Working with a less-than-perfect bargain buy

Wednesday, February 9, 2005

So you did it.

You bought THAT chair.

It wiggled a bit but the fabric wasn't too bad and you just knew you could make that mere $25 purchase shine.

Now it sits as a nagging shrine and -- if you're like me -- it has been cluttered with junk in a subconscious hope that one day it will just disappear.

Take a deep breath.

I told you what a wise buy was, but my minor in life experiences was an emphasis in unwise.

That would represent my first few thrift store purchases (and more than three in 10 since). Alas, my frustration to your knowledge. So, let's jump into how to repair some common problems that follow you home:

DISCLAIMER: Always test chemicals, cleaners and sprays on an inconspicuous area of the furniture first. Not all fabrics react to cleaners the same way, and there is an off chance they may ruin your furniture. I've ruined enough of my own trying new things, I don't want to take responsibility for ruining yours, too.

Creak becomes crack

You wiggled that chair and heard creaks that were antiquely angelic in the store. Then you shoved it into your compact car, made a few S-curves on the ride home, pried it out of your door that apparently got smaller along the route and dropped it as soon as you reached the door of your second floor walk-up. You breathe, decide to rest in your new purchase, and crack, some piece has broken free.

Sometimes the piece will have to be marked up as a lesson learned. Maybe you can use the fabric on another chair, or to make accent pillows for a future buy (don't worry, there will be more on transforming lemons to lemonade in another column).

However, if you can see the cracked piece, a splint might fix your problem. Rest the chair so that the broken piece is not bearing any weight. Then, cut two pieces of wood at least 1 inch thick to the width and length of your broken piece. Use some wood glue to secure the crack. Once the glue has dried, place your wood splints above and below the crack and screw them to the glued piece of wood. A splint like this should support the structure, though that depends how often and how gingerly you sit in it.

Loose and achy joints

I'm no doctor, but after I've hauled a set of six dinner chairs from a store to my upstairs apartment, I prefer a warm bath and some Ibuprofen.

But for your chairs, the best thing to do to shore up loose and achy joints is to get out the wood glue. We're talking thrifty here, not antique restoration. (Certified antiques should always be handled by a professional to preserve their value.) To make a dinner chair useable, slowly twist the joints apart. Most older chairs will be a tab-A-into-slot-B type of construction.

To make sure pieces fit back together, number the slots and tabs that pair up. From there, pour some wood glue on a paper plate, grab a wooden craft stick and go kindergarten on the pieces, carefully working your project back together.

The dreaded FOS

You sit down in the chair, take a deep breath and think, "Wow, this smells so antiquey." The next day your whole living room reeks of "antiquey." To rid yourself of that Funky Odd Smell, there are a couple of choices. The magic of fabric refreshers has made this problem easy to correct. Problem for me is, even the unscented ones leave a ghastly smell that my nose can't stand.

Another option would be steam cleaning or scrubbing with a toothbrush and paste made of water and baking soda. The water will help the odor-fighting baking soda penetrate the fabric.

Greasy buildup

So, it's quite possible the last person who used your chair was a construction worker who didn't shower before taking a nap in the chair during the evening news. Or, your chair may have belonged to a groupie for a 1980s hairband.

Whoever it was, they've left a dirty, greasy stain that you'd rather not rest your head on. Upholstery cleaner may take care of most of that, and you could always make a dust cover or throw a blanket over the spot. But the cheapest solution I've found is shampoo. And with this, a little dab will definitely do you. For the entire chairback, a pea-sized drop in a liter of water should do the trick. Mix it up and use a kitchen sponge with a scrubber to work the solution into the stain. You can always wash, rinse and repeat, but the rinse is the most important part.

Bugs (hey, it happens)

So maybe it's fleas ... maybe it's bedbugs ... maybe it's cockroaches ... or ticks? Thrift stores can be buggy places, but whatever the entomology might be, you don't want it in your house. Since bug problems aren't always apparent at first glance, I recommend letting your chair sit in a garage or other mostly bare room for a day or two. That will give you time to notice an infestation or for a colony to die out.

If you don't have the space or can't wait, take your chair into an open area and cover that puppy in bug killer. Just make sure the formula you use is indicated for the type of bug you have. Also, some of the stronger sprays have bleaching agents in them, so unless you plan to reupholster, always test for color fastness.

Just remember, the joy of thrift shopping lies in the work you do to make a piece of furniture your own.

Next up: It couldn't be salvaged, now what can I do?

Vanessa Cook is a copy editor for the Southeast Missourian who also dabbles in decorating. She can be contacted at

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