Furniture Thrifting Guidelines

It’s no secret I love hunting thrift stores for hidden gems.  Those dusty, dirty, seen-better-days pieces that make the perfect ugly duckling to beautiful goose transformations.  Far more often than not, I leave empty-handed or maybe with a small trinket, bowl, or more likely, a book or two.  Stumbling on those big furniture pieces is exciting, of course, but not too frequent.  But before I make a large (in terms of size) purchase, certain rules/criteria must be met:

  1.  Will this piece satisfy a need in our home?
  2. Do I have a place in mind for it?  Can it also work in other rooms?
  3. Do I like the shape, size, lines, style of this piece?  If not, can I change that?
  4. Is it sturdy and in good condition?  If not, how difficult it is to fix?
  5. Is it worth the price?  How much will I have to put into this piece to make it what I want?

I’ll get into each point as I go, and of course, for something I’m absolutely gaga over, I can make exceptions, usually in the need department.

First and foremost, do I need this?  I do realize I have a very small furniture hoarding problem, but mostly because we still have two large areas to furnish: the basement and pool house.  So, when I see something that might work, especially at a reasonable (or great) price, I get it.  Worst case scenario, I put it on Craigslist or donate it and eat the loss.

Two years ago, I scored a pair of chairs, which by the way, pairs seem incredibly elusive in my thrifting adventures, for ten dollars.  The petite size was surprisingly comfortable, yet lightweight enough to move easily.  After a thorough sanding, a couple of coats of polyurethane, and new fabric, they rounded out our family room seating arrangement.


Flash back to a fateful day this past November and you would have found me standing in a thrift store, staring at another pair of chairs, internal debate running through my head.  To buy or not to buy-that is the question.  I loved the lines and shape, the frames were in good, solid condition despite needing a refresh, and only $5 each.  People spend more than that on a specialty coffee, at least I’d have something to show for it, right?


In my mind, I knew they’d look great by the fireplace, in the exact spot I already had chairs.  Did I need this new set?  Nope, technically I didn’t.  Even so, I bought them with plans to use the previous set in the basement.  If they don’t work down there, for the two years of use we got out of them, I haven’t lost anything.  After my standard refinish + new fabric combo, the pair cost me roughly twenty dollars each.  More than anything, the size and style of these chairs works better in our family room.


Do I have a place for this?  Can it work in more than one room?  If you habitually change your mind, move things around, or just like a change of scenery, this is a big question.  Of course, the larger the item, the more difficult it will be to move around to different rooms.  This little dresser, a hand me down that previously belonged to my grandfather, has lived in several rooms and in both houses.  It can function as a dresser (duh) but could also work in a small nook, in an entry, or mini desk surface in a pinch.


Do I like the size/shape/style/lines of the piece?  Occasionally, friends will ask me to keep a look out for a specific piece they need, say, a dresser.  I’ll send pictures of anything that might work, and if I get the go ahead, I’ll buy it.  When I found this beaut, it also came with a mountable mirror.


Lucky for me, my friend didn’t need it, and I desperately wanted it for my main bathroom.  The size was perfect, the simple brass details were lovely, and I had wanted to add more wood tones.  A quick strip and oil coat added the warmth this bathroom needed.


Is it in good shape?  If not, can the damage be fixed?  I think Ben (and perhaps several others) thought I was nuts when I dragged this small orange sofa (settee?) home with me.  Right away though, those gorgeous legs had me interested.


Then I turned it around and saw the exposed wood frame detail on the back and that was it.  I had. to. have. it. Despite the loose joints, because wood joints, unlike the human variety, are typically very easy to fix with a little wood glue.


Since scratchy, smelly, 70’s fabric isn’t my bag, I followed my standard fix up recipe of refinished wood and new fabric for a look I love.


Fixing the frame was as simple as applying wood glue in the dowel holes, clamping, and letting it dry before sanding and staining.  Pieces with serious damage, like a missing leg, shouldn’t be passed over if all legs could be replaced.


Is it worth the price?  I feel like I’m notoriously cheap with my thrifting, but it really irks me when stores ask near full retail price for something that was donated.  I think the most I’ve paid for something from a thrift store (this does not include Craigslist) is this Drexel dresser, snagged for $67, originally priced at $90.  At the time, I was searching for a wooden dresser to fit between the beds, below the window.  Measuring about three feet wide and in very used condition, the $90 price tag seemed steep.  After a 30% discount, the price was more in line with the quality, considering I still had a full refinish before it looked nice.


Then, when the stars align, there’s the lucky you’ve been very patient, once-in-a-lifetime deal, such as the case of our Craigslist leather sofa.  Simple lines, beautiful leather, and listed at $220?


Throw every damn rule out the window, quickly contact the seller, and arrange to pick it up pronto.  Then thank your lucky stars you saw the beauty first and lovingly pet it while you watch tv.

Building a Sleek Railing

A few weekends back, we took the plunge and replaced our stair railings.


