David Harpers Top Advice
Many of you will know David for his regular appearances on BBC as well as ITV and Channel four to mention only 3. David is a renowned expert in the field on antiques and cars and has kindly agreed to team up with us here at Surviving the Credit Crunch to offer his invaluable advice.
Be sure to check his recent appearance on BBC 2 it’s not Easy Being Green, see the video (below)
Eco-Friendly Furniture by David Harper
We’re all under pressure to do our bit when it comes to being environmentally friendly these days, and, inevitably, we’re bombarded from all angles by manufacturers keen to cash in on our new green feelings by trying to sell us what they call eco-friendly goods. Take furniture, for example – big, international, out-of-town superstores are stacked to the rafters with mass-produced furniture items that they tell us are conscientiously produced.
Well, just how friendly are these supposedly green items of furniture? Making new furniture requires an awful lot of energy. The natural resources used in any factory situation are shocking. Such raw materials as coal, gas, wood, and water are all used in huge quantities to make any new product, and the factories themselves pump out massive amounts of pollution into the air. On top of this, we need to factor in transportation from the factory to your door. Shipping new furniture or anything else from the Far East in vast container ships that spit diesel out by the tonne does a tremendous amount of damage to the environment.
So if you want to be truly green when it comes to furnishing your home, you can’t do any better than to buy antiques. Antiques are amongst the most eco-friendly items we can buy. The reality is that their carbon footprint must be about as low as it can be, and bearing in mind that these objects were made hundreds of years ago, any damage making them caused to the environment is long gone.
However, what if you don’t fancy a traditional piece of antique furniture this time? What if you want something a bit more contemporary in feel, but still want a bit of style and flair without a huge cost to your bank account, and, importantly, at almost no cost to the environment?
Well, here’s an idea that is becoming increasingly popular, and something I’ve been doing for years. If I’m to be honest, this hasn’t been out of any calling to be eco-friendly – that just happened by accident – but simply out of necessity and as a way of making money.
You’re going to need some imagination for this one, and if you’re at all precious about not altering old furniture, then this isn’t going to be for you. What I’m advocating is taking really great quality pieces of antique furniture and chopping them up, stripping off the original patination, painting them, and generally hacking the living daylights out of the blighters.
No, I haven’t lost my mind and I’m not going to start chopping up a Chippendale table, but huge quantities of fabulous antique pieces of furniture are sitting in salerooms and shops, just languishing at the bottom end of the market, with no real monetary value at all. It’s ridiculous, really, but some pieces of furniture from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that might cost thousands of pounds to create to the same standards today are selling for from a few pounds to a couple of hundred, and many are actually being thrown away because nobody wants them. What a terrible waste! If we take a fresh look, though, we can recycle these forgotten items into really magnificent, fresh, funky, and unique pieces of designer furniture for a fraction of the cost – financially and environmentally – that it would cost to make them from scratch.
All you need is a good cabinetmaker with plenty of enthusiasm, one who’s willing to test his or her skills, experiment, and – most important of all – has a great imagination.
I’ve often turned unwanted 1920s wardrobes into trendy TV cabinets, taken the legs off broken Victorian dining chairs and made great footstools, and chopped down pine kitchen tables to create coffee tables. I once bought a wrecked four-poster bed that was in dozens of bits, all crammed into a pile of tea chests. Although it was never going to be a bed again, it did have truly gorgeous turned columns and carved panels, and after much head-scratching, plotting, planning, and arguing with my cabinetmaker, with the help of leftover bits from a previous job we eventually created a pair of dramatic console tables, a window seat, and a pair of mirrors. I sold the lot to a country-house hotel for ten times the cost of the project. That, I believe, makes me an eco-warrior capitalist!
How to go about it.
The best route, obviously, is to work with a cabinetmaker. A number of them are now turning their hands to this sort of work and they’re the ones to get in touch with, as they have the experience and expertise – and also plenty of parts from other recycled antiques that can be incorporated into your piece. Some even have off-the-shelf creations that have been made from old furniture and are ready to go.
