6 Things To Look For When You're Thrifting Furniture and Home Goods

Open up drawers, and remove the cushions. This is one time when it pays to be a little nosy

Vintage finds and antiques work character-building wonders when it comes to making a home feel collected and warm. Even if you’re lucky enough to inherit some of those pieces from family or friends, it’s always fun to add another layer of your own finds to the mix. But when perusing a thrift store or an estate sale to uncover those gems, it can be tricky to sort the trash from the treasure. We asked Lily Barfield, the keen eye and adventurous spirit behind Houston-based Lily’s Vintage Finds (an online purveyor of antique and vintage goods and furnishings) to spill her trade secrets. Here are the six things she looks for when thrifting. 

Living room with artwork
Laurey W. Glenn; Styling by Lindsey Ellis Beatty

Diamonds in the Rough

“I know this sounds cliche, but I just look for items that catch my eye and stand out amongst the junk. Anytime I see something that grabs my attention, I always pick it up,” says Barfield. From there, she advises placing the piece in a neutral setting away from other items, like on an empty table or countertop. “When you isolate that item, you can usually better picture it styled in your own home,” she notes. “You can typically quickly tell if it’s a gem or just junk.”

Makers’ Marks

“I don’t think twice about getting on my hands and knees to crawl under a piece of furniture to look for makers’ marks. I’ll take curious looks all day long if it means I might discover a great mid-century makers' mark on the underside lip of a table,” says Barfield. “For that reason, I don’t wear dresses while thrifting. You never know when you’ll be crawling around the thrift store floor looking for a label!” 

Makers’ marks aren’t universal, nor are they universally placed. Upholstered pieces will often have labels underneath the cushions, while desks, chests, and commodes may have a makers’ mark hidden in a drawer or cabinet door. 

Crystal is its own beast, notes Barfield. “Hold it up to the light and look for etched makers’ marks,” she says. “Not all crystal is stamped, as some makers used stickers during different points in time, but some do, so it’s exciting when you see stamped crystal. I’ll never forget how thrilling it was to discover a set of marked Baccarat crystal flutes in a thrift store!”

Quality and Style

“Frankly, many things aren’t marked,” warns Barfield. “Feel the weight of the object or furniture. Rap on the wood. You want to make sure it sounds sturdy and feels heavy! If it looks and feels like it’s well made and you love the style, you’ve found yourself a treasure! Some of my very favorite pieces in my house aren’t necessarily identifiable or ‘worth something.’ But those pieces are priceless to me because they are unique, well made, and bring me joy.”

Minor Imperfections

“While people usually think of imperfections as a negative, they can be a good sign! For example, if I’m looking at a piece of porcelain or pottery, I try to deduce if it’s hand-painted or factory-made. Small differences and imperfections can be a sign that something is handmade,” notes Barfield. “Same goes for hand-blown glass. You want to see a bubble, ridge, or pontil mark on the bottom.” 

And when it comes to antique furnishings, they’ll likely have a scratch or nick here and there. “If something is absolutely perfect, it’s probably not super old. Imperfections are part of the charm,” says Barfield.

Major Damage

While minor imperfections may green-light a find, it’s also important to check for large flaws. “I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten excited about a piece, bought it, gotten it home and realized there was a big crack, chip, or stain,” says Barfield. 

That’s not to say that project pieces are a total no-go—unless you know you’ll never actually tackle that repair. “If you find something that needs a little work, make sure it is the type of project you will actually complete,” says Barfield. “I usually get really ambitious while thrifting and will convince myself that I’ll completely repair something, and it then ends up sitting in my garage for months—to my husband’s great dismay. Dream big, but know thyself.” 

Items You’ll Use and Love

Ultimately, the best vintage or antique discovery is the one that makes your home feel a little more like you. “There are certain things I gravitate towards over and over again: silver Champagne buckets, cocktail shakers and pitchers, Murano and art glass bowls and vases, brass accessories, beautiful sets of vintage china and crystal, unique lamps, burlwood pieces and French antiques.”

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