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Buying Used Furniture for Restoration: Shellac vs. Stain vs. Varnish

Finished Wooden Desk

Life is full of possibilities. Buying used furniture is no exception, especially when you’re doing it as a restoration or upcycle project.

It can be hard enough finding just the right piece for a space, but factor in all the options out there for customizing it and you’ve got seemingly unlimited options. This quick guide to three of the most common wood finishes should help you get to the right look and texture for you.


You might be surprised to know that this finish actually comes from the resin produced by an insect (think about that the next time you drop a chip on a shiny table surface).

That said, shellac can be, in a literal way, an all-natural option. This is versatile stuff, capable of being used as a primer, sealant, and finish all in one. Shellac is renowned for being durable and protective, and even comes in an array of colors that leave a high-gloss look.


Treated Wooden Table

One of the big benefits of stain is that it can be used on difficult woods like cherry that tend to resist soaking up finishes.

Stains are easy to apply and can either enhance the wood’s natural look or alter it slightly (this can also depend on the type of wood – lighter-density woods like pine will soak up and be affected much more). However, to lock the look in you’ll also need a finish.


This can be where varnish comes in. The great thing about varnish is that it doesn’t provide much of its own look, so if you have natural wood or a stain that you love but need to keep it protected, varnish is your bet.

It also comes in a variety of gloss levels, ranging from “shiny” to “flat,” depending on what you want your wood to look like.

Wood Varnish Application

Which to Choose When Buying Used Furniture

In the end, which one(s) you need is dependent on the look and function you want and even the condition your used furniture piece is in (some may need more help than others). Stain and varnish are the most customizable, while shellac is in some ways more streamlined.

Photo Credits (from top): Pallet Furniture DIY, Daniel Borio, and DIY Network

4 Tips for Buying Second Hand Furniture

Second Hand Furniture

It’s no secret that furniture can be expensive. With many options for quality chairs, tables, couches, etc. going for a minimum of 3 figures, filling your spaces with brand new furniture can really start racking up.

The best alternative? Second hand furniture comes with multiple benefits. Not only is it (obviously) generally much cheaper than new, but it can also provide you some really interesting pieces you wouldn’t find in a standard showroom. Here’s what to look out for before you hit the yard sales, though.

Tag? Label? Engraving?

Second Hand Wooden Table

You would be surprised at how often people selling used furniture don’t know what they’re marking down to $10. Look over all the undersides and backsides for original tags, brand labels, or engravings that show manufacturers and dates, and follow up with some research if you find something.

Rule of thumb: if it’s a person’s name you’ve never heard of or any combinations of two names with “&” in the middle, that’s probably a good sign.

Try Before You Buy

The old sales adage holds especially true for buying second hand furniture. Depending on your level of craftiness or budget for restoring old pieces, you could be looking at more work to fix something up than you’re willing to put in. Check for lumpy cushions, unstable weight support, and excessive shakiness or creaking.

Give It a Smell

Cat on a Couch

That’s right – never buy it before you smell it. Even if you’re planning to reupholster a piece, you could be buying cushions or even wood with deep-soaked scents, which can be extremely difficult to get out.

Keep Measurements Handy

Before you even start shopping, be sure to keep a list written down of the maximum measurements you can work with. You don’t want to be stuck with an incredible sofa that mysteriously takes up half of your living room. Everything seems to magically look smaller before you bring it home.

Photo Credits (from top): DIY Life, ONEHOWTO, and Luxury Brand Custom Wood

A Designer’s Start-to-Finish Restoration Techniques

When designing a space, we always have to start from the very beginning: its concept. This is just as important in restoration, so we take into account aspects like color, design concept, overall trend, and the final look we want to give the item.

Once we take all this into consideration and have a vision in mind, we start the restoration by sanding the piece using increasingly soft sandpaper to remove the layer of lacquer, exposing the porous base so it can better absorb a new layer of paint. However, we must be careful not to remove or damage the original color if we’re not planning to change it.

Once we have the surface painted, we let it dry completely, which may take about 3 or 4 hours depending on the materials we’re using. We like to blend the paint for a more fluid transition with the old paint, and have to consider how over time – especially if this is an outdoor piece – the brightness of the lacquer will dull.

In terms of color, vintage style tends to take bright, striking colors and contrast them with black and white fixtures with bright finishes.

Writing Credits: Juan Martinez (Interior Designer)
Photo Credits (from top): The Bella Cottage, Hudson Goods, and Explore Poverty

Using Optical Illusion to Open Up a Space

Mirror Room

When you’re dealing with decorating small rooms and spaces, it can be hard to pull off your vision while keeping within the physical constraints of the room. If it looks cluttered, everything feels off.

That’s when we reach into our bag of tricks to use optical illusions in interior design layouts. One of the most common ones is bringing in mirrors to make a space look bigger than it really is, but that requires the right pieces and expert positioning.

Replacing wood, metal, or other non-see-through tables with glass tables can be another great way to make a room seem to open up, too. If a dining area is particularly small, a glass table can go a long way toward increasing special appearances, especially when paired with armless chairs.

In the area of ​​the main room or family room, leaving a space of about 2 or 3 inches between the sofa and the carpet, this will open feeling; a very important trick is to use the is-height space, use the walls with shelves, pictures and mirrors without saturating, and uses fewer tables or chairs, this gives a sense of disorder and space will look more saturated.

Moving into the main/living room, where larger sitting areas tend to be common, we like to use sofas and chairs that leave a few inches of space between the seat and the floor, giving the impression of openness. Helping these rooms “breathe” a little by replacing dressers or cabinets with shelves that make use of the vertical space is also huge. It’s also helpful to declutter these by minimizing the number of chairs, pictures, tables, etc.

And lastly, we always like to use starkly contrasting colors along with neutral tones. We keep these schemes simple so that we don’t over-saturate the eye and mind with lots of color and texture going on.

Writing Credits: Juan Martinez (Interior Designer)

An Inside Look at Furniture Restoration

Restored TV Stand
When you’re restoring furniture for decoration, you have to be able to look past the pieces themselves. You have to consider what furniture to use for a room specifically, and forget your own individual opinions and ideals for aesthetics of room design to think about the bigger picture that piece is going to fit into.

It all boils down to the unique characteristics of the thing you’re working with, keeping in mind its limitations and possibilities. You’ve also got to keep functionality in mind – you don’t want to rework something so heavily that it loses integrity just so you can force it to be something it shouldn’t be. The above redesigned modern TV stand, for instance, kept all its functionality while still reaching a fresh, contemporary look.

Restored Dresser

For this one we thought carefully about the color and texture. We wanted something clean and fresh, so we went with a stark black/white contrast. With the color scheme in place, we played with the texture, using a glossy matte finish.

Remember that you usually don’t want a look to be too one-dimensional or stark. You want to preserve the original value of what you’re restoring while updating it to fit a more desirable trend while also increasing the overall beauty of it. It’s a give and take, updating furniture while also staying true to its originality.

Writing Credits: Juan Martinez (Interior Designer)