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?