Buying second-hand wooden furniture

Maybe it’s because we’re all looking to spend less, get better value for our money, or because we care more about the environment; whatever the reason, more people are buying used furniture than ever before. But what if you’ve never bought second-hand furniture before, what should you check out? Do you have any consumer rights? Where are the best places to look? Kathy Lewis, Founder and Director of Preen CIC, gives some expert advice.

If you’re like me you can’t help but love good quality, well-made and solid furniture that someone has put time and skill into making. Unfortunately, buying this quality of furniture new is very expensive and way out of the reach of most working families these days. But choose reused items and you could furnish your home with high quality pieces that reflect your individual tastes, and at a fraction of the cost of new furniture that’s of lower quality and likely to look tatty or dated in a few short years.

Once you know a few good ground rules, you can get good value for money. Choosing what to buy is then just a question of personal taste and how much you want to spend. I have four children at home so any furniture we have must be practical and durable, not just look good. I also know my furniture will look as good in 10 years as it does now, and hold its value – unless the children manage to totally wreck it!

A few basics – types of wood

Furniture can be made from a single type of wood, a combination of different woods, or what’s called “engineered” wood.

Most furniture today is constructed using engineered wood rather than solid wood, and some pieces use a combination or engineered and solid wood, or several different solid woods. For example, a table may well use one type of wood for the top which is highly visible and a less expensive wood for the legs that aren’t so visible and need different characteristics from the wood.

Wood is classified as hard or soft depending on what type of tree it comes from, rather than its actual hardness. Generally speaking however, hardwoods are harder than softwoods.

Hardwoods provide very good strength and stability and are usually considered as the most suitable for making furniture, although the very hardness of the wood can make carving or producing intricate detail difficult.

Softwoods grow faster than hardwoods so tend to cost less. A disadvantage is that they are less durable and more likely to be damaged and suffer wear and tear.

Engineered wood includes plywood and fibreboard. Plywood is produced by gluing several thin sheets of wood together under high pressure to form a thicker and stronger sheet or board. Fibreboard is made from chips and/or fibres produced when trees are cut into timber at a mill, and mixed with glue, heat and/or pressure can be used in its manufacture. Veneers and laminates can be applied to engineered wood to enhance the visual appeal of the surface.

Check for quality

With a few pointers and a bit of experience gained by looking and comparing different furniture, this isn’t that difficult. In effect you’re looking to see how the piece is constructed and deciding whether you’re satisfied with the finish. The finish on distressed furniture won’t usually be smooth but it should still be well-made and feel sturdy.

Does the piece feel sturdy and robust? Is it sitting level on the floor, or wobbling about? Check whether it’s the floor that’s not level, the furniture’s got one leg short, or it’s just not sturdy.

Look more closely at the joints. Traditional construction methods that give the strongest and best looking finishes are mortise & tenon and dovetail joints. Dowels or screws can also be produce strong joins, but staples don’t. Any glue used should not be visible outside the joint. If you see a triangular piece of wood on the inside of a corner, it doesn’t mean a repair necessarily; corner blocks enhance the stability and strength of a piece.

Check how much wear and tear the piece has. Some wear and tear gives a piece character but too much and it becomes tatty. Things to avoid include split wood, structural damage whether caused by wood worm or anything else, and subtle signs of water damage. There are several products that will cover up minor scratches, more serious ones can mean it’s trying to negotiate on price, although they may have been taken into account. If you really fall in love with something that requires repair, get an idea of how much a professional repair would be before buying it.

writing bureau cropped web

Is your item complete and working properly? Are there missing handles, hinges or screws? Check that the doors shut correctly and the draws slide in and out smoothly and there are no stops missing. If you’re buying a reclining chair, sit in it. Is it comfortable? Does it recline and comes back upright smoothly. With extending dining tables, check it’s working and you can extend it easily.

what about the finish? When you run your hand over the piece, what does the finish feel like? Is it smooth and nice to touch? You shouldn’t feel rough patches or worse still, get a splinter! What does the surface look like? Don’t forget to check backs and unexposed areas, which should also be well-fitted and smooth on high quality items. If the surface looks cloudy or speckled, or a coating applied obscures the grain of the wood, I’d choose another piece.

Where to buy from

Pre-loved furniture is sold all over the place these days. There are commercial businesses dealing in it, charities, social enterprises, and private individuals, both from retail premises and online. I don’t recommend buying used furniture online without seeing an item unless you know the seller or are experienced and knowledgeable about what you’re buying. Personally, I like to touch and feel what I’m paying for, as well as being able to check it out properly.

Buying from a charity doesn’t mean you’re getting a bargain or items are cheaper or better quality than from a commercial vendor. After all, charities sell items to raise funds for their main purpose, which is usually something unrelated to what they’re selling. At Preen we try to make all our essential furniture affordable and we give discounts to low income households because we’re a CIC (Community Interest Company) and that’s one of the ways we help the local community. Unlike most similar projects, we don’t receive funding for our core operations and we have to cover costs such as staff wages and the running costs of our vans and premises, so we have to make some money from what we sell.

Your rights

When you’re buying used goods, whether it is furniture or something else, The Sale of goods Act 1979 (as amended) applies in the same way as if you’d bought a new product, if you’re buying from a retailer.

This means

  •     goods are of satisfactory quality (taking into account they are used),
  •     they are as described,
  •     they are fit for purpose.

But if you’re buying from a private individual you have fewer rights. Essentially, items have to be as described and must belong to the seller (or they have owner’s permission to sell) are the only criteria.

Very few sellers of used furniture are Trading Standards Approved (TSA). From the start we at Preen wanted to achieve TSA to publicly demonstrate our commitment to customer care and trading in a legal, honest and fair way. This approval doesn’t relate to the quality of goods but it does mean the consumer has more comeback, should a problem arise.

Many reuse organisations selling reused furniture are members of the Furniture Re-use Network (FRN), which supports more than 300 reuse charities and social enterprises nationally. At Preen we’re one of about 60 FRN Approved Re-use Centres, which means we operate quality assured product testing facilities, processes and outlets, and offer product liability with consumer protection central to our service.

Now you know what you’re looking for – get out there and choose some beautiful pre-loved furniture! You save yourself money and help the environment and will also have good quality and interesting furniture with real character rather than a bland new flat pack that looks the same as everyone else’s.