Everyone loves  a good deal and, if you are like me yard sales, flea markets, and thrift stores are a natural attraction. It is, I guess you could say, an obsession; when I see those signs I just have to stop and take a look because you never know what is waiting inside.

It started for me at a very young age, not so much with my family, but my babysitter. Every Friday of the summer Gidget would load all of the kids of her daycare in the van and we would go rummaging. It was fun and exciting and always included a trip to McDonald’s.

I have never lost my thrifty sense and, with being a full-time freelancer, I had to keep it up over the years. The hunt is part of the fun and it’s satisfying to say “That’s the best dollar I’ve spent!” Given my obsession with great drinks as well, I naturally have a proclivity for seeking out glassware and over the years I’ve learn a few tricks to choosing second-hand glasses and containers.

1. Quality of the Glass

Vintage Stemmed Tumbler - Glassware - SCDrinkStudio.com
This vintage stemmed tumbler is in perfect condition. It has nice, thick glass that is almost scratch-free and has a good amount of weight to it. It is also hard to spill, so it is perfect for entertaining.

A good deal is different than a great deal and one of the first things to look for with second-hand glass is quality.

The priority here is how thick the glass is and whether it is well made. There are many neat glasses available that are constructed of very thin glass, but they are probably not worth your time.

The problems typically arise while cleaning, which is not at all safe. I have had the stem of a margarita glass snap off while polishing and a highball glass almost crumble while washing the rim. The worst time for broken glass is when your hands are in soapy water and I have learned my lesson.

When looking at a glass, check the thickness. A good rule of thumb is that if you have to guess whether it is plastic or glass, it’s probably too thin. If you have thin glassware now, be careful when washing it. Thin glass will also be more prone to scratching, which leads me to…

2. Surface Scratches or Build-up?

Farm Fresh Mug - SCDrinkStudio.com
The left mug came in a box with about 10 different pieces of glassware and has yet to be cleaned. It is obviously dirty, though that should all clean off. There are some scratches under the dirt and there may be more that will likely be revealed. I probably would not have purchased this if it was on its own.

The condition of the glass is another issue and it is important to determine whether dingy glass is a surface issue or if it just needs a good cleaning.

When it comes to drinking glasses, the surface issues are very easy to determine. Hold the glass up to the light and look for scratches, dings, or other abrasions. Many times these will appear on poorly made glass and, if there are a few now, they will likely increase with natural use (even ice can scratch cheap glass over time). Quality glass is very difficult to scratch. It should also be noted that it is hard to find a completely scratch-free used glass and sometimes a few scratches won’t make a difference if the glass is a true gem.

Build-up can be dealt with very easily. Often times the glass is not cleaned before putting them out on display and thrift store drinkware can get dusty very fast. Rub your finger inside the glass or scratch it with your fingernail to determine if it’s just a cleaning issue.

Another issue that happens quite often is called “sickness.” This is a permanent cloudiness that some glass can acquire over time and it’s one of the important things to check. Read more about checking glassware at Antiques on About.com.

For carafes, syrup bottles, and other storage vessels, examine the outside for surface issues. If there is a build-up on the inside, use this nifty trick for cleaning it when you get home. Cool glass should not be passed up because it’s dirty. There’s hope!

3. Break Free from the Set

Vintage Lone Survivor Drinkware
With the exception of the goblet and ball-stemmed martini, I do not have a match to any of these glasses and I love that.

If you can break free from the mindset that you should have a complete set of matching glasses, you will open your world to some really amazing glassware.

Let’s face it, most of the truly unique glassware sets were broken up years ago and if you do find a full set it will come at a non-bargain price. There are great sets at good prices out there, but many times the best glasses are lone survivors.

In modern decor, there is something to be said about mis-matched table settings and I am a big fan of this trend. It adds flair and unique style and gives you creative license to collect the  unique glasses available. In looking at my own collection, I rarely have two matching glasses and even my dinner plates are one-of-a-kind. It’s fun to break the rules and it’s okay to do so.

The other advantage is that you can often create your own “set” at a single sale by bundling glasses into a package deal and asking for a lower price on the lot. It’s rule #1 for sales and flea markets: Never pay sticker price… negotiate!

Once you have cleared your mind from the set mentality, you can then…

4. Look for the Unique

Vintage Stemmed Glassware
A small collection of some of my favorite stemmed glasses.

I think that I have a single glass for every mood and occasion and it is fun to walk up to my glass shelf and think, “Which one should I use today?”

When we begin to look at drinkware as little pieces of art, collecting becomes more interesting and entertaining. Colored glass and unique facets and patterns are some of the aspects that attract my attention at sales and when I find something unique I get giddy.

Above are some of my unique finds. The two martinis are of a thinner glass than I typically look for, though their style makes up for it. The goblet is a trusted friend that I use all of the time and the weight makes it perfect for a patio drinks (though the dark color does make me watch for bugs!). The three smallest came from the same sale and I purchased them as a ‘set’ for half the asking price. They’re not only fun for quick tasting or shooters, but make great candy or mint dishes for parties (or your desk).

5. Don’t Forget About Storage

Vintage Jars, Bottles, and Canisters to Store Drink Ingredients - SCDrinkStudio.com
A collection of glass and stoneware containers that are perfect for storing drink ingredients.

The other element of great drinks is the ingredients that go into them and all of these need containers as well. These are another great vintage find.

Stoneware crocks and other lidded pottery are perfect for storing coffee, tea, and other dried ingredients. Small glass canisters like the small one on the left are also ideal for small, dried ingredients and the glass syrup and growler bottles are obvious storage for liquid ingredients like syrups and fresh juices.

The key to a great container is the lid. Make sure that they are tight-fitting and have a good seal. The old dairy crocks are often missing the wire lock, so I keep my best for drink ingredients, saving the others for things like pet treats or other small items that don’t require freshness.

Corks can often wear out, so I prefer lids with plastic seals. In the case of syrup bottles, however, you can shave an old wine cork down to fit inside and simply replace it when needed.

If you find containers are not drink-worthy (like tins and wood boxes) simply use them around the house to store items you would like to hide such as rubber bands, safety pins, and other handy things. I have so many of these little stashes like this that I often forget which container holds what collection, but the rediscovery is fun as well.

One Last Note…

Crystal drinkware is another matter altogether and I have yet to come across a piece of it in my bargain glassware hunting (antique shops, sure, but not at a bargain). However, it is good to know how to identify it and the Michael C. Fina website has some good tips. Leaded crystal glass has been getting some bad press lately, though it seems that the safety issues arise more in long-term storage than drinkware.

Check out my Glassware Guide on About.com…

All images in this article: © S&C Design Studios

5 Tips for Buying Vintage Glassware
Tagged on: