Thrifting 101

May 23, 2011

Happy Monday everyone!  We spent the weekend working outdoors on our patio, more to come on that project later this week.   Meanwhile, I thought I’d offer up my very best tips for thrifting, plus a peek at my latest thrift store before and after. 

There are plenty of people who don’t care to shop thrift stores.  Perhaps they dislike or are afraid of used goods, or their local thrift stores carry nothing but useless junk.  I’ve seen my share of thrift stores that carried mostly unusable items, but I’ve also scored a few finds in thrift stores that could be resold for hundreds of dollars.  It all depends on the particular store, they’re all so very different.  I’m asked now and then for my best advice on thrifting, so I thought it time to put them all in one place!

Here are a few of my tips for shopping thrift stores:

Stay Focused.   When you find a great thrift store, it’s like shopping in any second hand forum.  Your visit can quickly turn into ”Hey that’s cute” or “Oooh, I like that too!” and before you know it, your tab has climbed higher than you planned, and you’ve brought home things you don’t really need.  Before you walk through the door, remember what you’re there for.  Stay focused on your needs and your budget.    

Know The Sales Days.  Find out when your local store has sales and show up early.  My local St. Vincent de Paul has furniture sales when they have too much in stock (typically after a big donation weekend) so I’m in the habit of stopping in every Monday or Tuesday to see what’s new.  My mom loves to shop at the Goodwill on Tuesdays when anyone over 55 gets a 25% discount.  She’s found so many designer labels and even items that are brand new and have never been worn, you just never know what you’ll find!  It pays to know when your local store offers discounts. 

Seek that Diamond in the Rough.  Shopping a thrift store can be hit and miss, and you never know what you’ll find inside, it just depends on what is in stock on a given day.  For me, this is the most exciting part, searching through the real junk to discover a great find.  It’s that treasure hunt that keeps me coming back time and again. 


Typically, the good stuff is buried under the bad.  Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and shuffle things around to find something worth buying.  Also, keep in mind that time is money.   Always consider the time and cost of refurbishing a piece.  If it is one that will need to be completely restored, stained or painted, factor in that time and energy into the purchase price. 

Full Inspection.  Give anything you contemplate bringing home a full inspection.   Often, the staff will have already weeded through the donations for stains, rips, or unusable items, nevertheless, take the time to thoroughly inspect the item.  With furniture, pull every drawer and open every door.  Look for signs of quality construction, like solid wood and dovetail joints.   

Be Willing to Walk Away.  Half the time I enter a thrift store I see absolutely nothing I could use.  I see pieces I could refurbish, but I (try to) resist the urge to bring them home if they serve no purpose.  I’m an avid thrifter and my friends know it, so I always have a list of things I’m looking for, for me or for them.  After a quick scour, if I don’t see it, I walk out and come back to shop another day. 

Beware the Cooties.   So many people freak out at the thought of bed bugs, mites, or strange odors.  This concern is legitimate, as there have been outbreaks of bedbugs in many urban areas, so always take precautions.  If you bring home fabric, be sure wash it in hot water to kill any germs.  Resist the urge to buy anything upholstered you’ll sleep or sit on unless you plan to have it professionally cleaned or reupholstered before you bring it into your home, and examine every piece of furniture for any signs of infestation or decay.  If your furniture find has an odor, perhaps due to a previous life in a smoker’s residence, there are several remedies.  Baking soda, white vinegar, witch hazel, Borax, and Murphy’s Oil Soap all help neutralize odors in second hand furniture. 

Shop Without Kids.  Just like any treasure hunt at a flea market or clearance sale, kids have a little patience, so if you intend to hit a few stores, leave those little ones at home.  That said, I think it does set a good example to take kids to thrift stores now and then (which I do sometimes) so they learn the benefits, but must most of the time I go alone.  I find I can’t spend the time I need searching for the good stuff if I have to attend to their wants or keep my eye on their every move. 

Ask For a Lower Price.  I am never afraid to ask for a lower price.  The key is to talk to the manager on site, not just any clerk working in the store.  If you’re a regular, chances are they will give you a discount.  If not, the good news is you’re money is going to a worthy cause and you are already getting a deal, but it never hurts to ask, so be brave and just do it.  But be nice!  If you’re a frequent thrifter, then the sales staff will recognize you.  Be as nice as you can be, ask their name and remember it.  When they see you walk through the door, they’ll treat you well and sometimes give you a better deal.  I asked my friend Rhoda, a thrifting expert, for her best tip.  Her advice?  “Go early, take cash, and don’t be afraid to bargain!” 

