Guest Post: How to Decorate Cheap and Green

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Over the last fifteen years of marriage, we’ve been slow to build our collection of furniture. I can think of just a handful of items that we’ve purchased new: our bed (now 12 years old), our dining room table (unfinished that we stained ourselves), my beautiful red sofa (purchased on clearance), my hope chest, the dresser that FishPapa built on our first anniversary, and the boys’ beds.

OK – that was more than a handful.

My point is that most everything else consists of hand-me-downs or Craigslist finds which have all worked beautifully. This morning’s post, from Jill, is particularly inspiring as she shows how to take hand-me-downs and other castoffs and transform them into beautiful pieces of furniture.

When we do this, we’re keeping large pieces of furniture from hitting the landfill and preventing the extra cost and resources involved in the manufacture of new pieces. Plus, it’s a frugal way to decorate. Can’t beat that!

Here’s Jill:

We all know how trendy “green” and “eco-friendly” products are these days. What makes me chuckle is how most people think these can only be acquired by large expenditures of cash — like the more you spend, the more environmentally responsible you are.

One area in which green seems to go overboard is in furniture. A piece made to environmentally friendly specifications often costs considerably more than “normal” furniture.

So how does one furnish her home without destroying our planet and breaking the bank? Why, by the cheapest and MOST environmentally friendly way — refurbishing furniture pieces that may have seen better days.

Such pieces can be secured from yard sales, thrift stores, or even your neighbor’s castoffs.In the area where I live, many of my neighbors seem to have a disposable lifestyle. Redecorating is rampant and once an item is tattered or worn, out to the curb it goes, often with a “free” sign. Through the years, I’ve found wool rugs, cushions, chairs, tables, bureaus, lawn furniture and more.

Not every piece of used furniture is a good find. How to tell the difference? Take a moment and inspect the piece. Is it sturdy? Older furniture is often made better than newer (cheap) furniture. I’ve found old bureaus with lovely dove-tailed drawers and old rocking chairs with solid springs. If the piece is upholstered, is the dirt just “surface” dirt? Unless you’re up for stripping and completely reupholstering, pass on items that smell musty or don’t look like they’re easily cleaned.

Wood furniture with scratches or a bad paint job can be saved by sandpaper and new paint. Rusty lawn furniture can be cleaned up and repainted, too. I’ve picked up tables and chairs with broken legs because my husband is fairly handy. If you don’t have basic woodworking skills, it’s best to pass on seriously damaged pieces.

A few basic skills are all you need to transform most used objects. If you’re not squeamish about cleaning dirt off and can sand and apply paint, you’re on your way to cheap decor.

Sanding and painting is one of the cheapest ways to re-do a piece. I use an electric sander, but a piece of sandpaper and a sanding block would also work. Start with a rough piece and gradually move to finer paper. When the surface is smooth enough for you, wipe off all your sandpaper dust and start painting. I prefer using a sponge brush but spray paint also works. Let the paint cure between coats (check the paint can for their recommended drying time), sand lightly again and apply another coat. Continue until the finish looks good. Add new knobs or pulls to update your find and you’re done!

Here are some examples of my finds:

A cast aside dining room cabinet —- very ugly and missing the shelves. (I had already removed the top and started to remove the doors before I took this photo.)With a crowbar (to pry off the ugly panels), paint, new pulls, and some new shelves, it is now a “science cabinet” and the highlight of our study.

This rocking chair is very dated and dirty.

With paint and some staple-gun upholstery, it is now a lovely addition to my “cottage” room.

A small broken table gets some glue and paint and becomes the perfect companion to my re-done rocker.

While I’ve learned several skills along the way, such as wood repair and reupholstery, I started with simple clean-up and paint. You can do this, too. Just find your starting point.

So, the next time you see an interesting piece at a garage sale, in a thrift store, or on the curb, pause for a moment and imagine the possibilities. If it’s sturdy and has a good shape or practical application, go for it! And while you’re sanding and painting or fixing and polishing, you can remind yourself that you’re furnishing your home in the most eco-friendly way possible.

– Jill Allen is a thrift and crafting mother of three and avid trash picker. Her treasures can be found on her website,

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  1. Using my “big girl words” ( I love that line above), Jill is a girl after my own heart. there is no reason to buy retail again. With a few tips like these, and just a bit of your time…it’s so worth it.

  2. Great post Jill! I loved the before and after photos. I’m a lot like you. All of our furniture has a story behind it.

  3. This inspires me! I am moving into my first home soon and I can’t wait to create some beautiful pieces out of old ones. Look out garage sales, here I come! 🙂

  4. What an inspiring post! I am trying to decorate parts of our house that have been long over due, and I have had a hard time letting go of the money to do it. I think you just gave me an answer to my problem! Thank you.