DIY furniture projects: is it worth it?

August 8, 2019
reupholstery project | reading my tea leaves

My living room, which is to say, the entirety of my apartment, is a mess of loveseat innards. There are rolls of burlap and wool batting on the bed. There are the raggedy remains of upholstery on the floor. There are staples doing their best to make their presence known with every step I take.

For me, to tackle a DIY furniture project is to acknowledge my simultaneous possession of patience and naïveté. No one suffers through pulling a thousand staples out of a sofa without an outsized helping of patience. And no one aggressively dismantles a sofa with only the sketchiest of plans what to do next, without a certain amount of childlike confidence. I’m both determined and foolhardy.

Readers often ask me what makes tackling a project myself worth it. And it’s a question I ask myself before every project, too. When I break down the materials and woman-hours and the toll and benefits of sheer frustration and ultimate triumph, it becomes nearly impossible to measure. Is it worth it? The answer changes with every project. But here are a few general rules of thumb that I follow for my own peace of mind:

Start with free: I’ve tackled lots of furniture projects in my life. All of the furniture that I’ve invested time and money into have been finds that were free or otherwise extremely inexpensive—secondhand dining chairs, a sidewalk-found dresser, a forgotten chair from the attic, our headboard. Starting with something I’ve gotten for nothing makes the additional investment of time and materials, not to mention the risk, feel especially worth it.

Use simple materials: With the exception of always trying to use the best quality paint that I can, I try to stick to humble materials when approaching DIY projects. Simple drawer pulls and cotton clothesline, for instance, come at price points that make a bit of trial and error and the risk of failure feel okay. For my first upholstery project, I’m using canvas drop cloths instead of upholstery fabric that can cost hundreds of dollars a yard.

Embrace imperfection: If you’re not a trained furniture maker, chances are you’re going to make mistakes. Full disclosure: I mis-measured one of my crates earlier this week and one of the handles is off-center by an inch. Oh, well. If you’re someone who’s seeking perfection no matter what, better to hand off a project to a professional. (Even then: brace yourself.) If you’re someone who loves a challenge and can accept the chance that you might need to learn to love a wonky crate, do it yourself.

Consider condition and use: As much as I believe that throwing caution to the wind is what allows me to tackle projects in the first place, I also think it’s helpful to think about the work I ultimately need the furniture to perform. When I started looking at bunk beds for my kids, I was determined to embrace a DIY project using secondhand bunks. But the more I looked into the materials I’d need, the time it would take, and the function I ultimately needed it to serve, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk or the investment. The loveseat project on the other hand, is much more low-stakes. The piece itself was bought a dozen years ago by my sister, on sale from a lovely furniture company in Austin, Texas, whose name has long since been forgotten. It was a floor model when she bought it and in the ensuing years it’s lived in a minimum of four apartments and two offices. It’s traversed the continent and the boroughs of this city. It shows the signs of age and love, which is to say, it’s in pretty rough shape. Still, it retains elements of its original artistry and materials—FSC hardwoods and latex rubber and wool batting that still bears a distinct sheepyness all these years later. We had it slipcovered a few years ago, but the tearing of the original upholstery underneath had gotten too bad to ignore and my childrens’ daily dismantling of the slipcover was driving me crazy. $35 of canvas drop cloths and a million woman-hours later…I’m still confident it will be worth it.

Weigh priorities: Many DIY projects require a significant investment of time. Last year when I rebuilt and refinished my kid’s dresser, the project took me nearly a week of working very long hours. It would have certainly been faster to go to Ikea and buy a new dresser. Once factoring in my own hours, it would have also been far cheaper. But I really loved that wonky old dresser and I knew I wouldn’t find one like it in a store; certainly not one that I could afford. This isn’t a choice everyone would (or could!) make, but it’s something to keep in mind. Does tackling a project yourself mean ending up with something you love? For me, this almost always makes it worth it.

Is that helpful? Any fellow DIY-ers out there? How do you determine if something is worth it?

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  • Reply Brit Harris August 8, 2019 at 12:14 pm

    I always leave your sight feeling inspired! Looking forward to seeing what you create!

