6 Tools You Need if You’re Thrifting Decor, According to a Thrifting Pro

published Aug 17, 2023
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If you want to furnish your home with one-of-a-kind pieces without spending a ton of money, shopping secondhand is the way to go. You can score all kinds of things by scouring thrift stores, antique malls, or garage sales. And while some items might be ready to use straight off the shelf — like art, for instance — other items might need a little bit of love to come back to life. Still others might be beyond saving. But it’s not always easy to tell the difference, and sometimes you need a little bit of an expert eye (along with some expert tools) to discern what’s doable and what’s not.

There aren’t many more qualified experts than Virginia Chamlee, the author of “Big Thrift Energy,” who’s also an artist and reseller for Chairish and 1stDibs. This thrifting queen has both an eye for great design — even when it’s hidden behind a layer of dust (or goopy price stickers) — and a when it comes to shopping secondhand.

Here, Chamlee shares her six must-haves in her thrifting toolkit. These are the items that help her make purchase decisions, get products home safely, and take those products from dingy to dreamy. The best part? These aren’t hard-to-find specialty items — they’re things you probably already own, or at least can find at any big-box store.

Read on to learn what Chamlee never thrifts without and how you can use those items to your advantage, whether you’re a zealous vintage shopper or just a casual secondhand browser. 

Keychain Tape Measure

Stop trying to “measure” furniture and decor by just looking at it. A regular tape measure is a great add to your shopping go-bag, but you can make things easier on yourself by picking up a mini keychain tape measure that’s easy to keep with you no matter what. This handy tool can help you figure out whether that table or chair actually fits into your life — and can even inform your shipping budget. 

“A keychain tape measure is great for determining whether something will fit in your car or your home and how much shipping costs will be if you plan on selling it,” Chamlee says.

Towels or Blankets 

What’s in your car trunk? If it’s a bunch of junk, now’s the time to introduce something more useful: Clean towels and blankets to keep your secondhand purchases safe. Don’t depend on the folks selling you your items to wrap them carefully, Chamlee advises. “Many thrift stores, flea markets, and estate sales don’t have the time to wrap up delicate items, so I just do it myself with what I have handy,” she says.

It’s probably not a bad idea to have a box handy, too, whether it’s cardboard or plastic — both can be a good way to keep smaller items like glassware from rolling around.

Goo Gone

Have you ever tried to scratch a price sticker off with your fingernail? It’s not exactly pleasant or efficient. Instead, take Chamlee’s advice and invest in a bottle of Goo Gone (under $10 on Amazon) to assist with the task. The adhesive remover works on anything sticky, including price tags, crayon marks, glue, and more. “Thrift stores are notorious for putting as many as six price tags on a single item,” Chamlee says. “Just spray the Goo Gone on and let it sit for a while, then wipe it off with a damp cloth.”

Cotton Swabs and Nail Polish Remover

Permanent marker scribbles might seem everlasting, but that’s only because you don’t know the secret for removing them. Say goodbye to written-on price tags with a simple combo of nail polish remover and cotton swabs.

“Thrift stores also often use Sharpie to write prices directly on an item — which is super annoying but totally removable!” Chamlee says. “For this, a cotton ball or swab dipped in nail polish remover will do the trick.”


Because Chamlee stains or paints a number of her vintage furniture and decor items, she keeps sandpaper on hand to smooth out the wood and prepare it for the process. “Painting an item is one of the easiest ways to give it a makeover, which is often needed when you’re purchasing something past its prime,” she says. “I always have gloves, sandpaper, staining supplies, and paint around.”

Mayonnaise (Yes, Really!) 

Heated debates on Hellmann’s vs. Duke’s aside, any brand of mayo is surprisingly useful when it comes to salvaging old furniture, Chamlee reveals. A dab of mayo on a soft cloth is often all you need to get rings and scratches out of wood — so don’t skip over buying a statement piece just because of a few marks.

“I found an incredible chrome and burled wood Milo Baughman side table for $9 at a Goodwill, and it was covered in water rings,” Chamlee says. “I dipped a cloth into mayonnaise and let it sit on the rings for a while. I guess the oil in the mayo works its magic and sort of frees up the stain. Yes, your house will smell like egg salad for a few days, but it really works!”