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5 Ways To Breathe New Life Into Vintage Pieces

by Rebekah Carey

Today, furniture and design shop owner Johnelle Mancha is sharing information-packed tips about a topic for which many of our readers seek advice and inspiration — reviving vintage pieces. Johnelle’s Berkeley, CA home store,  specializes in revitalizing vintage pieces, custom upholstery and furniture, vintage treasures and incredible antique rugs, interior design services. After over a decade working with vintage furniture,  has no shortage of helpful hints and must-try tips.

Below you’ll find five areas of improvement, the problems and solutions you may commonly run into when beautifying an older piece. Johnelle will discuss repairs, reupholstery, re-painting, re-staining, and reimagining vintage furniture pieces so that you can confidently move forward with any decor you’ve had your eye on — or had in your fix-it pile!  

Photography by Sara Ruhe and Johnelle Mancha for  

Image above: One of Johnelle’s amazing transformations: a vintage settee gets a vibrant look with a vintage kilim rug.

Image above: Johnelle in her Berkeley shop, .

1. Repairs: Here are a few of the most common repairs you may find with vintage furniture, as well as the red flags you should look out for, and their solutions.

Problem: You find a piece, for example, a chest of drawers, but when you go to open them, the drawers are stuck/have a hard time opening.
Solution: A simple wa and light sanding to the underside of the drawer and to the rails can work miracles. You can simply remove the drawers and first lightly sand the rails with sandpaper, as well as lightly sand the underside of drawers. You can buy a small pack of 100-150 grit sandpaper for this. Then, dust off or vacuum, and then rub wax on the rails and the underside of the drawer itself where it hits the rails. We love  that also works miracles on lackluster wood exteriors. Simply lather a generous amount, then let sit, then go back and wipe off excess.

Problem: Your dining chair is wobbly or sways a bit when you sit in it. You love the chair itself, but fear it’s not stable!
Solution: One easy tip that we have done and do time and time again, is to insert recessed screws into joints of the chair. We don’t recommend this on PRISTINE antiques, but for chairs that have been painted or are just pieces you love and use — but aren’t your coveted antiques — this can be a simple and affordable solution. Anyone handy enough with a screw gun can do this. For most dining chairs, I typically suggest using a three-inch screw.

  • Simply screw the screws into the four joints of the top of the chair legs, where the chair seat meets the legs.
  • Turn the screw in far enough so it becomes slightly recessed.
  • Then, you can use a stainable wood filler to lightly fill the hole.
  • For excess wood fill after you apply, simply smooth out with a damp cloth.  Let it dry overnight.
  • Then, when dry, use a fine grit piece of sandpaper — we like to use 220 grit.
  • Lightly sand the wood fill hole, so it is smooth and flush to the chair design.
  • Dab with a similar stain color and/or paint over your piece. Either way, your chair will now be a ton more stable and back in business, and the fix will be faint.

Again, for pristine antiques, we suggest more in-depth ways of restoration that keep the overall integrity, but this approach is really great for newer pieces that need stabilizing or less valuable vintage pieces.

Problem: You find a beautiful wood piece with a ton of scratches or a few discolored and obvious markings to the stain that you are not happy about.
Solution: One trick of the trade that we love, is to simply use the two following products: for wood pieces that need a mini spa makeover, we love to use — it comes in a variety of stain colors, too. Use a dry cloth to rub over a piece, and let it sit, then lightly rub off excess. Another product we love with similar effects is .

Image above: “We loved the patina but again, due to the age, it was super dry, and the drawers did not open properly… we used some of the above techniques to bring it back to life,” Johnelle says.

Image above: “A couple examples of keeping it wooden, and simple, but hydrating and sanding/a little wa and TLC.”

2. Reupholster: At my shop, customers can bring in pieces that come from everywhere — from within the family to on the street — and have the team reupholster them. Here are my trusted tips for what to keep in mind:

A good reupholstery job is definitely something that requires a skilled crafts/tradesperson. It really is a profession in its own right! But for us designers and those with a good eye to see the beauty and potential in what a piece can become, working with a skilled upholsterer can be one of the most fun processes! We love that we get to work with our clients on redesigning their inherited gems, or on pieces they have picked up with big hopes and dreams. With upholstery, there are always a million ways to spin it, and when working on interior design projects with clients, we let their space dictate how wild we may go when it comes to the redesign.

For example, if a room already has lots of art or patterned rugs, etc., then going a little more timeless and neutral can be the key for fabric we suggest. However, if a room is more barren and simple, an upholstered statement piece may be what we dream up together.

Image above: “This client had two of these matching loveseats. They were going to go to two different residences that both screamed for some pattern and movement.”

