From Spotlight: The Smart Kitchen Buying Guide

How to Shop for a Retro Kitchen — and Not Get Stuck with Junk

Pro tips perfect your vintage shopping skills.

Red vintage stove in a home kitchen
Image: Furnish Green

Key Takeaways

  • Don’t let the lure of Pinterest-worthy vintage finds trump durability and function. Otherwise, it’s just junk.
    Scroll to: Look for Good Bones
  • Be wary of old-fangled electrical wiring and lead paint. Your family’s safety is more important than that mid-century light fixture.
    Scroll to: Do No Harm

Do visions of cheerful, vintage kitchens make your heart flutter? Seriously, what could be cuter? You just don't want to end up with an island decimated by termites, or a farmhouse sink that's spent one too many seasons getting banged up on an actual farm.

After all, the line between a chic, functional antique and a piece of shabby debris can be hard to distinguish for vintage newbies. Knowing you want authentic, schoolhouse pendant lights is one thing; sourcing ones that work (and won't burn your house down) is a key part of the equation.

Here, three seasoned pros share advice on how to sort the gems from the junk, and make them work in your kitchen.

Think Function First

Interior designer Eddie Ross, a trained chef and designer who's worked with HGTV and Food Network, is renovating his 1921 Colonial. With his catering background, function is top of mind for him when hunting down new (to him) kitchen pieces. "A kitchen is like a lab for food prep," he says.

To work for your kitchen, vintage materials have to actually work. If you fall hard for a beautiful antique hutch, make sure its drawers pull out easily and the shelves can actually bear weight. If not, it's either a lost cause, or, if the issues are minor, you could DIY the function back in with new parts, Ross says.

For example, a perfectly sized (and charmingly aged) top from a wobbly table can become a kitchen island when attached to better legs or a sturdy kitchen cart. Additionally, sticky drawers can be lubed with candlesticks (just rub them along the rim) and rusty hardware replaced with period-style pulls.

A vintage find also has to function with your home's modern infrastructure. New York City interior designer Kevin O'Shea found a pair of beautiful vintage sinks, but then realized modern plumbing fittings wouldn't work with them. "The drain holes and faucet holes are different sizes," he says. "It caused a lot of issues." Drilling wider holes in porcelain sinks is tedious, but possible for a pro like O'Shea. DIYers, however, would be better off looking for a different sink.

Your vintage kitchen has to be seriously durable. Think of what you do: chop, scrub, tenderize, and generally bang things around.

Look for Good Bones

Beyond functioning well, vintage kitchen items have to be seriously durable. Think of what you do in your kitchen: chop, scrub, boil, mash, tenderize, and generally bang things around. No matter how many years an antique has already survived, it has to be durable enough to survive your kitchen, too.

The good news? Many vintage materials have lasted because of how durable they are. But you have to know how to separate them from those on their last legs. For anything made with wood, check that the joints are still holding up, and the wood is still solid throughout. Also, try to pick it up: Better-quality items tend to be heavy. Dense materials — from cast iron to hardwood — are innately more durable.

Go Beyond Looks

If it's in good working order, don't dismiss a quality vintage piece because of a character-enhancing flaw. "If you're going down the vintage route, you want to celebrate wear and tear on an item," says O'Shea. "If something is kind of chipped or has a couple of different colors on it, that's OK, because it's part of the story of the piece."

Vintage wood corbels in a home
Image: Anita Joyce of Cedar Hill Farmhouse

How flawed is too flawed? If a painted item has some chips in the finish, that's no big deal; you can keep the remaining paint intact with several coats of an oil-based sealer. However, if you spy rot or cracks — be it on wood or stone — that's structural damage. Keep shopping.

Do No Harm

And then there's lead paint. And ancient wiring. Be sure your quest for vintage chic doesn't result in poisoning anyone or getting intimately acquainted with the fire department.

Painted home goods predating 1978 likely contain lead-based paint, which can lead to lead poisoning. But (most) hutches don't come stamped with a birth date. Get an EPA-recognized lead paint-testing kit for about $10. If the test comes back positive, but you've committed to the piece, cover it with six or seven coats of an oil-based sealer.

Electric items are significantly more trouble and require pro intervention. Old wiring just isn't trustworthy. Once, interior designer Jane Coslick of Savannah, Ga., struck gold with a working 1930s stove. But to make sure it was safe, it had to be checked and potentially rewired by an electrician. As a pro, this safety-check process was just another day's work for Coslick, yet it's extremely cumbersome — and expensive — for DIYers.

"Yes, it might be vintage and be really beautiful, but by the time you make it usable for today, you put so much money into it that you can buy a reproduction," says Ross. When it comes to kitchen appliances, pros often opt for antique-esque. Coslick prefers retailers like Big Chill, GE, and Northstar for bright, vintage lookalike fridges and stoves. Bonus: Newer also means more energy efficiency.

Reimagine Your Kitchen Storage

A key focal point of a vintage cottage kitchen is open shelving filled with mismatched serving ware. But does it have to be traditional cupboards? "Use an old, glass country cabinet in lieu of putting in a traditional hung piece of cabinetry," suggests O'Shea.

In fact, any shelved storage item meant for other rooms could work: an antique bookshelf, a vintage armoire — wouldn't an old general store display case be fun? O'Shea encourages DIYers to think beyond the traditional kitchen setup.


Before embarking on your vintage kitchen shopping excursion, take detailed measurements of the area you aim to fill, and hit up flea markets, resale shops, and antique stores with an open mind. (Oh, handy tip: Always keep a tape measure on you. You never know when you'll run into a real find.)

Shop for anything that fits the dimensions and function you're looking for, regardless of its original purpose. Your perfect vintage kitchen island might have spent its first life in a living room, bedroom, or even a workshop.


Elizabeth Lilly
Elizabeth Lilly

Elizabeth Lilly is the site editor for “This Old House," where she’s written about paint colors, chicken coops, and nearly every home improvement project in between. She uses her New York City apartment as a laboratory for executing her latest DIY ideas.