It was our first venture, with a few small things to figure out, but overall went smoothly.  To get started, we of course had to remove the old set, loosening the bolts from the underside first.


With the flat side out, we determined our new post placement.  Since the old railing was too close to the front door trim, we shifted the posts over an inch.


Ben cut the 4 by 4 inch post to size (38 inches above the floor with 11 inches below), set it in the hole, and cut another post in half length wise and to height for the wall side.  Neither were fastened in place so we could first attach the horizontal planks.  We purchased 2 by 6 boards, but ran the sides through the table saw to cut them down to 5 inches wide and take away the dimensional lumber look.  To save some time sanding, we also ran each plank through the planer for an ultra smooth finish.  Once all the boards were cut and prepped, we cut 4 inch spacers to make sure spacing between was even.


While I held the boards in place on the full post end, Ben worked on the half post side.  He screwed through the backside of the post, into each board three times to secure it in place without visible holes.  Then we shimmied it into place on the wall and fastened it to the wall.


The full post end was only slightly different since we used longer screws.  Ben pre-drilled through the post, creating a recess for the screw head, then drove the screws into place while I kept the each board in place.



Working on the flat side was easy enough and went quickly, but the angled side was a bit tricky.  Again, removing the old was step number one.


Another 38 inch tall 4 by 4 post was set into the hole at the top of the stairs.


To keep the spacing between the boards even with the flat areas, the post at the bottom had to be taller since the angled cuts make the planks taller.  This post had to be notched out to cut around the stair wall before screwing it in at the base.


Then time for the straight meets angled cut to follow the stair angle.  Once the angles fit perfectly, Ben applied glue on the angle and drove screws in from the top and bottom to keep everything rigid and in place until the glue dried.


Like the other side, Ben put two screws into each plank.


In that corner, where the stairs meet the small section terminated to the wall, we had to stagger the screws so they didn’t cross.  Since the wall section is shorter, one screw in the center held firmly.


After everything was securely fastened on the upper sections, Ben drove 6 inch long screws through the posts and into the wall studs below for maximum rigidity.

For a seamless finish, I filled each screw hole, knot hole, and hairline crack with putty and sanded smooth.


Caulking along the seams and walls was the last step before painting.


When painting over raw wood like pine, sap bleed through can be an issue.  For greatest durability and stain blocking, I applied one coat of the same stain I used on our bedroom wall: Sherwin Williams Exterior Oil-Based Wood Primer.  It’s stinky, so I built a fire and opened the windows to air the room out.


Knowing white will show any dirt, grubby hand marks, and well, everything else, I needed a paint that could withstand a good scrub.  After a chat with my favorite paint guy at our local Ace Hardware, he suggested Benjamin Moore’s Ben Exterior paint in the low lustre finish to avoid a glossy finish.  Three coats later and it’s a wrap.


With this checked off the to do list, we can start hanging sheet rock in the basement.

A Sleek Stair Railing

Back on closing day, nearly four years ago now, our living room had a lovely variety of honey toned oak.  Floors, doors, trim, and the railing.  The light fixtures, red accent wall, and arch over the railing were high points, too.

New-House-Dining-into-Living-Room April 13 2012

We’ve since added new trim, painted the doors and walls, replaced the lighting.  Basically changed everything except the floors (which will remain the same) and until recently, the railing.


With the basement completely gutted and free of drywall, we finally had access to the underside of the railings.


Over the weekend we removed the old oak railings and built a new, sleeker design.  Two years or so ago I started planning what would eventually replace the oak and thought a horizontal layout would look best.  A few months ago I spotted this railing by Milk and Honey Home and knew it would work for our home, too.


To build our railing we used four by four posts and two by six boards for the rails.  It took a day to build and install, and even before primer and paint, it looked light years better.


One coat of primer and three coats of white paint later and here we are today:


Be prepared for photo overload.


The simple design doesn’t attract unnecessary attention and is sturdier than the old design.


Getting the straight section by the living room done was pretty straight forward, but the angled section was trickier.


I’ve got a post in the works covering the building process, so I’ll save the specifics for then.


It’s much more modern and more in keeping with the straight lines of the house.



I may regret my decision to paint it white after the millionth round of washing dirty hand prints off, but I love the way it blends with the tongue and groove wall.


The post tops are simply a 45 degree angle and rise 2.5 inches above the top rails.


To give the boards a defined termination into the wall, we cut a post in half for a seamless look.


Every new change is so exciting to see when walking past, and this one has been a long time coming.


The way it brightens up the entry and living room is my favorite.


Once we’ve replaced the tile, our entry checklist will be complete.


And with the railing complete, we can continue work in the basement and should be ready for sheet rock soon.  Then the fun can begin!  I’m already gathering paint samples, measuring for furniture, and we’ve purchased a couch for the theater room.

