simple tips on buying a vintage sofa

Well, anyone who has been reading here for a while probably knows about my history with sofas.

A little tragic… a lot triumphant.

When we make mistakes, we change our policies for what really works for us in our home. Our home is like a rough draft that we gradually edit and revise until it’s just right. Sometimes those revisions are an entire page. Sometimes they’re a tiny line.

wailing+gnashing_of_teeth

It kind of happens when you take a risk, right? There’s always a chance that it might not work out, whether we realize it or not. {See: Epic search for the perfect sofa with English rolled arms ending in the biggest slipcover catastrophe of all time.)

There was gnashing of teeth. And bereaved planking.

And in the meantime, we purchased this beautiful find off of Craigslist.

sofa_together_before_and_AfterWe had him reupholstered and named him Duncan. Duncan was happy.

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But the other night I fell asleep on Duncan. And woke up to Jamin sitting down on one end (the right cushion) of said happy sofa to wake me. We heard a snap and we both took a tumble.

If I could play it in slow motion, I’m pretty sure Jamin rolled to the ground in what felt like a two story fall. And I went sideways because I realized what was happening. First I was all, groggy, and then I was all, Noooooooooooooo, in a really deep octave, slow mo voice while I pulled some weird ninja spazoid move to take my weight off the sofa. I nearly threw my hip out of joint all in the name of preventing further damage.  

And I then I landed, after doing three somersaults and a cartwheel half way across the room, sputtering incoherently that Jamin was a fatty. I’ve always been known for my flair for the dramatic.

That is completely unrelated to this incident.

sofa_leg

Um, yeah. That would be an entire leg that snapped off of our sofa.

Somewhere, somehow, for some reason… I have angered the sofa gods.

They.

Hate.

Me.

more_bereaved_planking

Upon further inspection, we realized that this was fresh wood, and the legs didn’t even match. Nice.

Somewhere along the line (and I’m not saying it was the previous owners) this leg was replaced. With pine, of all things.

duncan_injured

So this happened. It is what it is. (Yes, I did tape him off. The littles forget when pieces are off limits.)

Hindsight (after lasik) is (supposed to be) 20/20. (See what I did there?) After living with a vintage sofa for a few years, paired with the oh so dangerous combo of young children, {see: slightly exhausting learning curve} here’s a few things I would definitely look for in the future on the hunt for a new old addition to our home in the sofa category. So without further ado…

missing_sofa_leg

1. Make sure that sofa is sturdy. It’s as simple as that. This sofa was comfy when I sat on it, and that was what I was focused on. But I had no idea how wobbly and old and un-strudy it was until we were home with it. I think that in the moment, I was blinded by the shape, price, and prospect of great design.

Check out all the joints of the wood. Is it cracked? Has it been repaired in the past? Are there signs of that? This isn’t a huge deal with say, a dresser that you intend to paint and let it store things in the corner. But with a staple piece like a sofa and a young family, you need it to work for you. It holds your body weight. It holds multiple body weights and then some. This can be a big deal.

I was enamored by what Duncan could be, and the vision of him sitting prettily in my living room. For design lovers everywhere who can relate, that’s easy to be distracted by. We have three children but for the most part, they know how to behave. In the process of two years, the arms have snapped and the frame is very lose. I thought that Duncan was a forever piece, and while I still want to keep him and have his leg repaired, I wonder if he will last that much longer.

mismatched_sofa_legs

2. Take a good long look. If I had paid attention, I would have realized that these legs don’t match at all. They’re in the back, and basically hidden. So it took us this long to notice, but it can make a difference later. {See: me wakened awkwardly from a sleep and launched into awkward sputtering ninja stealth mode.} The wood and stain are different. Who knows when this leg was replaced? Be sure to investigate. Going into someone’s home can be awkward and I really don’t want to poke around and get on all fours like a dog and act like a total weirdo while I wobble their furniture back and forth. Seriously people, if I could do it all over again, I would have paid attention.

