Flea Market Finds: The Good, The Bad and The Funky

Could you score a flea market find, polish it up with finesse, and turn it into a gem, à la Flea Market Flip contestants? As Kenny Rogers (and Lara Spencer) would say, you gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold (or, you know, upcycle) ‘em, know when to walk away—and know when to run. Read on for tips on what to trash and what to treasure.

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1. Good: A dining chair with an upholstered seat

A pop-out seat is a newbie DIYer’s dream project: Removing, replacing, and restapling fabric couldn’t be simpler, you might need as little as half a yard of fabric to get the job done, and the change has instant impact. 

2. Good: Colored glass

There’s nothing wrong with matchy-matchy sets, but starting a collection of individual pieces that belong to the same color family and have their own shapes is much more fun (and can be significantly less expensive). 

3. Good: Ornate hardware

If you don’t fancy heaving an entire dresser into the back of your car (but daydream about customizing a large piece at some point), keep your eyes peeled for antique and vintage hardware; who says you can’t put the knob before the drawers? 

4. Good: Furniture with “good bones”

You can’t do much with a piece that isn’t sturdy—more on that later—and there isn’t much you can’t do, in turn, with something that has good bones (which is why flea-market regulars repeat that term like a mantra). 

5. Good: Brand-name furniture

When you’re giving a piece the once-over, check its underside for a maker’s label; if you find a high-end brand name like Kittinger, Baker, Stickley, Ethan Allen, or Drexel Heritage, you can feel confident that you’re looking at a well-made item. 

6. Good: Vintage postcards and photographs

Like beautiful old hardware, vintage paper goods can hang around a bit while you figure out what to do with them; they’re often sold cheaply and in bulk, and they can come in handy as everything from craft supplies (think découpage and high-contrast liners for shelves and shadow boxes) to large-scale graphic art (such as a gallery wall comprised of miniature scenes).

7. Bad: Lighting in need of serious TLC

Older electrical fixtures reward treasure hunters with a lot of time and expertise to spare (since, for safety’s sake, they should almost always be rewired). If you think you’ve found a magic lamp, be prepared for what could be an extensive project (or an additional spend, since you’ll be hiring a genie to fix it). 

8. Bad: Glass-less picture frames in non-standard sizes

Framing shops stock and sell inexpensive sheets of glass with common dimensions (like 4”x6” and 5”x7”); custom-cut sheets, on the other hand, can get costly. Of course, if the upcycling project you have in mind (or the item you’d like to display) won’t require glass, pounce on that bare frame and repurpose away! 

9. Bad: Money-pit upholstery projects

If you’ve got a furniture pro on speed-dial (or have developed master-level reupholstering skills of your own), fixer-upper pieces with labor-intensive details like welting and tufting and less-than-lovely fabric can be fabulous. If you don’t, know that a sofa can gobble up 20 yards of new fabric—or more, if you’re trying to line up a large pattern—and that you’ll pay a pretty penny for the time and TLC your find will require.

10. Bad: Cracked or broken legs

Scuffs can be sanded, solid wood can be stripped and refinished, and all kinds of blemishes will disappear under a few coats of paint; damage to a piece’s structure, on the other hand, can’t be wished away or ignored, no matter how low its asking price might be. Step away from that seriously wobbly settee. 

11. Bad: A pest-ridden piece

If an upholstered chair is sitting out on the sidewalk with someone’s trash, chances are good that it is trash; do not run the risk of bringing cushion-cranny critters like bed bugs home by scooping it up from the curb! Bed bugs can also hide in case goods and books; when inspecting a prospective piece, keep your eyes peeled for their droppings (which look like dots from a felt-tipped brown or black marker). 

12. Bad: A cheap find that doesn’t make your heart sing

Don’t pull out your wallet just because a piece seems like a bargain; if it doesn’t speak to you, you’re trading good money for a bad buy (and you’ll be that much poorer when you stumble across something you love). 

13. Funky: An old door (repurposed as a tabletop or interior sliding door)

With a custom-cut pane of glass and the magic of light carpentry, a salvaged door can have a second life as a coffee or dining table top; with hanging hardware and a mounted track, in turn, it can bring texture to a hallway or closet. 

14. Funky: Industrial objects

With a bit of imagination, heavy-duty pieces that began life a factory floor or attached to heavy-duty machinery can be displayed on their own (a propeller on the wall), converted into accent pieces (a massive spool as a coffee table), or even repurposed entirely (a filing cabinet as a home bar). That’s what we call progress.

15. Funky: Vintage luggage (repurposed as a side table)

In well-worn leather or covered with stickers from previous ports of call, old suitcases can be stacked into a side table or night stand (and hidden storage) as is. If their exteriors aren’t quite ready for a close-up, quick coats of primer and chalk paint can cast valises in an entirely new light.

16. Funky: Shoemaking supplies (repurposed as coat hooks)

Just as nearly anything that can be stacked can be turned into a table (see: the suitcases in the previous slide, books, vintage fruit crates, defunct amplifiers...), nearly anything that can be securely attached to the wall can be part of a bespoke coat rack (shoe forms, boat cleats, reclaimed spools, soda fountain taps...). You get the idea. Don’t be shy.