How to restore tired looking furniture: DIY tips

How to restore tired furniture

Instead of buying new give old things a new lease of life

There's life in that old sagging sofa yet. Restoring furniture is as easy as buying a throw or painting a wardrobe. Andy Hamilton explains how

Attitudes towards furniture have changed in the years between when my granddad and I set up home.

In fact if you took stock of the furniture that arrived in both houses over a 10 year period, it is easy to see why the massive out of town furniture stores sprung up on greenbelt land across the UK.

I remember sitting at the same dining room table at my granddad's and sitting on the same sofa they would occasionally get repaired to keep them looking good as new. I on the other hand have got through a multitude of furniture.

I finally realised that if I bought good quality furniture, it could just be renovated and save me funding illegal logging, cheap furniture manufacturers and out of town shopping centres.

The more we shop in these sorts of places the more of our countryside will be lost to them. This is why I think many of us are returning to the values of my granddad and restoring old furniture instead of buying new stuff to match the curtains or this summer's outfit.

But furniture restoration can seem like a daunting task for most of us, including myself, who sometimes struggle with the simplest DIY tasks. It need not be too difficult, and unless you are re-buttoning a Chesterfield or French polishing a Queen Anne dresser, you may find that smaller jobs are surprisingly easy.

Wardrobes and sideboards

Those TV addicts amongst you might remember the array of restoration programs that were on the BBC some years ago. It seemed you couldn't turn around without someone wanting to 'change that'. Although a lot of the ideas were often tired or outlandish the premise was good.

Furniture can be given a new lease of life with a little imagination. Try to stick with the colour scheme that you have in your houses so you don't suddenly want to change your curtains, carpet and everything else. Handles can be changed to alter the appearance of draws or wardrobe doors; check out old reclamation yards and online.

If you have an artist friend, why not commission them to paint an individual piece on your wardrobe door? They will no doubt appreciate the work and in return you get a piece of furniture that is highly individual.

Sagging sofas and armchairs

Fabric shops can often be found on the fringes of towns and cities or online - type your postcode into Google maps, click 'search nearby' then type in fabric and unless you live next to the London nightclub you should find your nearest fabric shop. Many will have signs that say, 'We cut foam to size'. This is great, as it means that if your cushions are starting to sag or have been ripped to shreds by your cats you can replace the foam and they will feel as good as new.

Clean up stains

In one of the student houses I lived in, it seemed that the tea, coffee and beer stains started to join up. I was never quite sure if the sofa was supposed to be dirty brown and the odd clean bit was some sort of reverse stain. Anyway, now I am a bit more respectable I tend to clean stains as they happen.

Fresh stains can be cleaned with tonic water: simply spray then dab around the area of the stain with a clean rag or cloth and keep blotting until the stain is removed. Once the stain is out, wet the area with clean water and dab dry.


Of course the best way to keep stains off a sofa is to get a throw and place it over the top, safeguarding the sofa underneath. This is also the cheapest and by far the easiest way of changing the appearance of your sofa. It can be rather annoying when the throw keeps falling down as it often does in my experience. To keep this from happening I bought a selection of big safety pins and pinned the throw to the back of the sofa.

The next question should be what sort of throw you have. For me this is easily answered with whatever the local charity shop sells. Patchwork is another option and again fabric shops will come to the rescue as they sell you their off-cuts at a greatly reduced price.

Alternatively, you could use this as an opportunity to cut up and use any threadbare or moth eaten clothes hanging around in the back of your wardrobe. I have instructions of how to make a patchwork quilt in my book The Self sufficient-ish Bible; this can be slightly adapted by making just one side of the quilt in order to make a throw.

Change that coffee table

I once visited a friend and found her hitting a plate with a hammer. I thought this very odd until I realised that she was sticking a piece of her broken crockery onto an old coffee table, which really did brighten up the whole look.

She got some strong glue and stuck each bit onto the table. She used three different broken plates to cover the table and made a very attractive pattern. Her tricks include saving broken plates that you like the colour of, and keeping pieces the size of the bottom of coffee mugs.

This is because you can get an uneven surface on the top depending on the part of the plate used and although magazines and books don't need an even surface, mugs full of hot liquid sure do. She also cleaned and lightly sanded the table before starting and put grout between the pieces after sticking them.

On woodworm

After my initial foray into flat pack furniture I now dislike any furniture that was built after 1940, and I sometimes wonder if woodworm feel the same. Although the case for getting rid of woodworm infected furniture is often a case of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted, it can still be restored.

The larvae of the female furniture beetle need moisture and warmth to survive meaning, that they prefer new wood. Always check for recent activity if buying old furniture; in other words look for what looks like sawdust at the ends of holes or even tiny little beetles.

So step one in the attack against woodworm is not to let any contaminated furniture into the house. Obviously if you are paying special interest to this section it might already be too late. Indeed if the wood is brittle to the touch then it is time to replace the leg or other infected part. Although it is worth having a look on this site before taking any drastic action.

I would strongly advise polishing with beeswax that can often be bought from the local farmers market as it will not only help protect your furniture from woodworm but helps to plug up all the unsightly holes. You can also use children's wax crayons to plug the gaps.

Andy Hamilton is co-author of The Selfsufficient-ish Bible (£20, Hodder & Stoughton)

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