3. Know when the risks outweigh the benefits. The added cost of fabric, an upholsterer, someone who can work on the frame, as well as the added stress of repairs down the road because your investment piece gave out… How much work does it really need? How much are you willing to put up with? Know what you’re getting into and the quality of the piece, before you take the dive.

All of these are fix-able problems. I am rather attached to Duncan, and will be working on an as-necessary basis to keep him around. He may be relocated for less use. People say you pay for what you get, and I think this can be true on a case to case basis. On this sofa, I have a feeling I can forever put money into him and he will never be as good as new. But I believe one should always keep this in mind when it comes to key pieces in the home.

Also, consider the practicality factors, as well. I can’t say that when a large man sits on my sofa I don’t have absolute heart palpitations because I can hear that sofa creaking from across the room with his every move. It’s like fingers down a chalkboard for me, and suddenly I’m that person. I don’t want to be insulting or a bad hostess and ask him to relocate, so I sweat it out in the corner and pray silently that said sofa doesn’t break with him in it. I have bigger problems to worry about then to be sweating it out every time someone comes over. I guess one might say I now have severe sofa anxiety. I wanted this sofa to be used. I didn’t want to turn into a stress bucket.

duncan

I’d never owned a very old staple piece like this before… thus the learning curve. I feel like I’ve earned my decorating badges of honor, and will continue to… I’m pretty much a master failure in the ridiculous sofa accumulations category. One project at a time. I guess it all comes down to learning from your mistakes, no matter what they are.

Creating a home isn’t all rainbows and gumdrops and flying unicorns. Sometimes, it’s about the risk. And broken sofas. And weird encounters in stranger’s homes where we crawl around and ask odd questions. We do very much love our antique sofa. It’s just a work in progress. Forever. FOR. EV. VER.

Duncan will be touch and go, but we still love him. (If I can ever get back up from my sofa mourning position.) I hope sharing our experiences will help any of you who may be shopping for an old sofa. It is worth it, it’s just a little more maintenance than your usual run of the mill picks. But that’s what keeps it interesting, right?

I’ll keep telling Jamin that.

What’s something you’ve learned from shopping for old furniture? Any of you guys owned an old sofa? How about sofa remorse in the general arena of home decor? I think at some point in your life, you’re bound to suffer from it whether it’s a regrettable purchase (remember our leather monsters?) or a shrunken slipcover…  ;} I’d love to hear how not alone I am.

Have an inspired day, y’all!

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PSSST! Don’t miss our big sale this next Saturday. Check it out at the end of this post, here. {located in Montgomery, Alabama!}

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26 Responses to simple tips on buying a vintage sofa

  1. Erin Billups says:

    Duncan is definitely worth fighting for! I recently bought two antique sitting chairs. My hubs has sat in both, but it still makes me nervous and I think I may title them lady only chairs. I got a great deal and wanted to try my hand at upholstery for the first time. The arms on one were cracked, but seem pretty sturdy after some hefty wood glue application. I know I could resell them for more if we decide they are too nerve wracking now that they aren’t covered in fabric that looked like it was woven from cat hair. Sometimes we take risks for the look we love. It did seem like the sofa gods had forgiven you for whatever wrong you had done against them when they allowed the chesterfield to enter your home. If anything ever happens to that thing I think it’s time for some serious repenting.

  2. He’s great sofa, I hope he can be fixed. We have all vintage sofa’s too and I love the sturdiness, but occasionally we’ll hear a spring or two groan at us. If anything you could chop all of the legs off and make him a low rider :)

  3. I usually just buy old tables, dressers, and chairs. If I cannot open a drawer, or there is damaged pieces, I assume the piece is not up to par. I do not want to have to repair anything. I am not a carpenter.

  4. Bekki says:

    Poor Duncan, At least it can be fixed and you can continue to use him. I had a lovely old sofa that my room mate and I recovered in a beautiful linen fabric when we were in college. It lived with me for many years and then one day I sat down to nurse my third child and the springs gave way underneath me. It was a sad day when it went to the curb as it could not be fixed. To this day we still have not replaced it and I continue to live with very ugly hand me downs that have no legs. Someday I hope to get new sofas but there always seems to be something else more important.