Then again, if you’re handy at this sort of thing and you have the space and the time, why not have a go yourself? It really shouldn’t break the bank, and although you admittedly might end up with a monstrosity at the first go, it’ll all be good fun and it’s a great hobby. You never know, put your results back into auction and you might make some profit.
It’s exciting stuff. Not only do you end up with a unique piece of furniture, but in the process you’ll be saving money, you can feel happy that you’re doing your bit for the environment, and by using the services of your local cabinetmaker, shop, and auction room you’ll be helping to support local businesses, and that has to be good news for the economy, too.
Call me tight, but it always amazes me just how expensive new furniture is, especially when you take into account build quality. Take, for example, the humble chest of drawers – something that’s been with us for nigh-on four hundred years, and a piece of furniture that I bet every house in the land has at least one of. Now, not all chests of drawers are equal – there are huge differences in quality, not only in terms of the materials used, but also the workmanship employed and the anticipated life span.
We can all tell the difference between a beat-up old Ford Fiesta, with its plastic seats and wind-up windows, and a Rolls Royce with its coach-built body, walnut dash and the most aromatic leather interior ever made. But when it comes to furniture, we’re much less aware of the variations in quality.
Well, what if I could show you a way of buying Rolls Royce quality furniture that will last for generations and actually get better with time for less money than the cheapest and nastiest new furniture available – the kind of stuff that is made to last only a few years before having to be thrown away?
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a retired couple living in a country house looking for a chest of drawers for the spare bedroom, a young man about town or a student furnishing your bedsit on a miniscule budget, we’re all keen to save money where we can.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out where I’m going with this, and being someone who lives and breathes antiques, I’m not likely to suggest that you fill your house with new flat-pack furniture. However, even I’m sometimes surprised at what shockingly good quality antique furniture you can buy for such little money.
This was brought home to me recently when I was challenged by the BBC to buy cheaper-end antiques at auction – the kind of things that are just not making the money anymore – and turn them into eco-friendly, trendy modern pieces by doing all sorts of things to them, from chopping them up to re-painting.
One particular item we wanted to get our hands on was a chest of drawers. There were a few in the auction room that fell into our very modest price bracket (under £100). The first two sold for just over our budget, but luckily the third didn’t even receive a bid, so just before the auctioneer passed it by as unsold and sent it off to the local skip, I stuck my hand in the air and shouted out my bid of £10. He accepted the offer and after several seconds of anguish on my behalf, no other bids were forthcoming and the chest was sold to me for an amazing £10!
So, my £10 purchase was sent off for a trendy eco-friendly makeover. With a quick rubdown and a black spray job, the whole look was changed beyond all recognition. For another £140, this 120-year-old chest suddenly became a piece of modern art, ready to live another few lifetimes under its new guise.
As much as I liked the new modern finish, I would personally have been just as happy with its original look. Made around 1880 from a lovely coloured and patinated oak, hand-cut dovetail joints, and retaining its original locks and wonderful brass swan-neck handles, it was perfectly constructed and ready to be put to use as it was – but back to value for money.
Out of interest, I asked a cabinetmaker to give me a price for recreating the chest of drawers from scratch. Using the same quality timbers and traditional construction methods, his costing came in at £1400… Bear in mind that if the thing was to be sold from a good retailer, the chest would soon become a staggering £2000.
So, my £10 Victorian chest of drawers looks remarkable value for money doesn’t it – almost too good to be true – and I really have to pinch myself sometimes when I come across these mind-boggling bargains. Whoever said antiques are expensive?
How to go about buying a bargain chest of drawers
Every auction room in the land has chests like the one I bought. If you’re on a tight budget, stick to the general sales – the kind of sales where they sell everything from old broken pottery to new exercise bikes, boxes of plastic toys to Victorian glass. These are the sales where you’ll find lots of good antique furniture, which is seen to not be quite valuable enough to make it into a catalogued antique sale.
Getting the Best Deals – new
Retail Traps – new
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