  • Reply Becca August 8, 2019 at 1:07 pm

    Years ago when my now husband and I moved in together, I spent a week straight refinishing a wooden dresser in our new living room. Every night my husband would unpack and organize and make dinner while I stripped the wood, sanded, stained, and painted. The time investment was crazy, we had to drive for an hour to even pick the thing up from a craigslist post, and it delayed us fully unpacking into our new apartment by about 10 days. It was worth it for a few reasons: we were broke and I managed to make it less expensive than even an IKEA dresser would be, I had always wanted to try it, and I wanted something not cookie-cutter in our new apartment.

    This year, five years later, I’ve been trying to decide if I should refinish our dining room chairs myself or outsource. I’m leaning toward outsourcing because: my time is worth a lot more than it was five years ago and there are other things I’d rather do, the dresser came out about 85% as good as I’d ideally like it to be and I’m not confident in my ability to be much better with the chairs, and most importantly these chairs are family heirlooms from my great great grandmother! If I invest in the (significant) cost of getting them fully repaired and refinished be a professional, I’ll extend their life much longer than I can do myself, and they’ll be good to stand up to babies and toddlers in a few years.

    I think I just convinced myself! Your point about the stakes (ie safety, ruining an heirloom) was clarifying. Off to research professionals!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE August 8, 2019 at 1:46 pm

      So glad! And so important to remember the labor costs and how that impacts the total cost. Even if you’re not paying yourself, that’s still an investment worth weighing!

      • Reply Teri C. August 10, 2019 at 5:38 pm

        Can you share the brand of drop cloths you used and where you got them? All drop cloths are not created equally and yours look lovely!

        • Reply ERIN BOYLE August 11, 2019 at 10:25 am

          I got mine at the hardware store down the street! I didn’t note the brand before I threw away the label! But I know they were heavy duty!

  • Reply Kathleen August 8, 2019 at 1:14 pm

    I just completed my first DIY woodworking project and it was so satisfying. I built a picture rail/hook rail for my kids’ bathroom. I’ve been wanting to improve my handy-woman skills so I enlisted the help of my dad to teach me the basics of using a hand-drill and miter saw, how to plan and measure my project, and how to install it. He taught me a bunch but I did all of it with my own two hands. It took a lot of time for something seemingly so simple but I feel so great whenever I walk into their bathroom and see it hanging on the wall. Plus, it was really fun to do a project with my dad (I could have asked my husband to help but that’s not the best dynamic in our marriage – anyone else have a hard time taking instructions from their spouse?? – and I was happy to have my dad teach me). Now I’m hoping I can make something similar for our half-bath and maybe this time I’ll be be able to do it all on my own. Can’t wait to see your newly upholstered loveseat!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE August 8, 2019 at 1:44 pm

      Yes! So, so satisfying to learn the new skill AND enjoy the fruits of your labor!

      • Reply Kim B. August 10, 2019 at 2:32 am

        And to have the quality time with dad, who I am sure was delighted to be asked by his daughter for this skills education!

    • Reply Mary W August 24, 2019 at 9:27 am

      You aren’t the only one who has a hard time with instructions from your spouse. When it comes to projects, my husband and I are speaking two different languages. After 25+ years, we’ve finally developed a system where we have long discussions before we embark on even the simplest project. It was always much easier working with my dad.

  • Reply Amélie Mancini August 8, 2019 at 1:16 pm

    I have done my fair share of DIY home projects and I also knit and sew and I ask myself this question all the time! The answer is not only that I will have something completely custom and unique in the end but I will also feel pride and always remember how I felt and what life was like whenever I look at the finished thing (shelves, chairs, sweater, shirt, etc) even years later. Also it’s a good reminder of the amount of work it takes to create something and how much labor goes into the stuff we use daily, whether made by us or not. Of course there’s a learning curve and one should set realistic goals but you have your whole life to get better and better at it!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE August 8, 2019 at 1:42 pm

      YES, YES, YES!

  • Reply MissEm August 8, 2019 at 1:32 pm

    Loved reading this. It makes my DIY ideas feel more possible (and helps me be more realistic about the how and why). I also love how DIYs get laden with a story and a memory right from the outset. I designed and my husband and I made some little under the bed boxes when our first child was born, since we were in a one bedroom with no room for a dresser anywhere. Those three little boxes and a couple of shelves were her “dresser” and I now use them as my dresser 8 years later, and when I stop to consider them I am instantly taken back to her babyhood and the weeks before her birth when we were picking out stain colors and trying to figure out how to assemble these wonky things together while we waited to be first time parents.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE August 8, 2019 at 2:03 pm

      yes, yes!