  5. Cindy says:

    Ha! Bereaved planking is so much fun.

    I’ve never owned an old sofa, but I have lately I have tried to take more risks in decorating choices. Some of them have worked, some haven’t. Because I can so easily become paralyzed by the possibility-of-the-worst-case scenario, it’s key for me to remember that the worst-case scenario isn’t really that bad. If I wait (and wait) (and wait and wait and wait) for the perfect piece (usually backed by the argument, “I don’t want to end up regretting this purchase and wasting my money), I end up not buying anything at all. SO not helpful.

    It’s a balance, isn’t it? There are good reasons and bad reasons for pulling the trigger on a purchase, and there are good reasons and bad reasons for saying, “No thank you.” Am I holding off on buying because I’m scared it’s not right, or am I holding off on buying because I KNOW it’s not right?

    Thanks for keeping it real!

  6. Kelsey Cafferky says:

    Oh Ashley how sad!!! Duncan is gorgeous and I would fix him and put him in a less used spot…how about in your master bedroom to stylishly hold laundry? ;) I wanted to ask a question because we are researching to buy a new sectional. We need an L shaped huge sectional for our new house…it’d fit so perfectly and be nice and roomy (we have guests and entertain a lot). We want a leather sectional…brown bomber jacket color…kinda broken in looking…but NO pillow arms…no 90s look….no recliners!! Have you seen such a sofa? Oh and I should mention that we will not be spending ALL our kiddos college funds on said sofa. Any suggestions would be majorly appreciated!!!! Sorry if this is the wrong place to post this question but you reminded me. :)

  7. Lisa says:

    Oh my, I completely hear you on the whole getting nervous when a big man sits on a dainty piece of furniture – I’m the same way! My dad’s side of the family are like bulls in china cabinets and I’m pretty sure I chew my nails off every time they visit (I need help). LOVE Duncan btw…he’s worth fighting for :)

  8. Nancy says:

    How much was it to get that re-upholstered?

  9. donna says:

    You have my deepest condolences on Duncan but reading about your ninja skills and muttering about your husband’s weight… I was crying I was laughing so hard.

  10. Jayne says:

    I laughed I cried, this was a great post!!!! I have all vintage/antique pieces in my living room and have been lucky that all are standing up to three sons and four cats. But when we bought the sofa and love seat from a consignment shop we went to look at it four times until I was assured it would hold up. The thorn in my side is finding a queen size bed that doesn’t have issues! Every bed I’ve ever bought, antique or new has had structural issues, I’m ready to just put the Tempur-pedic directly on the floor and call it a night!

  11. Ashley Baltes says:

    I have lots of antique wooden furniture and grew up sleeping in an old hand made bed. When you’re using furniture like this on a continual basis, my recommendation is to know a good repairman. (I did actually end up tumbling out of my bed once when a side rail split!) If it’s old enough, it will eventually need repair. My philosophy is that a lot of that stuff is made out of nicer wood (old forest wood, beautiful grain), I like to think of it as recycling 0:), and the majority of the furniture is better quality than what you can buy nowadays for the same price (I’m a sucker for dove tailing and interlocking joints). I find repairing beautiful pieces like that are worth it. :)

  12. Oh, he’s lovely. My only sofa-related remorse resulted from me being a huge chicken. I bought brown slipcovers for my sofa and easy chair because we have little kids and the brown wouldn’t show the dirt but honestly I think the dirt would have been much prettier than the horrid awful mud-colored travesty that now sits in my living room. Follow your hearts, people. Buy the pretty slipcovers. Carpe diem.

  13. Sara Iles says:

    Oh sad day. Poor Duncan.
    I currently possess and LOVE my great grandmothers sofa. Dark wood, awesome green velvet, curvy back – she is glorious! But I have no clue how old she is. And I decided when we got her that I was going to use her and enjoy her. So we have. I do get nervous when my delightfully wonderful husband plops down to read or study or eat a bowl of honey nut cherrios. I wish I had more background knowlege for the sofa. If you have any maintenance suggestions for old furniture, PLEASE share!