Designing a Bathroom Vanity

When trying to figure out exactly which direction I wanted to go in the basement bathroom, I looked at the other two bathrooms upstairs to decide.  Our main bathroom features a completely open vanity with a shelving stack to the side.  I know this style isn’t for everyone, but in a space that’s often used by guests, I love that almost everything is in view.  It makes it much easier and less awkward to find the cotton balls, soap, extra towels, and toilet paper.  Having an open design means stowing smaller items in bins, baskets, and boxes, which works for us.

Our Humble Abode Blog Main Bathroom Vanity

On the other hand, our master bathroom sports a dark and handsome six drawer walnut vanity with legs leaving a four-inch open space at the bottom.  It too functions very well for us, stowing everything out of sight.  Thanks to the vessel sink, which has all the plumbing centered between the stacks, all drawers are full-sized and completely functional.  Leaving the base open visually lightens the dark wood and makes it look like the custom piece it is.


So, knowing the benefits of the polar opposite designs has led me to my ideal vanity design for the basement.  First, I love the floor to counter square legs of our open vanity and the open shelf.  But the drawers and vessel sink of our master vanity are the best wat to get small item storage.  We have 5 feet six inches of space to build the vanity in, which is a very good, workable size.


Due to the placement of the supply lines and drain, we aren’t able to have all drawers for the upper section, like this option:


But, having drawers on the top with all cabinet space below isn’t exactly ideal either.  Bins would have to be used to corral everything and keep it organized, but the width of the doors is an even bigger issue.  Each door would be almost three feet wide, and opening a door swing that big could become an issue.


So here’s the Goldilocks of the vanity configurations:


A vessel sink with cabinet directly below, a pair of narrower drawers on either side, and an open shelf with space below.  The cabinet accommodates the plumbing, drawers for tidy storage, and bottom shelf keeps it from feeling too visually heavy.


Just like the main bathroom, the plan is to find or build a wooden box to hold toilet paper and/or towels, hence the brown box.  For flooring, we’re using the same slate tiles we’ve used on the fireplace, master bathroom, and kitchen because, well, we really like it.  Tile will start at the base of the stairs and will continue through the two hall sections, into the laundry room, and bath for a continuous look.


Since this bathroom is a windowless dark hole without artificial lighting, I’m limiting the dark elements to keep it as bright as possible.  To contrast against the dark floors, I’m picturing a white vanity, possibly with some sort of dark wood pull or handle.  After a trip to our local stone yard, we found a pretty slab of dark gray/black with white veins, so that’ll be the countertop with a white vessel sink.  I’ll figure out a wall color once we’ve finished the drywall and have the lighting in.  We know the major components, but a few things are still in the air, until I track down the smaller pieces.  What I do know is this, I don’t want the bathroom to look like it once did:


PSA time, friends never let friends install yellow plumbing fixtures, honey oak cabinets, orange laminate countertops, and carpet in bathrooms.


Seriously, why did carpet in a bathroom ever seem like an okay idea?  Let alone this orange and gold kaleidoscope pattern.

Built in Hutch

If we hop into the way back machine, it shows a kitchen closed off by a wall of dark oak cabinetry.  Ignore the boxes, this was right around moving in.


Not only did those cabinets make the kitchen feel isolated, it made a fun game of ring around the island to get anything ready to cook.  When we remodeled the kitchen, we pulled those out.


To open the kitchen to the dining and living rooms on the other side, we knocked down most of that wall, leaving us with the glorious open floor plan we love.


Across from the breakfast table, there’s about six feet of wall to work with.  Initially, we considered hanging art or a tv above a base cabinet, like so:


The base cabinet became our bar area, which has quickly expanded from a few bottles to a variety.


To accommodate bottles, bar ware, extra serving platters, and dishes, we agreed a built-in hutch above the base cabinet was the best use of space.


My plan included one open shelf for easy access for drinks in addition to three shelves closed off by glass doors.  Ben surprised me by including under cabinet lights to illuminate the glasses.


To easily store serving platters, dishes, and anything else, we wanted adjustable shelves.  Tucking the tracks between 1/4 inch thick MDF gives a smooth inside.


And here it is, done.


Kidding, only the building was complete there.  Primer and paint to the rescue!


This was after paint, but before shelves went in, but take a look at the way the lights make the glasses sparkle.


I’m sure the placement of everything inside will change many times, but I’m calling the hutch complete.


On the counter, the bottles are super easy to get to, along with glasses right within reach.


Glass front cabinets are one of my favorite elements in kitchens, striking the perfect balance between solid doors and open shelving.



Taking the cabinet sides down to the counter grounds the upper cabinet, making it one piece and gives this small side definition.


Platters, large bowls, and other special smaller pieces are safely on display in the above cabinet, but can easily be pulled out to use.


Before, those pantries took over that side of the kitchen.


Wow, that feels like a million miles ago, but a year ago, we had that view.  Now, it’s bright and open, while still making that corner functional.


Wrapping up small projects is on the list before we gut the basement, and it feels amazing to cross this off the list.  Using it is pretty great, and having a drink station came in so handy on Thanksgiving.