Green Hack: Repair Vintage Furniture With Trash Picked Antique Wood

The first piece of furniture I ever purchased for myself was a 1920’s British Colonial armoire from India. I literally ate oatmeal for breakfast and lunch every day for three months so I could afford to buy it. Twenty years later it is still my favorite piece of furniture. The piece was obviously custom made out of Indian teak for some fancy, but extremely practical, English lady. In addition to having a hidden pull-out drying rack for laundry, it also has a secret compartment for hiding love letters! The only thing missing from the armoire was a removable shelf on the upper, left hand side.

For the first ten years, the missing shelf didn’t bother me. In fact, I preferred the tall, empty space as it allowed me to stack my television on top of my VCR so I could store both out of sight.

Jeez. Remember when televisions were that small?

Although my armoire has been in every room of the house and held everything from garden supplies to home electronics, I’ve been slowly converting the armoire back to storage space just for my clothing and accessories

Perhaps because the armoire was designed for expatriate living, it’s always been part of my fantasy life abroad. When I imagine my expat life in some exotic foreign land, the armoire is always there, the holder of all my worldly possessions.

I think this type of magical thinking is what happens when you watch too much Masterpiece Theater as a child.

After the experience of living out of my suitcase in a tiny, closetless apartment in Florence, Italy for three months last year, I returned to my little, cluttered house in Los Angeles with an even greater resolve to downsize my possessions as preparation for a future life outside of the United States.

Although my current wardrobe is extremely well edited by normal people standards, I am totally fed up with the horrible closet situation of Dinky Manor. And since I cannot afford to renovate my bedroom to create a beautifully laid out storage area any time in the near future, I’ve decided that my best option is simply to get rid of more clothes. (At this juncture I’m fairly certain that one of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2013 will be to downsize my daytime wardrobe to fit into my armoire).

To that end, I’ve finally decided that it’s time to get a replacement shelf made to fit the armoire for easier clothes stacking. If I can’t afford to have a custom designed closet, I at least can afford a custom designed, teak shelf for my armoire right?

Uh, no. I’m on a money diet until the end of the year and can’t spend money on anything that isn’t a necessity or related to my education. Damn. Also, teak is expensive.

Luckily for me I drove by this pile of trash earlier this month.

Okay, before I go further into my trash picking adventures, I just want to ask two questions:

1. I understand removing valuable hardware from trashed furniture, but who takes just the drawers? Every trash day there are countless bureaus and desks left out on the curb with missing drawers. Where do these missing drawers go? It can’t be like losing socks in the laundry.

2. Is this missing drawer thing a Los Angeles phenomenon or does this happen everywhere?

One of my neighbors had evicted their junkie tenants and, apparently, all their old furniture, including two vintage wood bureaus.

The great thing about pre-1960’s furniture is that most pieces are made entirely from hardwood and built to last. There was no fiberboard and laminate crap from Ikea back in the day. I realized at that moment that I could cannibalize either the top or the sides of one of the bureaus to make a shelf for my armoire.

When I got home, I measured the missing shelf space of my armoire. I needed an 18 by 22 inch piece of wood.

Armed with a screwdriver I returned to the trash pile and removed the top of the 1950’s-era, maple bureau. (It’s the upside down one in the photograph above). In addition to being the right size (30 inches wide by 18 inches deep), It also had a nice, decorative edge.

Unfortunately, in addition to the nice, decorative edge, the bureau top also had a ton of scratches, one fairly severe water mark, and multiple burn marks from where the junkie tenants had set down their hot crack pipes.


I cut the bureau top to the correct width and removed the old finish and most of the burn marks with sandpaper.

Using a mixture of old stains I got off of freecycle, I used a rag to apply the stain to the wood so I wouldn’t have to deal with all the chemicals involved in cleaning oil-based stain out of one of my nice paint brushes.

Initially I was horrified by how red the maple wood looked, but after a few days of curing and three coats of water-based polyurethane finish, the color has relaxed to a teak-ish orangey brown.

I have only the most basic woodworking tools and really mediocre carpentry skills, but I think my new shelf looks pretty great and cost me nothing but a two hours of time.


  1. Emily Thayer
    Posted October 3, 2012 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    Wow. Fan-freakin-tastic! It looks great — perfect, really.

  2. TC Langford
    Posted October 3, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful job – it looks original to the piece in the photo! (But WHY didn’t you take that great dark piece in the back of the photo? If like me, it doesn’t fit in the car 🙁 I admire that you went back with a screwdriver and took it apart on the spot! Gutsy!

  3. Posted October 4, 2012 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    The dark 1940’s bureau was really damaged. It had beautiful, decorative veneer, which unfortunately was warped and chipping off. Also, it was missing two drawers. Alas, the damage was far beyond my wood refinishing skills. Had it been in better shaped I would have snapped it up in one hot second!

  4. Posted November 27, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    Why, oh why are there not photos of the whole armoire?

    Neeeeeed pictures of the secret compartments.

  5. Posted November 28, 2012 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    A: The entire armoire is really hard to photograph because my bedroom is so tiny, and the armoire quite tall.
    B: If I photographed the secret compartments, they wouldn’t be secret!

  6. Chris
    Posted March 24, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    In answer to your question Max, I am willing to bet some of the missing drawers have been outfitted with casters, and are providing under-the-bed storage, in home without enough room for the dressers….at least that is where the ones from our home are.

  7. Posted August 12, 2015 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    LOL I love your story. I am guessing that people break a lot their drawers. They just need new ones. I have a lot of old furniture, too. I will follow your example and I will put them outside.

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