There are many things to look for in finding a “diamond in the rough” piece of furniture from an estate sale, garage sale or thrift store. Look for the potential in a piece of furniture. This can be broken down into a few categories.
First is function, will it work for you in the way that you are hoping for? If you need a good writing surface /desk, don’t buy something that is too small or too tall or has a warped top just because it is cool: it is important that it fits you and your needs.
Second thing to think about is size. Is the piece going to fit through doors and up the stairs? Measure, measure, measure: if you go out thrifting, bring a tape measure and a quick drawing of the room you are looking to fill, along with some basic measurements. Sometimes (as in a garage sale situation) you need to be quick on the draw, as most people don’t like holding bargains while you go home to measure.
Make sure the piece has good "bones." Look for good structure, how well it is built, how heavy it is, does it wobble when you touch it? Use a little common sense. If it’s falling over, it might be too big a project (although if one leg is loose, a trip to the hardware store might resolve the problem). Also, reupholstering a basic dining chair can be learned from a book in an afternoon, but doing a whole sofa takes a lot of practice and sewing skills.
Lastly does the piece have good lines? Meaning is it architecturally interesting and does it have proportional qualities from an aesthetic point of view (the bowed legs on our piece caught our eye)? If the piece is “close to cool,” you might be able to alter it into a gem by adding appliques or trim, lengthening or shortening the legs, etc. As a rule, if there isn’t something that initially draws you to the piece, it’s probably not a winner.
There were some dents and damages to the corner of the table, so we used auto body filler (Bondo) to fill in the gaps. Use a razor blade to score the area so that the filler has some roughness to adhere to. On the damaged section, make several small cuts in the wood in a crisscross pattern. Mix the filler according to the manufacturer's instructions and apply liberally to the damaged area. Once it's dry but not totally hard (3 to 5 minutes), use that same razor blade and carve back the corners (don't go too deep). Then use 220-grit sandpaper to get the final shape of the corner. Sanding is better than carving to get the final shape; it offers more control over the finished repair.
We used 150-grit sandpaper on a palm sander, but it could be done by hand with some elbow grease. Lightly sand the entire table and legs. You do not need to remove all the finish; in fact, it's better just to smooth out the surface layer. Do not try to get to bare wood; you will use less primer if you don't. The goal is to get a smooth surface so that the paint will adhere nicely.
Our primer is a brownish color, but any color will do. Make sure it is sandable primer in an aerosol can. Spray on one coat of primer and let dry (follow manufacturer's instructions for drying time). Sand between each coat.
Spray paint or pigmented lacquer is recommended. If your budget permits, you can have a paint store make you a custom color and put it in an aerosol can. You can use a brush, but it won't look as smooth as sprayed-on paint. Spray the paint in the same manner as the primer and sand between coats. Don’t sand the final coat. Try to get an even, particle-free coat for the last layer.
Make sure that the paint base color is completely dry before you start on this step. Get your second paint color in an aerosol spray can. Select a stencil (organic shapes work nicely in juxtaposition to angular furniture). Chose one that will work with the composition of the surface you will be placing it on. Tape the stencil on with painter's tape, making sure it's flat and that all areas that should not be sprayed are thoroughly covered. If the stencil comes on a roll, it's best to press it flat for 24 hours prior to using it (place it under heavy, flat objects such as boards or books).
Spray through the stencil with light, even coats and try to spray straight down at the stencil. If you spray at an angle, the mist will get under the stencil, since it is just lying on the top. Inevitably some mist will create a slight haze around the shapes; this is okay, because it will be lightly sanded away. Wait about 30 minutes and remove the stencil.
We decided to paint the stencil color on the legs too. Rather than put it on the outside portion of the legs, we went for a more understated approach and just painted the inside of each leg. Make sure everything that won’t be getting painted is covered, and spray the stencil color on all four leg interiors. Once the legs dry, remove the tape and flip the table right side up.
After about 8 to12 hours, the stenciled areas should be dry. Lightly sand over the stenciled areas to give them a worn, shabby-chic look. Rub with 320-grit sandpaper and use your own artistic expression as far as how much of the stencil you “wear” through. We did this same step to the painted area on the inside of each leg. Be careful around the edges not to sand to hard or you’ll go through the base color as well.
Add a clear protective top layer to prevent the new paint from getting damaged. There are a variety of products on the market that can both be sprayed and brushed. We use a sprayable lacquer. Brushable lacquer is also good, and you could also use a brushable polyurethane if the tabletop will come in contact with water or liquids. Apply two coats in the desired sheen. We chose a matte finish because it has just a little bit of luster.