The young professional woman dreamed of having a chaise from the '30s or '40s in her Charles Village apartment. She imagined a piece of furniture that would have made the perfect setting for Marlene Dietrich to sexily dangle a long cigarette holder while seducing Cary Grant.
But none of the new chaises the woman saw fit her taste or her pocketbook. The fabrics were rough or the wrong color. The designs were too modern. And the prices were hovering around $1,000 to $1,200.
It took three months of canvassing antique shops and used furniture stores, but she finally found the chaise of her fantasy for $175 in the basement of Good Buy Girls on Maryland Avenue. It has been repadded, repaired and reupholstered. And now, for a total of $820 she has a vintage chaise in the right color.
How many times have you stopped yourself from buying an otherwise wonderful chair because the springs were hanging out; or walked away from a sofa that has a great shape because you thought the upholstery was tacky?
Even when you see what looks like a bargain, you hesitate. The fear of reupholstery can be paralyzing. Indeed, sometimes redoing an old piece may cost you more than buying something new, but advocates of furniture recycling say the revitalized piece is often constructed better and will last longer -- a bargain in the long run.
Where to find it
The best places to find candidates for furniture recycling are thrift shops, old furniture stores, garage sales, consignment shops, even sidewalks and Dumpsters where people have thrown old furniture away.
Typical buys we found on a recent trip of Baltimore-area stores included: a sturdy, comfortable wing chair for $270 at Galley One Inc. on York Road; a bench frame with dark wooden base and sleigh arms for $95 at Just About Everything on Harford Road; a small armless side chair with springs coming out the bottom for $75 at Jane's One-Stop on Harford Road; and a red velvet tufted arm chair for $125 at the Turnover Shop in Roland Park.
One of the best places to find good furniture in need of reupholstery is the basement of the Good Buy Girls on Maryland Avenue. Co-owner Debra Kane jokingly says, "We have the largest collection of broken springs in the state."
The furniture is sold "as is" and ranges in price from $100 for a foot stool to $400 for a large chaise. The upholstery on some of the pieces may look like shredded wheat, but the partners say they never buy a piece with a broken frame.
"We felt that there was an unmet need for upholstered furniture ** that had good form but was not necessarily in good condition," according to Ms. Kane. "We want to put as little money as we can in these pieces and pass the value on to the customer."
What to look for
Everyone we talked to agreed that it doesn't pay to have a cheaply made piece of furniture redone. But how can a novice judge quality?
For Harriet Katz-Miller of Yesterday's Elegance in Ellicott City, wood is the most important factor.
"You have to like the wood and the workmanship," she says. "I was at an auction and bought a chair that was in horrible condition -- the springs were out, the upholstery looked terrible. But it had wonderful wood carvings of fruit. I paid $55 for the chair and the total cost when I got done fixing it was $350.
"One of the things that I tell people is to trust their instincts. If they really like it and it will look well in their house, they should buy it."
Paul Vicino of Paul Vicino Ltd. upholstery shop on Greenmount Avenue agrees that carving, especially something that looks like it was hand carved, is a prime asset. He found a chair with carved arms in an alley and estimates the frame alone was worth $500.
Even if the frame is a little wobbly, it can be fixed without much additional cost. His alley find was made more sturdy by adding supports to the back and braces to the bottom.
He says other things to look for include: black horse hair filling, muslin covering under the decorative fabric of the chair, coil springs and quality webbing. Lift a chair or a couch, and check its weight. The heavier the frame, the better. The best frames are kiln-dried or warp hardwoods.
"In the long run, cheap winds up being more expensive," Mr. Vicino says. "Go cheap and you are going to have to keep rebuying that same $200 chair every two or three years."
It will cost somewhat more to get an old chair reupholstered, but old furniture, particularly pieces made 50 years or more ago, were built to last a lifetime.
So how much will the reupholstery cost? Labor is the most expensive component so it depends on how much has to be done. Expect to pay about $300 to $350 for a side chair, $450 for a wing chair and $600 to $650 for a sofa or chaise. Estimates are based on average fabric costs of $40 per yard for pieces in fairly good condition.