9 Ways to Make Cheap Furniture Last Forever

published May 27, 2020
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living room decorated with grey sofa, armchair, retro commode and posters on the wall
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Finding an adorable piece of furniture at a reasonable price can feel like such a win—until it gets banged up within days of going on display, and your eye can’t stop being drawn back to that wobbly table or dinged-up bookshelf. The truth is, lower cost materials like particle board and plastic do tend to show wear and tear more quickly than higher-priced materials like wood or metal. But that doesn’t mean that furniture made from these cheaper materials can’t last you a really long time; it’s all about how you treat it.

But professional furniture refurbishers and seasoned DIYers have some tricks up their sleeves when it comes to prolonging the life budget pieces. From swapping out legs to eliminate a wobble and give an item a fresh look, to a wood glue hack that could breathe new life into that IKEA shelving unit you’ve been carting around since college, these are the best tips, tricks, skills, and tools they had to offer.

So read on, but only if you’re prepared to bask in a flurry of compliments about that cheap (but well-loved!) piece of furniture that you’d previously relegated to a dark, unused corner.

Replace the legs

Take it from Jodi Bond of @houseonasugarhill: You never need to be satisfied with the legs that come already installed on budget pieces. “One easy tip when remodeling furniture is to pay attention to things that could easily be switched out on the piece to give it a fresh look,” says Bond. She recommends Scandinavian-style legs from Prettypegs, a store literally designed to help you upgrade the legs of your IKEA furniture.

Upgrade your hardware

Brooke Christen of @nestingwithgrace notes that “one thing that sets inexpensive furniture apart is the quality of the hardware.” So if you want to trick folks into thinking that you paid a lot more for that dresser than you did—as well as give your fingers something a little more substantial to grasp—upgrading the hardware is an easy fix. “I love to find unique knobs and pulls that not only make an ordinary piece prettier, but also serve and function much longer than cheaper alternatives,” Christen says. She’s also quick to note that you don’t have to bust your budget. “When we installed a little IKEA shoe shelf as a pantry in our old kitchen, I took thrifted leather belts to create custom pulls and added a stained wood top to the piece to extend its life and make it special.”

Credit: Alena Gamm/EyeEm/Getty Images

Build once, and limit rebuilds

This may seem like a no-brainer, but for prefab or flatpack furniture, do your best to build it and take it apart as few times as possible. Every time you break the piece down, you run the risk of widening the holes and making the structure wobbly, so even if you’re moving to a new space, try to transport any particle board pieces as-is.

Stabilize drill holes

If you do happen to widen a drill hole, Kelly Sharp of British vintage boutique Thriftys Retro has a quick fix to banish any wobbles. “Use a chopstick or small wooden dowel to fill large drill holes that have become wobbly,” she says. “Push the wood into the hole, secure with wood glue, and saw off the excess. Once it’s dry, then re-drill the hole—it’s a great solution for wonky or broken kitchen cabinet doors.”

Stock up on wood filler

For Christina Muscari of @prettydistressed, there’s one particular product she never likes to be without, especially when it comes to budget furniture: “Wood filler is your best friend when dealing with dented or scratched furniture,” she says, advising that DIYers search for one that’s stainable and/or paintable, so the mended area is sure to match the rest of the item. 

Give particle board a boost

But even if you can’t get your hands on any wood filler, Sharp has another solution that works particularly well for particle board. “To extend the life of particle board items, Use polyvinyl acetate (PVA) glue to fill holes and cracks. It dries clear, so it can be poured directly into the damaged area and left to dry.” And whatever you do, don’t shell out for expensive PVA glue. “You can pick up a good-sized bottle of glue from the pound shop,” Sharp notes. (That’s the dollar store, for those of us living stateside.)

Update your finish

Anytime Muscari gets tired of looking at a certain piece, she doesn’t despair, because she knows her stock of furniture paint means an update is well within reach. “A great way to keep your furniture feeling current is updating it with a new finish. Chalk-like furniture paint is an easy way to take an old dresser and give it a fresh new look,” she says. It works especially well for flat-pack furniture, which tends to have a slick finish that makes painting it tricky. Chalky paint doesn’t require priming or sanding before it goes on (though a quick buff with some sandpaper won’t hurt).

For pieces that are starting to show dings and nicks, try contact paper on their surfaces instead. It’ll help mask imperfections and prevent new ones, too.

Add a coat of spray paint

For Muscari, some of the best solutions are also the easiest and most cost-effective, like applying a layer of cheap, easy to use spray paint. “Another top tip for extending the life of a furniture piece is by breathing new life into it with a coat of spray paint. You can change the feel and make something look amazing again with just a couple coats of $6 spray paint,” she says.

Sharp agrees, noting that she’s used spray paint to update all manner of furniture and hardware. “Everything from kitchen cupboards, to wall and floor tiles, clocks, picture frames, furniture feet, and bathrooms,” Sharp says. “Just remember to keep the room ventilated while using and make sure you tape off any area you don’t want to be painted.”

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Expand to upholstery

There’s no need to limit your paint to traditional surfaces like particle board, plastic, or wood. For upholstery fabric that’s in good condition but showing signs of fading, Sharp has a surprising recommendation: chalk paint. “Choose your new color chalk paint, and mix some up in a plastic container with about half that quantity of water and mix really well. Then, paint two coats directly onto the fabric, allowing it to dry completely in between,” she says. “Once the fabric is completely dry, work some clear chalk paint wax all over the painted area, and buff it to a soft sheen. This will protect the paint and make it stain and water resistant.”