  14. Jenifer says:

    Oh blessed soul! How I hurt FOR you! :( Duncan is lovely. Pure lovely. I must say, if given the choice, I’d rather be stuck with a broken beauty than the big brown bear that has taken over our living room. You are not alone in your sofa debacle. Big brown bear is comfy, functional and nice looking, however he is BROWN. Brown, brown, go away. Don’t ever come back. Ever.

  15. I’m sorry but I have laughed hysterically reading this post. I feel your pain as the sofa is beautiful but the image of your husband rolling to the ground and you doing some ninja like moves to get off Duncan….well it is nice to see you have a sense of humor about the entire thing.

  16. Tennille Mykula says:

    All I have to say is that is a crazy, huge bummer. I really hope you can get it fixed. Duncan is a beaut!

  17. Elizabeth G says:

    Hi Ashley! This is my first time posting a comment here. I love your blog! You have so many great ideas! I have to tell you my heart sank when I read about Duncan. :( I have a Duncan of my own that I inherited from my grandfather. That thing was so ugly when I got it (looked like a cat lady sofa), but I ended up reupholstering it in a fabric similar to the one you used on your Duncan. Your before&after Duncan post inspired me! I had to have my cushions upgraded because the originals were spring cushions and hard as rocks. Seriously not fun to watch a movie on a hard as rocks sofa! I first became addicted to old furniture when I found myself on my maiden visit to an antique store. I ended up buying this chair that had the springs hanging out of the bottom for $80. I fell head over heels in love with the claw feet, the curved back and the general “ladylike” feel of the chair. I stashed it in the shed until I could get it reupholstered and repaired. Luckily, the guy that reupholstered it said the frame was actually very sturdy and was able to replace everything else. I still love that chair. It sits in the corner of my bedroom and I just can’t see myself ever getting rid of it. I do think I’ve been lucky though when it comes to buying old furniture. I am definitely not an expert, but I am a total question asker! It’s probably obnoxious actually, but I want to know what I’m getting, you know? Anyways, I hope you can find a way to save Duncan. You just can’t buy that kind of piece brand new today (well, maybe you can, but it would probably cost a pretty penny!) :)

  18. Aubrey says:

    I have not had any sofa issues, but I did go through a phase where I could not decide what I wanted for a kitchen table. My friends mocked me every time they saw my latest set on the online Buy N Sell! Sold the solid pine set handed down from husband’s Grandpa (it was awful). Then I bought a new set with the intention to paint it that lovely antique white and recover the cushions. On further inspection, the reupholstering was outside of my grasp. Then I bought a huge, solid wood, beautiful table set. Which my husband hated due to the chair cushion’s discomfort. Ugh! So I got a set from my friend that is sturdy, pretty and fits the bill, even if it isn’t the gorgeous antique white piece with character I want. That will wait for when we move to a bigger place!

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  20. Poor Duncan! He does have some great design going on there. I haven’t owned an old sofa before but I will definitely remember this next time I’m thinking about it! Hope you can get him all fixed up!

  21. Mindy says:

    Sorry for the loss of the Duncan’s limb (I was a medical transcriptionist for years so a leg is a limb to me…) but your take on it is hilarious. I can just picture the whole incident and now the crime scene tape…you made my day! I know we take a chance with vintage but how can we not? I have never owned a vintage sofa though we had what became fondly known as the “rickity” table whose top would follow the direction of the hand placed on it for rest. It was the first thing I passed on to my daughter and son in law. They love me : )

  22. Tasha says:

    If that leg is irreparable, would you consider chopping off the other back leg and replacing with two bun feet or some lovely and perhaps rather simple coordinating back legs? That couch is worth saving!

  23. Heather Perrin says:

    Seriously, I love your blog. You are quite fluent in wit and I love your style. How can I subscribe?

  24. Laura G says:

    I have a Duncan of my own – unrestored, as yet – and found your blog while trying to determine if my hasty, love blind craigslist purchase is worth saving. I’m not sure sure if this answered my question, but it was an enjoyable read, and I acutely feel your pain.