Trash to Treasure: Our Best DIY Furniture Rehab Tips and Ideas

Two colorful chairs are pictured on a backyard deck
Katherine Snow Smith got these chairs for free years ago when her son's preschool was getting rid of them. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

There’s an unwritten code between neighbors and strangers, that furniture left in the alley, at the end of the driveway or the side of the road is there for the taking. “Found furniture” is a windfall for everyone from college students and newlyweds to young families and owners of multiple houses who love rehabbing interesting (and cheap) pieces.

I definitely was surprised by how much was out there,” said Bevin O’Brien, who furnished the first house she rented while in college with furniture picked up for free in alleys or on social media sites.

She and her roommate scored a free piano off of Craig’s List. They found two bucket seats from a minivan in an alley that became front porch chairs — and quite the conversation piece.

“A lot of times on a Saturday or during spring cleaning time, people are just getting rid of things and they don’t want to deal with them,” O’Brien said. “They put it in their driveway or behind their house because that’s easier than taking it somewhere.”

Helen Marger, who lives in Granbury, Texas, has been rehabbing furniture and other decor for herself as well as to sell for more than 15 years. She’s got an eye for what’s worth refurbishing and what can be used without upgrading it at all.

“I remember going to a garage sale and there was this old-fashioned wheelbarrow with a big belly and it was a rusted red. I could see somebody putting plants in it on their front porch,” she said. “I took it to the shop, put a pot of red Impatiens in it and it sold in one day. I think I paid $5 for it and sold it for $50.”

It was a hobby at first. Her brother brought her pieces he found on the side of the road. An old table in need of some love and just the right color of sunrise orange became a puzzle table. A wooden toolbox went just as it was on the back porch to hold magazines. A rustic door made of six planks of wood with a key-hole and one hinge ended up as an American flag hanging in the kitchen.

She sold a few pieces to friends and then decided to rent a corner space at a shabby chic store.

“There are even more options now. People can sell things on Facebook Marketplace, Nextdoor or Instagram,” Marger said. “That takes no investment in retail space.”

Finding Rehab Furniture Deals and Making Them Shine

A product photo shows a chair in an alley.
Found furniture on the side of the road can be a treasure for people on a tight budget or bargain hunters. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Marger offers these tips for upcycling pieces for personal use or to sell:

1. Garage sales have the best deals over thrift stores, and definitely over vintage or antique stores.

2. Consider your options.

“You can stain, paint or shellac furniture. With tables, doors, ladder back chairs, you can paint words on them in a loose freehand or use a stencil,” Marger said. Look at DIY project ideas online before you go scouting for pieces whether in alleys or at a garage sale.

3. If you don’t have a truck or SUV, have a friend’s vehicle in your back pocket so you can call and borrow it when you see a great piece. Leave a $20 gas card on the dashboard every now and then.

4. Think outside the box. “Take objects and use them for something that’s not the intended purpose,” Marger said.

Some ideas: A child’s wooden chair can be a bedside table or a planter next to a fireplace. An old door can be a desktop, or paint a flag on it. Paint old cabinet doors with chalkboard paint and hang them in a child’s room.

5. Look for solid wood pieces as opposed to pressed wood or assemble-yourself furniture. The wood should be solid with nothing broken, glued back together or water damaged.

6. When considering furniture, look at the bones, not the fabric. Fabric can be replaced. Upholstery and other fabric can be found for great prices at thrift stores and charity resale outlets.

7. If you are posting a photo of something to sell, accessorize. Photograph a wooden tool box with magazines or gardening tools in it. If you painted a cool tabe, put a puzzle on it or set it for dinner with fresh flowers, plates and colorful napkins.

How to Stain Rehab Furniture

First of all, staining and stripping furniture are two different things. If you want to change the paint color or get rid of a high-gloss finish, that takes more effort. That’s stripping. Staining brings sun-damaged or weathered furniture back to life or gives it a look you prefer over its current shade.

To stain:

  1. Use fine-grain sandpaper to lightly sand the wood to smooth over any bumps or blemishes because stains will highlight scratches and nicks. Remember you are staining the wood, not stripping it down to a new fresh layer.
  2. Wipe it off with a damp cloth or tack cloth, which is sticky cloth available at hardware stores.
  3. Pour a stain, such as Restor-A-Finish, onto a clean cloth or sponge and rub it over the wood until you achieve the color you like. It will get richer and darker the more you apply.
  4. Wait 30 minutes to see the coat dry and decide if that’s the look you want.
  5. Apply more stain if you want. You can also spray with polyurethane or paint with a clear coat to give it a gloss and seal the stain.

How to recover a bench or seat cushion.

A stapler and scissors are shown on top of a seat cushion.
Some of the tools you’ll need include upholstery tacks, a stapler gun and scissors. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Replacing the fabric on a piece of rehab furniture can make all the difference. It can turn a piece of alley trash into your most talked-about eyecatcher.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Cut fabric in the shape of the seat with about six extra inches on each side.
  2. Tape one side of the fabric in place on the underside of the seat.
  3. Use a staple gun to secure it in place.
  4. Pull the opposite side of the fabric taut, then staple it.
  5. Repeat the process for the other two sides.
  6. For the corners, cut the excess fabric so you have about two inches of overhang.
  7. Fold the excess under, and hold with straight pins.
  8. Fit it around the corner above the legs by making a few pleats or folds in the fabric.
  9. Staple it in place
  10. Nail upholstery tacks or furniture nails over the staples to hide them from view and give a finished look.

Katherine Snow Smith is a freelance writer and editor in St. Petersburg, Florida, and author of the book Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker: Missteps & Lessons Learned.