Is Your Vintage Furniture a Keeper or a Piece of Junk?

From dovetail joints to maker's marks, learn how to evaluate the worth of your antique

Credit: Bonnie Wilson

These Gild & Co. 1960s slipper chairs were given new life by stripping off a dark wood stain and reupholstering in a fresh floral linen.


So you inherited an old piece of furniture from a beloved family member. You know it has sentimental value, but what if you don’t love to look at it? You could have it refinished or reupholstered, but how do you know if it is worth the investment?

When searching for furniture to sell at my store I am constantly evaluating and asking myself these questions. Here are my tips to decide if a piece of furniture is a keeper.

Dressers, Cabinets and Other Wooden Furniture

First, if there are drawers, check them. Do they open and close easily? If not this is an easy fix (for a professional), but it will cost approximately $60 per drawer, depending on the condition, size and work required.

Lightly shake the piece. Does it wobble? Inspect it for missing pieces, deep scratches or chips in the finish. If it wobbles, is warped, heavily scratched or missing pieces, it’s likely an expensive fix. Trust me, I have learned the hard way!

Check the quality of construction. Pull out the drawers and look at how they are joined. Poor quality furniture is stapled or glued. High quality furniture is joined using methods like dovetail and mortise and tenon. Look underneath the piece. High quality furniture is constructed with corner blocks that are reinforced with screws, nails and glue.

Solid wood furniture is also a sign of quality. Cheaper furniture is often made from particleboard, thin plywood, pressboard or fiberboard. However, veneer is not a sign of poor quality. Veneer has been used in quality wood construction for hundreds of years. Veneer is a misunderstood material, which is a whole other topic.

Finally, do you like how it looks? If the answer is no but it meets the tests mentioned above, it would likely look great painted. Details in the woodwork, like carvings or turned legs, look especially good painted. To have a dresser or wooden piece of furniture painted professionally, it will cost approximately $500 to $1,000 and up (depending on the size of the piece). Yes, this is similar to the cost of buying a new piece, but if it is a high quality antique or vintage piece, you would need to spend ten times the amount to buy the same level of quality and craftsmanship new.

Of course, you can always tackle painting it yourself. There are lots of tutorials and tips for painting furniture online.

For those of you who are against painting wood, my counter argument is always that the French, who are often known for high style, have been painting furniture for years. Painting furniture is nothing new and if it prolongs the life of a quality piece of furniture, why wouldn’t you go for it?!

Sofas, Chairs and Other Upholstered Furniture

Having a piece of furniture reupholstered is very expensive, but can be worthwhile for the right piece of furniture. It’s worth the investment if a) it’s a quality-made piece of furniture and b) you love it. Simple as that.

Determining if an upholstered piece of furniture is high quality is difficult because the signs are usually covered with fabric.

Check if there is a maker’s mark or manufacturer’s label then research the maker. Are they known for quality? What was the price when it was first sold? Do they kiln-dry the frames before constructing the piece? (Kiln-drying – which can take months – removes all moisture from the wood and prevents the furniture from bending or warping.)

Pick up the piece. Is it heavier than it looks? Weight is often a reflection of quality.

Just as with wooden furniture, turn over the piece to see if the joints are reinforced with wooden blocks. This is another sign of quality.

If it has broken springs, flattened cushions, rips or tears in the upholstery, don’t worry too much about that, as it will be repaired during the upholstery process.

If it wobbles or has a cracked frame, these are also relatively inexpensive repairs and can be worth doing to bring a great piece of furniture back to life. I’ve done this many times and been completely satisfied with the results.

Lastly, as a general rule-of-thumb, do not reupholster anything that required assembly when purchased.

Bonnie Wilson is the owner of Gild & Co., a new vintage and decorative furniture store located at 4415 West 10th Ave., Point Grey, Vancouver. Hours are Tuesday to Friday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.