand what comprises well made furniture worthy of repair. Additionally, should one find a piece with a missing leg, or a bit of damaged hardware, one can easily learn the basic skills necessary to correct one’s own mistakes further into the art of woodworking, as well as understanding basic construction, as one might learn how engines work by repairing automobiles. Finally, there are gems out there waiting to be found! You may end up with some stunning vintage pieces (like my mahogany chair, pictured in my projects) that are just dying to to be given a second chance.
NOTE: although reclaiming lumber via pallets, construction sites, scrap wood from building companies, and other sources of boards is another admirable and related source of project materials, (and quite “green” to boot!) I’m primarily talking about already existing furniture pieces.
Key points and tips:
First of all, where to find these pieces?
EVERWHERE! All it really takes is a keen eye to find the next piece to work on. As mentioned above typically a town might have a “community clean up day” where the town permits unusual trash to be put out curbside. The night before is perfect for walking about spotting the next piece to repair. make sure to mark these nights on your calendar as they are the trash days you are most likely to find furniture, first and foremost, but also they’re more likely to be mixed in with odds and ends (including salvagable lumber, if that interests you) that might also be of use), and bigger pieces are more likely.
Secondarily, just keeping your eyes open on trash nights can result in interesting finds. Recently I picked up a maple folding chair missing its front leg (an easy repair, requiring only a new one to be cut and drilled for the dowels to be made), and previous encounters left me with two outdoor (possibly teak) folding chairs with a slat missing from each. All it takes is an observant eye and a willingness to do the work. Also note, this method is going to probably result in a disproportionate number of mismatched chairs than anything else. You’ll find plenty of end tables and coffee tables on clean up day, but don’t expect to find a whole slew of full sized dining tables lying about.
Yardsales and friends are great too!
Within your circle of friends, there’s bound to be at least one person planning on tossing out a piece of furniture. Or if not toss the piece out, they have it set in the attic or in storage somewhere waiting for that “one day” to come where they actually sit down and try to repair it. Well, this is the day to offer your service to them (free of charge of course) to either take it off their hands, or to do the repair work for them. Just mentioning the interest in repair work and showing pictures of some of my refinishing has resulted in gaining a whole slew of more furniture through people I know. Yardsales are another great source of finding piece, though in this case, typically “good finds” are harder to locate. Typically sturdy furniture is marked up high, and even those cheap MDF pieces have a premium on them. Keep an eye out though for something that might fit your skill set for repair, or just might be butt ugly and need a new finish. Aesthetics play a huge role in price. Mind what you pay though. The idea is to try and keep costs low while getting great finds. Also beware of possibly finding a great piece of furniture that’s actually an antique! you may find something at a yardsale worth more with its ugly finish than if you “damage” it by upgrading its coat.
What is worth salvaging, and what is not?
This will come to you as time goes on. MDF, plywood, and other composite woods are rarely worth the repair work. They’re also, unfortunately, about half of what you are probably going to find. The occasional plywood piece might only have a little splitting on a corner, which is easy enough to fix, but in general, avoid these pieces. Veneers are another thing to avoid. Especially when a veneer is splitting, cracked, or half removed. A minor damage in the veneer is an easy enough repair, and a new layer of veneer can be applied on top (although you may want to do two layers, one across the grain sandwiched between the new and old top veneers, as seen in plywood). This can give a new aspect to repair work, and a new skill set. Don’t be afraid of ugly finishes, worn through stain and varnish, or dirt. These are easily enough removed, and can sometimes be indicators of a sturdy, well used piece. Instead, avoid furniture with odors, furniture with obvious rot. If a single part can be replaced easily, go for it, but don’t go for something that looks like it’s halfway decayed or where pets might have “marked their territory” (obvious, but definitely worth mentioning). Chewed pieces are also worth avoiding too.
Know what you can do and can’t do:
Don’t take on a project bigger than you can handle. A fully upholstered sofa is a project slightly beyond that of a beginner (though a chair with an upholstered seat is not, nor is an exposed frame sofa with loose separate cushions). If it requires turning a new part, and you don’t have a lathe, leave it (unless you think you can buy and replace the spindles, or purchase new legs). If it requires bending wood, don’t bother. Some things are beyond a beginner’s skill set, and more importantly their toolbox. Challenging yourself is not a bad idea, but don’t bite off more than you can chew.
Experiment, Experiment, Experiment.
Here’s the key part. Play around with your work! Just because you are working on an existing piece doesn’t mean that you are trying to restore a piece to its original look. Try different finishes out. Try different types of stains. make your own stains and finishes. Try different color combinations. Experiment with painting techniques like a crackle or work finish. Study the joinery you see. Play forensics and figure out why joints break, and why certain ones seem strong. Use the repairing aspect to learn how to make joints, Teach yourself new tools. Learn how to upholster. Learn marquetry. If you fail, it doesn’t matter. The piece was already destined for destruction, and whatever fate you have in store for it cannot be worse. Feel free to fail, and learn from those failures. In short, have fun, and seek to learn more.
What to do when you just have too much stuff?
RESALE! Try looking around for consignment and antique shops as possible buyers for your newly refinished works. They may not pay much, but if your main goal is to practice woodworking and to learn more about finishing, (apparently the bane of a lot of LJers here), then any profit made, (which is feasible if you are getting these pieces to refinish for free or near free), can easily go back into increasing your supplies and building up your workshop. Though I have no intention of doing such, a business is to be had here, and it can easily help you on your way to that tablesaw/router/bandsaw/joiner that you just have to have (and teach yourself some new skills for when you get it!)