3. Re-paint: Do you dare paint vintage furniture? Here are my tips to help you decide if painting is a good option for your item.

Re-painting a piece is more of a commitment, so choose your palette wisely.​ Again, we shy away from painting everything, or pristine antiques, but a little splash of color to a dated piece paired with new hardware can be fantastic. Also, a simple neutral with a vintage silhouette can be a great way to blend some soul into your decor.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Is the piece already painted? If so, it never hurts to paint over it again. If someone wants to refinish it completely or strip it, another layer to go through isn’t going to ruin it.
  • Is my piece really, really old? For example, you know your grandmother inherited it from her parents… it’s probably not the best piece to paint, and you may regret it since there is sentimental value.
  • On the flip side, if it has no sentimental value and isn’t super, super old, but is wooden, it might be fun to sand and revive.

Image above: “Our client had this NEWER 1990s Asian sideboard. Her space had no color. We made a splash.”

4. Re-stain: If you love the shape of something, but it’s damaged, or has a dated stain, re-staining it can make it feel fresh and modern again.  

Re-staining can take a lackluster piece and give it a whole new lease on life. Re-staining properly requires a lot of patience and time, and oftentimes you need to do the following:

  • Hand sand​ing a piece and/or using a power orbital sander for large flat areas.
  • Pre-conditioning wood for old and dry pieces.
  • Carefully applying a layer of new stain, letting it dry for 24 hours, reapplying, drying…continue until you have achieved the color of choice.
  • Then, sealing with a sealer. We prefer to use oil-based stains: though more meticulous, they produce lovely end results.

Image above: “One of our favorite recent transformations, we stained the frames a walnut color.”

5. Reimagine: You can always take a vintage piece and reuse it in a way that was different from how it was originally created.

Reimagining a piece in a new way is what we love, and all of the above techniques showcase this. However, sometimes reimagining can be even more simple than we think! Below we show how a recent acquisition of an antique daybed can be simply styled and reimagined in various ways.

Image above: “Using a vintage Beni Ourain Moroccan rug keeps the room light and airy.”

Image above: “Here we style the same daybed with darker tones, creating a completely reimagined look.”

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  • Would love to hear any feedback about how to get a piece reupholstered. I have a sectional sofa and arm chair that is in need of reupholstering but every time i reach out to the scant few upholsterers in brooklyn/queens I get no reply. Do folks come to your house to measure? Do you have to deliver the pieces or do upholsterers pick up? Do you meet in person to review fabrics or can you provide your own? One would think its easy enough to do anything in NYC but I fear its impossible without the help of an interior designer which I dont have the budget to hire.

    • Hi Jessica1

      It really depends on what situation you want. In NYC you can find people who will come to you to measure and do the work, some will come and pick up the sofa and take it for the time period they need to redo it. It also depends on whether or not you want a slipcover or to redo it directly on the frame…

      In general people provide their own fabrics and have them shipped to the upholsterer- unless it’s someone with their own design business in which case they may ask you to order through them.


      • In general, if you are providing your own fabric, except the price for the labour to be higher than if you were purchasing the fabric from them. Since the fabric you choose, without their help, may not be the easiest to work on, have pattern repeats that must be accounted for…, thus requiring extra time/energy on their part.

      • If you are choosing a fabric without a pattern these estimates are fine. However, the larger the repeat pattern the more fabric you will need. Small stripes and repeats require a bit more yardage, where as large stripes and repeats require a lot more.

  • Thanks so much for all these wonderful tips! I really enjoyed these pieces, especially the daybed! I refinish furniture just for DIY projects to refresh them for my own living spaces (some for friends and family) and I love learning things from those who are much more experienced than I am. I really like the ideas about painting vs. staining, as I have learned more about the value of certain pieces over the years and some should not be painted, but I’m not against painting some of them depending on the look and the shape they’re in.

  • Thanks so much Design Droits-Humains for sharing some of my tips! For anyone who has any other questions we are happy to help too, and can email us through our site:

  • Have nothing to add but would appreciate a ‘like’ button such as on WordPress…. this one really is gold and presented in a very accessible and sympathetic fashion!

    AND, often repeated, never with a reply: Why oh why can’t you provide us with already our ‘details’ pencilled in such as in many blogs…. Having to fill in EVERY single time all the info is often too tiresome so we don’t comment. Pity.

    • Hi Kiki

      You should be able to simply comment after logging in the first time. We designed it that way :)

      If it isn’t working for you, feel free to email me so I can help you troubleshoot within your browser.

      [email protected]

  • Amazing piece of information. I have been looking for repairing and re-designing old furniture of my home from a long time. Now, I can see a clear picture of my new renovated home. Thanks a lot!

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