Vintage Shopping Guide - the Wood Edition

So, you're off to find a unique wooden coffee table - or maybe a chair or a bedside table - at a vintage store, local flea market, or yard sale. And, in addition to bringing back a gorgeous, singular piece, you want to know what else you're bringing into your home. Is this singular table carrying along some harmful chemicals you'd best leave at the door? 

We've created a list of four things to watch for when you browse.


The main thing you want to keep your eye out for is lead paint. I don't need to tell you too much about the harms of lead, since this toxin is well known and well established. However, here are some basics that are especially relevant to furniture. With lead paint, rather than there being a problem with regular contact, the principal issue is from breathing in or ingesting dust and paint chips. Lead is particularly detrimental for children, who absorb more of it than adults and may ingest more because they are more likely to be putting their hands and other objects in their mouths.

1. The paintwork isn't chipping. Because the main harm with lead paint doesn't come from contact, ideally, you're finding items that don't have chipping paint. While this isn't a complete fix, it's a good start

2. The piece is from after 1980. While lead paint was banned in 1978, a lot of lead paint continued to persist in products until 1980.


3. Have the item professionally tested. There are commercially-available test kits for lead in consumer products, and the US Consumer Product Safety Commission has found them to be ineffective. So, while they are tempting, we do not recommend them as a reliable way for seeing if the item is lead-free.

If you have purchased an item and want to have it reliably evaluated for lead, use one of the EPA's accredited lead testing laboratories. A list of them is available here.

4. Avoid pressed wood/particle board. To create particle board, some form of adhesive is needed, and unfortunately this adhesive often contains formaldehyde. Similarly to lead, formaldehyde tends to speak for itself as a well-known carcinogen, and for having short-term health impacts as well. While the off-gassing of formaldehyde decreases with time, dust particles are still a risk and we would recommend steering clear, is possible.



1. Lead's Impact on Indoor Air Quality. Environmental Protection Agency.

2. Lead. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

3. Lead exposure: Tips to protect your child. Mayo Clinic.

4. The National Lead Laboratory Accreditation Program (NLLAP). Environmental Protection Agency.

5. Formadehyde in Pressed Wood Products. National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme.

6. Formadehyde and Cancer Risk. National Cancer Institute.