The Nature of Buying Stuff Cheap and Making It Look Cool: Coffee Table Edition

What I will warn you is that sometimes buying stuff on the cheap and making it look cool requires a lot of work and pain that has sometimes made me wish we could just win the lottery already, and I could pay someone to find the things I want for me. This is one of those stories.

My husband and I had been talking about getting a new coffee table for a while. Our old coffee table had always been too short for the length of our couch, but we had compensated for that by having two side tables. In our new house, we don’t have enough room on either side of our couch to do that, so we have had to rely on the coffee table instead.

Let me also note that we have a dog that sometimes chews on furniture when we’re absent, so our old coffee table had a whole edge gnawed off in a really non-classy fashion, but, mind you, we don’t make a lot of money and are pretty focused on not having any debt (the only debt we have currently is our mortgage. We don’t even use credit cards!), so we kept that old coffee for two years. Yes, that long.

It was time for a change. Our living room is not all that large, so there isn’t a lot of space between the couch and my husband’s armchair which must be in the living room (house rule #1), so we had to find a coffee table of very particular dimensions. It needed to be less than 24 inches wide, ideally closer to the 20-22 inch range to accommodate our limited space, and at least 50 inches wide to make it easy to use from either end of the couch. I also wanted one that was about 19+ inches tall because often we like to eat tacos while watching the Bachelor/ette (don’t judge me.), and I figured the taller the better when we have an obnoxious untrained dog that likes to look longingly at our food from close range.

We had some other needs too. Here they all are (in no certain order):

1. Had to be 19 H x 50 W x 24 D

2. Had to have a drawer or at least a shelf

3. Had to be wood

What I learned quickly while stalking Craigslist this time around is that these needs would be incredibly hard things to find all in one coffee table. I eventually found this a-maze-ing coffee table with three drawers and a LIFT-UP top for $30(!!!), which I quickly went and picked up, only to discover wayyy too late that it was much too wide (7 inches too wide!). After moping about it for a day, I re-listed it on Craigslist for $50 hoping to, at least, get back a little profit, and a lady came and picked it up the next day.

Anyway, back to our current coffee table. The more I looked (and this went on for about a month), the more I realized something had to give. There was this one coffee table for super cheap that I kept going back to. It had a glass top (which I didn’t like), a wicker shelf (which I hated), and its height was only 15 inches (not the 19+ I was hoping for), but the price was soooo good ($20!), so I went and bought it.

Here is what it looked like.

Once I got it home, I immediately wondered whether I had made a terrible mistake. I hated the look of it. And the wicker shelf on the bottom??? Ewww.

I calmed myself down and just reminded myself that it was only $20, and I had made that as pure profit from the other coffee table, so it was like I was at sum zero. No harm, no foul.

I then started to get to work.

After playing with several ideas, I finally decided to paint the bottom only. The wood around the glass looked really clean, and I liked the idea of painting the bottom so the top really popped.

Things I needed to paint:

-drop cloths (I recommend fabric ones since you can reuse them)

-paint (the previous owners of our house had left a bunch of paint in our studio, so I ended up using a creamy white they had used for the trim of our house)


-Kilz (only if you discover any mold on your piece or if you buy a piece that someone has smoked around a lot. Kilz will kill the smoke odor, which for us non-smokers can be a lifesaver)

-paint brush

Let me tell you my mistakes first:

The wood on this coffee table looked really shiny. I didn’t take note of that and went ahead and tried to paint (no primer) like I had with the credenza (which wasn’t shiny). The paint would not stick, so I quickly realized that it had some sort of finish on it and that I’d need to use primer. People sometimes say that you should sand before painting. I only do that if a surface looks uneven. Generally primer will stick to anything, and then the paint will stick to the primer.

The legs have all of these insets (or whatever they’re called) which means you have to shove the paint bristles in there to paint them. What I didn’t know is that the less the paint, the better. I kept globbing paint on the brush and then shoving the bristles into the little pockets, but then the paint started beading up and dripping. While I’d be too embarrassed to show you, there are plenty of spots where there’s just a glob of paint hanging out, looking hideous. I could have gone back after those places dried, sanded them down, and repainted them, but the coffee table is low to the ground (so they aren’t all that noticeable, except when I’m staring at them wishing they weren’t there), and by the time I was done painting it, I never wanted to do another thing to it ever again.

Wicker is extremely hard to paint. It is, in fact, thin pieces of wood that have been woven together, so there are thin pieces of wood sitting slightly under other pieces of wood, making the same inset effect as the legs. In the case of the wicker, mere shoving the brush in doesn’t work. You must in fact stab your brush into every single little nook and cranny or otherwise you’ll have an ugly spotty mess. This was so time-consuming that I’d never recommend hand-painting something wicker. Spraypainting would be a much wiser choice.

Other than these mistakes, the normal process reigned: prime, let it dry, wash paint brush, paint the first coat, let it dry, wash the brush, paint the second coat, wash the brush, let it dry a couple of days, and voilà!

Here is it now:

Once I was done, I came to sincerely love it. Its size is perfect (I’ve even grown to be fond of the lower height because I can put my feet on it easily), the glass has been nice for keeping drink rings off the wood and gives me the opportunity to display things underneath, the color makes it really pop against our hardwood floor, and the paint and the baskets cover the wicker underneath perfectly.

All in all, a lot of pain and stupidity and time-sucking energy came together to somehow make a coffee table I still enjoy seeing when I walk through the front door and was super cheap (though when I’m feeling particularly grumpy, I might mention that my time probably equaled to hundreds of dollars of hard labor).

Just don’t do my mistakes, and do stay committed.


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