Vintage furniture is usually constructed from one of three things: solid timber, veneered timber or particle board.
Solid timber is always my preference as it is easily refinished, and scratches and marks can be hidden or removed. Veneer over solid timber furniture is also good, and a lot of 1930’s and 40s furniture has decorative veneers. Just check that the veneer is over timber and not participle board or chipboard. Chipboard just doesn’t last, especially in a humid climate, and due to how and what it’s made of is bad for you and the planet (more on that in another post), so avoid it when possible.
Solid timber should sound solid, not hollow. Get to know what hard wood sounds like when you tap on it. It’s fun and I’m sure you’re local antique shop will love you tapping on all their furniture! To be certain you can also try lifting it. Solid timber is heavy. Modern reproduction timber chairs made from fast grown pine stained to look antique will be light.
Furniture that’s cosmetically a little worse for wear is usually cheaper, but inspect the piece and check how it’s constructed, paying special attention to the following -
I always look for dovetailed joints, as they are one of the strongest joins and a good indication of craftsmanship and age. Dovetailed joints or mortise and tenon joins make furniture sturdier and able to take more weight. Dowelled furniture is good also - you can always re-glue the dowel if it's a bit rickety.
Make sure you open and close the drawers and that they slide well. If it's just a little sticky you can always sand the sides of the drawers smooth and wax them with a candle stub or piece of soap, but re-constructing a drawer is usually not worth the effort unless you absolutely love the piece or you are particularly handy. If the drawer rail just needs reattaching, that can be an easier fix.
Open and shut any doors to see that they are hung properly. Sometimes it may just be a missing screw of hinge, but sometimes not.
Avoid furniture that is stapled, nailed or just glued. Saying that, backboards Are sometimes stapled,which does make them easy to remove for painting or covering in paper, and backboards are also easily replaced if missing, although plywood can be pricy so factor that in.
While you have the drawers and doors open, give the piece the smell test. Is is Moldy or mildew smelling, or worse? Sometimes a coat of paint of clear sealer with lock in the smell, but again, not always.
Handles and knobs
Make sure no knobs are broken or missing. Make sure you try each and every handle. You can always replace them if they are but it's better to know before you buy so you can factor that into your cost. Handles can be expensive to replace, and you will usually have to replace all the handles rather than just one as it's extremely difficult sourcing matching vintage handles. If it's just the colour or finish you don't like, you can always paint the handles to change their look.
Sit on the chairs. Chairs can be recovered but poor furniture design and construction is difficult to fix. Chairs shouldn't be rickety, wobbly or missing rungs. I find chairs hard to fix, and given they are usually cheap, look around for solid ones. Also make sure they fit under the table or desk with you sitting on them.
If you are looking for a chair to reupholster, make sure it has a good frame. If you want to save even more money make sure that the webbing, wadding or foam is in good order as well.
Wobbly tables can sometimes be fixed by simply tightening the bolts or screws attaching the legs. Always look under a piece to see how it’s put together. You don’t want a wobbly pedestal table however, or one with a bowed surface. It makes eating soup very difficult!
Look for sturdy furniture items that have been gently used, with good bones, that’s not falling apart. You want to try purchasing those items that can be restored with just a few basic repairs and with minimum cost.