Purge Often.   You know how it is, both retail and second hand purchases can quickly clutter your home, so get in the habit of purging your home often of the things you don’t use or need and donate them to your favorite thrift store!   Just this month I rid my house of clothes we’ve outgrown, and other unused items like TV trays (I’ve made a pledge we won’t eat in front of the TV), leftover toddler toys, and unused electronics.  Drop off your donation at the back door before you enter the front door.  


No doubt there are items sitting in your home that you could easily donate.  Thrift store donations are tax deductible, so be sure to ask for a receipt. 

Think Creatively.  If there ever was a tip to embrace, this would be it.  Whenever I enter a thrift store, I see things for what they could become, not what they are.  Take this coffee table I recently spied for $15 at my local Goodwill.   This table has the potential to be a completely amazing bench ~ imagine it upholstered with new foam and fabric and those fantastic legs given a fresh coat of paint.  Completely stunning in an entry, and one of a kind too!

bench thrift store


Have a vision every time you thrift!   To quote my friend Mr. Goodwill Hunting,  "Be able to look beyond what you see and have vision for what something can be.  You can mix thrifted lamps and a side board with Pottery Barn lamp shades, and still have a well edited look.” 

rashon lamps.bmp

image: Mr. Goodwill Hunting


Most thrift stores are for charity and are run by churches, noble causes, or veteran’s groups, and most people assume thrift stores exist to provide goods to the poor.  However, many thrift stores like Goodwill or Salvation Army actually exist to raise money for their organization.  When you buy from them, you support their cause, and you also help the environment by keeping a few things from ending up in landfills.  That’s a feel good proposition we all should support. 

Now here’s a peek at my latest thrift store before and after: 


cabinet turned wine bar


I followed the same steps as I did on this green nursery dresser, but here’s a recap on how to paint furniture.

1) Remove all Hardware.  Before priming and painting, be sure to remove knobs and pulls.  

remove hardware


2) Clean and Scuff.   With the use of a bonding primer, there is no need to sand your piece to remove all traces of varnish, but giving the entire piece a onceover with a medium grit (80 – 120) sanding wedge for 5 to 10 minutes helps to remove any lingering debris and also preps your surface for priming.  Wipe down when complete.

good scuff


3) Cosmetic Repair.  Fill any scratches or dents with a sandable and paintable wood putty.  If you are moving the location of your knobs or hardware, now is the time to fill those existing holes.  Sand smooth when dry. 

wood filler

4)  Prime.  Bonding primers are essential for a lasting paint job, and there are several primers on the market, both water and oil based versions.  I use Zinsser ‘Cover Stain’, an oil based formula, because it adheres to glossy surfaces (even laminate) and blocks any stain from seeping through and affecting your future paint color.   You can choose either a spray version or brush on version.

zinsser primer


Keep in mind, using a brush on formula requires you clean your brush with mineral spirits or paint thinner, so consider using a throwaway paintbrush for the primer coat.  Tip: oil based paints will come off your hands with vegetable oil, no need to use harsh chemicals on your hands. 

5)  Paint.  One your primer is dry, apply two coats of latex paint.  For the best paint job, invest in a quality angled brush.  You can use a roller for quick application, but you’ll need to follow it up with a brush, especially in nooks or tight places.  I also recommend a paint conditioner called Floetrol, which extends your drying time to eliminate drag and minimize brush strokes in your paint.  It’s inexpensive ($7 to $9 a bottle) and a little goes a long way, find it at any specialty paint store. 

paintbrush and floetrol


7)  Add Hardware.  If you’re adding modern knobs or pulls, measure their precise location and use a drill bit to create new holes. 

drill new holes


8. Protect your Hard Work.  Use a water based protectant as your final step, which helps eliminate any stickiness that can result from using latex paint, and also protects your paint for years to come.  I recommend either Minwax Polycrylic or Varathane Polyurethane formulas, you can find them in brush on or spray applications, in both satin and gloss finishes.  Make sure you avoid any oil based polyurethanes, they are designed for stained furniture, and will yellow or amber over time. 

Follow these steps and you’ll have a custom piece in a weekend!


cabinet before



bar cabinet side view


kates cabinet after copy


What’s your latest thrift store score?




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