There’s always one — that stealthy woman on a mission who’s the first to arrive at a garage sale on a Saturday morning. She steps out of her car, and she seems to know exactly what she’s looking for. Without hesitation, she makes a beeline for that busted-up dresser beside the curb and gives the seller an offer they can’t refuse. What does she see that I don’t?
If you, like me, are hoping to use your free time to turn some trash into treasure, it’s important to know that there is an art to dumpster diving, or garage sailing, or thrift shopping, or whatever method of scavenging you fancy. If you don’t want to waste a perfectly good Saturday morning rifling through bins of old CDs from the ’90s, you need to know exactly what to look for at a yard sale.
This is especially true when you are looking for used furniture — some pieces of furniture are better off being thrown away, while others can be restored beautifully. So how do you tell the difference between the two? What furniture is worth buying secondhand, and what used furniture isn’t worth your time?
According to the top DIYers and interior designers, these are the best furniture upcycles you will find at a garage sale:
1. Anything wood
Blitsy Inspiration Manager Meghan Quinones’ yard sale rule of thumb is almost too easy. You will never go wrong upcycling any used furniture made of wood, says Quinones. Wood furniture from a garage sale, thrift shop, rummage sale or back alley is a worthy find in almost every case because it is so easy to clean. “I am a huge fan of wooden furniture finds because they can quickly be transformed with little effort, especially with the invention of chalk paint. This stuff is seriously wood’s best friend! With just a couple of coats of chalk paint (no sanding required!), you can modernize an older piece of furniture,” Quinones explains.
Reham Fagiri, interior decor expert and co-founder of AptDeco, confirms, “Older furniture tends to be made from solid wood, which is easier to work with.”
If you see a dusty, stained and downright unappealing chair at your next garage sale, take a second glance before you pass it on by. In her ingenious used chair flip, Lindsey Schaefer of The Curly Diaries has proven that it is possible to beat the odds and make an aging chair look new again by painting fabric upholstery. Schaefer says the painting process is simple, requiring a few coats of acrylic paint and fabric medium on upholstered furniture. The result is simply marvelous, leaving the upholstered fabric with a canvas-like texture in a brilliant new pop of color.
Fagiri adds, “Pay attention to the frame and the general structure of any piece. Don’t worry too much about worn cushions, for example — any reupholstery shop would be able to replace them for you. Of course, you can also do it yourself if you have the time and space.”
What would you want with an old crib if you don’t have a baby to put in it? According to Cristin Frank, furniture upcycle specialist and blogger at Eve of Reduction, a gently-used crib is one of the best trash-to-treasure finds you can score at a yard sale — especially if you don’t have a baby. She says, “There are so many things you can do with cribs if you’re a little bit handy. Getting them from a garage sale is ideal because they’ll be marked down drastically because of safety regulations that make it difficult to resell cribs.” Frank recommends starting with a simplified crib-to-shoe-rack upcycle project, detailed in her book Living Simple, Free & Happy.
Image: Kombucha on Tap
It would not be a garage sale if there wasn’t a random child’s dresser on the curb for $20. Most of us pass right by this piece of secondhand furniture that Deanne Goodman, lifestyle expert and co-founder of Kombucha on Tap, considers a goldmine. Goodman urges, “If you are in need of a storage area for an office or a dresser, look for a dresser at garage sales. They are really fun and pretty easy to upcycle. I found one on the curb for free and turned it into a super cute ombre dresser with crystal knobs.”
Fagiri says, “For a new look dresser, a dresser can be sanded down, repainted a new color and handles replaced.” You can check out 10 amazing DIY paint ideas for used dressers here.
5. Metal bed frame
Take it from someone who has upcycled almost anything: Avid style decorator Sisi Tsoi of Siren London says that, in addition to upholstering an old sofa and spray painting an entire bed, revamping metal bed frames is one of her go-to upcycle projects. Tsoi explains, “Metal beds and framed furniture are often easy to find at garage sales and very reasonable and well built, a lick of paint can create a fresh, inexpensive, contemporary-looking piece pretty much instantly. I would definitely recommend neon colors for a trendy look.”
Image: Siren London
Just like a dresser, only easier, a nightstand can easily be reinvented when purchased used at a yard sale or flea market. On top of that, an upcycled nightstand is so darn useful that you might not be able to stop at one. Tsoi says, “A nightstand or a little chest of drawers is so handy, you can place it anywhere you need in the house — a little table for you to rest your drink, to read your book by the bed. The old oak-feel styles are very easy to come by. I once bought one for like $5. I would paint it white and perhaps put some nails (like the picture shown) to give it a glamorous look.”
When in doubt, just switch it up. You can make big changes to a piece by paying attention to its detailing, says Fagiri. “A fabric on one piece may go well on another piece, or dresser handles on one item might be better suited for another.”
7. Sewing cabinet
Normally sold as the bones along with an old, broken sewing machine, Frank says you can snatch up a sewing cabinet at a rummage sale at a remarkably good price. Once you get your hot little hands on this solid piece of used furniture, the upcycle options are endless. The ever-savvy Frank continues, “I’ve upcycled sewing cabinets into pet beds, kids’ kitchens and even a really cool bar cart. Then, take the sewing machine to the scrap metal yard for some extra cash!”
Image: Eve of Reduction
File used tables at a garage sale under “upcycling for noobs.” Frank says revamping a used table is an “easy beginner project” since you are working with flat surfaces. A secondhand table is also a very popular item to flip, meaning that you can fix it up, re-work it and resell it on Craigslist or at a consignment shop. Frank recommends starting with her simplified yet creative drop leaf table upcycle project to get your DIY juices flowing. Here’s another handy tutorial on how to upcycle an old coffee table in three simple steps.