The smell of burnt toast fills Mid-Century Furniture Warehouse in Port Richmond. But it’s not bread that’s browning — it’s a 1960s-era walnut dining table.
“We’re giving things a second life, sometimes a third,” said furniture repairman James Miller as he brushed polyurethane onto the table, enriching its chocolaty tones. Nearby, his colleague sanded a bow-tie tuxedo-chair frame. The scent of sawdust mixed into the air.
When thinking of secondhand options, consider two factors: price and quality.
For DIYers, these finds present opportunities.
“If it’s real wood, you can transform it,” said Amy Cuker, interior design director at Down2earth Interior Design. “Reimagine pieces that have a tacky color or wood finish. Picture them with different paint and hardware.”
On the other end of the secondhand spectrum are places like Mid-Century Furniture Warehouse, where each piece has been hand-sourced and fully restored.
“We’ll strip and sand it, color it, poly it — whatever needs to be done to make it a finished piece,” explains Mid-Century owner Brian Lawlor.
A solid wood table may cost between $500 and $4,000; even at the lowest price, it’s about four times more than your average thrift-store buy. But the sought-after styles and vintage makers in these stores often sell for much more at antique shops. Consider a restored $3,400 Danish rosewood circular table, once listed at $14,000 by online retailer 1stdibs.
In between thrift stores and refurbishers, there are places like Kensington’s Thunderbird Salvage, which takes donations but handpicks 80 percent of its inventory; Jinxed (four locations), where the furniture selection is curated but rarely restored; and North Wales’ Discount Mid Century Modern, where you can buy a piece as-is or fully restored, priced to match.
When it comes to buying secondhand furniture, generally speaking, older is better.
“The way that newer furniture is constructed makes it more susceptible to falling apart, and you also can’t repair it as easily,” Lawlor said. That’s particularly true of wooden furniture. “With a piece from the ‘60s, it’s easy to take off a nail polish stain or repaint it and give it new life.” Not so of much from the 1990s.
A lot of modern furnishings are constructed from particleboard, a conglomerate of wood chips compressed with resin, then coated with a heavy laminate. The laminate makes it difficult for paint to adhere, hindering its adaptability and restorability.
“It’s basically just a bunch of sawdust with glue, so of course it doesn’t hold up,” explains Jinxed owner Mike Supermodel. “Over time, it will sag, and if it gets wet, it’ll start to swell.”
Supermodel avoids particleboard in favor of wood and sometimes metal (iron over aluminum).
For some of the best deals, keep track of what is and isn’t trending.
“Right now, people don’t want Victorian furniture — the darker brown wood and heavy fabrics — so it’s become a better value,” Lawlor said. “The 1950s blond furniture also doesn’t have a market right now, and it’s still really well-made.”
Even though it won’t last for decades, Ikea furniture has its place.
“If you have a teenager, and they’re only going to be in your house for five more years, do you need to invest in lifetime furniture?” asks interior designer Amy Cuker. Her favorite Ikea pieces are the bathroom vanities, since many are slimmer than what can be found elsewhere.
Mass-produced, bargain-priced pieces aren’t likely to add much character to a room, but they’ll serve a function and blend easily into the background. Just don’t expect them to hold up much longer than five years (or survive a move).
One of the greatest appeals of buying new, whether at Ikea or Raymour & Flanigan or elsewhere, is the ability to pay in installments. But choose wisely.
Look for solid wood in items like tables and desks. For couches, Cuker recommends seeking out “eight-way, hand-tied” suspension, a spring construction that increases comfort and durability. For any upholstered pieces, steer toward those with performance fabrics designed to be water- and stain-resistant.
“Unfortunately, a lot of modern furniture is imported from manufacturers overseas who copy the styles of those remaining in North Carolina [a hub of modern-day furniture-making], but the pieces lose the constructional integrity,” Cuker said. “If you look for the right materials, though, you can ensure you’re starting with a baseline that’ll last.”
Craigslist offers an unfiltered sprawl of furniture and furniture sellers. There are folks trying to make a dollar on dilapidated couches, college grads shedding Ikea items, and grandkids looking to rehome unwanted family heirlooms. When a gems does surface, you need to act fast.
“You might want to commit to buying before you even see the piece and just be ready to take a loss,” said Discount Mid Century Modern owner Jeff Trejbrowski, who adds you may be competing against scouters who spend all day scouring Craigslist.
Make sure the seller is honest by asking questions about the furniture, Trejbrowski advises, and don’t hand out any money until the end of the transaction. Also, take a close look at the photos.
“Assess what’s going on around the furniture: Does the house look messy? Is there a bunch of heavy stuff sitting on top? If it looks like it’s being treated rough, it probably is.”
Trejbrowski’s main advice for buying: “Have a vision and then wait it out until you find it — otherwise you’re going to waste money on something you’ll end up tossing.”
Fortunately, turnover is typically high. Most secondhand shops get new items at least once a week, and sometimes more — Uhuru Furniture receives drop-offs daily. If you don’t see what you’re looking for on the first visit, come back often.
Also, determine what might justify a splurge, and allocate your budget accordingly. A couch that’s comfortable and will hold up for a 10-plus years is worth an investment.
“Cut costs on items that don’t necessarily require top-notch durability to survive a lifetime, like end tables and consoles,” Cuker said.