Upcycling furniture and home accents is a passion of mine. If you are like me, you have already tried a few things and some have turned out great and others could have been better but along the way you learned a few things. Here are the most important things I have learned about when to say NO to a piece.
When there are multiple layers of old paint...this can be a black hole of stripping and sanding. Even if it is free...even if the paint is chipping in some places...trust me. Skip it. Not even if they offer to pay you to take it away...
When the drawers are missing or broken and you want the drawers...you will have a very hard time finding a drawer or building a drawer. If you can make it into something different then go for it. The odds of finding/making a drawer to fit is slim to none, though, so surrender the fantasy. Also...making the empty space where the drawer should be into a cubbie is a viable option but it is not as easy as the DIY bloggers make it seem and it will add at least $20 in hardware/supplies to your project price.
Laminate. I don't do laminate anymore. There are lots of ways to paint laminate but it is not great furniture, it is heavy and it just isn't worth it to me. Ever heard the term 'putting lipstick on a pig'? Yep.
When there are huge chunks of veneer missing. Seriously. This can be another black hole. My rule is 6 inches in diameter on a single spot. If there is a spot bigger than 6 inches in diameter of missing veneer I pass. You can replace laminate but it isn't easy. If you have spots or chunks missing you can add some wood fill or spackle or bondo and sand it down and paint it and no one will ever know but if those chunks get too big then it ends up eating up a lot of time and effort and hasn't ever worked out for me.
When the style/shape isn't right. There is no amount of paint or product that will make up for the piece not fitting the style you are looking for. If you hate Mission style furniture don't buy a piece of Mission style and think you will love it with a fresh coat of white paint because really you will just hate it a little less with your favorite color on it.
When you can't imagine putting your things inside it--even after some paint and cleaning and liners. There is a lot to be said for cleaning up an old yucky piece but if it really smells like urine, or damp/wet, or smoke I pass. I haven't ever been able to get those smells out without using a heavy duty primer that blocks stains and when you have to do that all over the inside and the drawers then things go wonky and you still might not want to put your things in there...so just skip it.
Of course these are my opinions and you can take some or all of the advice...I am not an 'expert' in furniture restoration but I have been up cycling and painting furniture for many years. I totally painted laminate furniture and tried for a few months to figure out a drawer situation. I have also spent countless hours stripping and sanding a really cool piece of furniture covered in 5 or 6 layers of old exterior latex paint. I learned a lot from these 'NO' projects. If you are just starting out and someone offers you a free piece of laminate furniture to paint and you have a use for it and the desire to go for it then there is value there.