  • Reply Janean August 8, 2019 at 1:33 pm

    I think it’s combination of curiosity and confidence. Last year I reupholstered six chairs. I bought them secondhand and the 1940s webbing, padding and fabric needed some serious work. (For the curious: I actually kept the padding – known as the “cake” – for historical value. It is made out of wood, coconut and hair!) The materials cost half the quote I received from a pro which felt like a bargain. But the labor was long and hard. It took me three months to complete, with many breaks between. I even had to add extra padding to one chair not long ago. That said, I have no regret. The process was interesting, educational and encouraging. Which was not how I was feeling when removing the 1,832th tack nail with my blistered hands, btw! Good luck with the sofa – you’ll be proud to announce your work to every person within 10 feet.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE August 8, 2019 at 1:41 pm

      Haha, totally feel this (literally, as I type with blistered fingers)!

  • Reply Anna August 8, 2019 at 3:51 pm

    I’ve yet to tackle diy furniture refurbishment, but beyond that I love to do and make many things myself. I, too, approach things with little worry for perfection and the feeling that I can usually figure out how to make it work and it is an approach I am happy to see more people taking. The magic (and frustration) and satisfaction of being a part of the things you eat, wear, and sit on is so valuable!

  • Reply Lauren August 8, 2019 at 7:46 pm

    One of my factors for whether it’s worth it is if I have a vision of what I want and know that I won’t be able to find it elsewhere. When I graduated college I purchased a simple unfinished wood dresser around the price point of an ikea dresser. I spent $8 on a wood burning kit and spent several nights after work removing each drawer face and painstakingly burning a pattern into the wood and staining the thing. I had some happy accidents along the way and it doesn’t look like what I originally imagined, but it’s even better. More than 10 years later it’s still perfect, and still one of a kind. Oh, and I’m not ashamed to admit that when people tell me it’s cool I love boasting about the work I did!

  • Reply Kellyn August 8, 2019 at 9:06 pm

    I’ve declared myself to be the ‘80% person’. Everything I try turns out 80% ok. Lots of room for improvement, but not too bad.

    My dad was handicapped, and often required me to do a lot of chores/odds and ends under his guidance. I think it steered me to be more capable around tools and household repairs than I otherwise would have been. I’m definitely the go-to person in my house, and hope to pass that onto my daughter. Traditional gender roles be damned 🙂

  • Reply Emily August 8, 2019 at 9:52 pm

    Will you share your technique for the reupholstery? I’ve been pondering a similar project to revive an old family loveseat.

  • Reply CathyMA August 10, 2019 at 7:41 am

    This is lovely and refreshing. We have our share of free to us furniture that has needed some DIY love and I have loved every minute of it. The stories behind these items cannot be beat. The one thing however, that I had never expected, or ever even thought of really, was that my teen daughter would take one of these precious items and rework it to her own liking and enjoyment. That has been a marvel to watch and a clear testament that my creativity has rubbed off on (at least one) of my children. Pure delight.

  • Reply Swissrose August 11, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    I spent Money transporting half a truckload of my grandmother’s things to our holiday home. Then I spent a summer dismantling two old armchairs – one wing-back from the mid-70s and one upholstered rocker from the 30s, both too old and smelly to just slipcover. After a few months in the house, there was a distinct whiff, so I stripped them both back to the wood and springs – yes, about 398645 tacks held it all together. But the structure of both is sound, just the rocker lock mechanism needs a small repair. This summer I simply don’t have time to reconstruct, but I have wool stuffing and nice upholstery fabrics and have found out where to get my supplies (the house is in a different country to where I normally live…), so next summer I will be spending many an hour doing a trial-and-error job to achieve, hopefully, an attractive and useful result.
    The chairs are worth it to me because one was my grandad’s retirement chair and the other from the early days of my grandparents’ marriage. My granny lived in her house for 80 years and was my safe place. My mom was born in the house and raised there, though she never lived there after the age of 18 until she went to care for her mom aged 70. I lived with the furniture for two years as a teenager staying with my grandparents. I loved my grandparents and they were wonderful role models. So the chairs are worth it!! But only to me.

    I had two other old chairs reupholstered professionally for a LOT of money, with fabric that means something to me. But I am not as attached to them as I think I am to these two old reminders of two lives very well spent… We shall see.

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