Upcycling is the process of changing an existing item to create a new one, but chances are, you already knew that. It has become a bit of a phenomenon, with people jumping at the chance to create something special for their homes. With so many people sharing their tips and tricks online, and with step-by-step guides readily available, there’s never been a better time to get started.
Upcycling is, in part, a rebellion against the mass-market flat-pack furniture that’s become a part of our lives. But it can also be a great way to acquire furniture at much cheaper prices, as many pieces perfect for upcycling can be found at yard sales, in thrift stores or even in your own home. It’s a chance to save something from going to the landfill and create a piece with a little more integrity.
Some people are put off by not knowing where to begin. “All of my friends make their own dinners, but they wouldn’t dream of making anything else,” says Max McMurdo, who runs the upcycling company Reestore. But even the experts had to start somewhere. Here, two of them — McMurdo and Ursh Stevens of Refunk’d — share their tips to inspire you to get your hands a little dirty while you have some fun creating something you love.
These days you can visit your local shopping center and buy virtually anything ready made and prepackaged, or simply order it from the comfort of your living room. Yes, it’s convenient, but we risk losing our ability to make things.
And yet you don’t need any training or experience to pick up a brush and start painting or use a sander, a screwdriver or even a power tool. “I didn’t have any formal training when I started,” McMurdo says. “It was all a bit trial and error.”
Numerous thrift stores have pieces that could easily be restored and personalized with a coat of paint or some vibrant fabric. “I see so many people walk past a beautiful 1960s sideboard in a charity shop only to go and buy a flat-pack one,” McMurdo says. “But you could start painting it, distressing it, splashing some gold leaf onto it or dipping the legs in paint.”
Stevens notes that there are many small tables and vintage dining chairs to be found in thrift stores. Some simple sanding and painting may be all you need to do to transform these unloved pieces into something you really treasure.
If you start with the basics, you’ll soon grow in confidence and be ready for larger projects. Today it’s a paintbrush; tomorrow a screwdriver. And who knows what tools you’ll find yourself wielding in a few months’ time.
You can take upcycling to pretty much any level. McMurdo and Stevens have worked on some pretty wacky projects over the years. For instance, Stevens has just turned an old gas boiler into a table with a built-in lamp. “I saw it in a scrapyard and instantly knew,” she says.
McMurdo has taken it to greater heights. “I was given an entire jumbo jet to upcycle,” he says. “You can’t really understand the magnitude of one until it arrives in your workshop and you’re standing there with a screwdriver in your hand. We were using materials we’d never even heard of, and created everything from tables to jewelry.”
“I once painted an old bureau in silver, only to finish and realize it looked absolutely awful,” Stevens says. “It’s a learning curve, and you soon come to realize what works and what doesn’t.” Happily, many mistakes can be reversed — paint can be covered, handles removed and parts replaced — so don’t be afraid to be a little adventurous.
In some areas of life, making mistakes might be seen as a negative. But the opposite is true with upcycling. “Every project has slight disasters,” McMurdo says. “If anyone fails in the workshop, we celebrate it. The first chair I made out of a shopping [cart] completely collapsed … with me in it,” he says, laughing.
“I use everything from a sander to an angle grinder,” Stevens says. “Most power tools are just common sense. Just practice a little on something that doesn’t matter.”
Part of being adventurous means testing out processes and tools. “You want a range of materials and a range of styles,” says McMurdo, pictured above.
McMurdo finds that the bigger and noisier the power tool, the less likely he is to injure himself with it. “You have more respect for it,” he says, “so you’re more careful and less likely to hurt yourself.” Most people assume the more adventurous projects should be left to the experts, “but I always think, if the expert can do it, why can’t I?” McMurdo says.
But always read and follow relevant safety instructions. There’s adventurous, and then there’s plain reckless!
Of course, not everyone has a workshop, a studio space or even an appropriate spare room, so it’s important to be realistic about what you can and can’t do. “You’re going to have to live around your project for however long it takes you,” Stevens says. “That might be a day or it might be two weeks, so don’t tackle something that’s going to be too difficult to live with.”
When sifting through things in salvage yards, thrift shops and secondhand stores, you never know what you’re going to find. That’s why it’s important to think creatively on the spot. “If you go hunting with something specific in mind, you’re never going to find exactly what you want,” says Stevens. “It’s important to keep an open mind.”
For people who are into it, the world of upcycling has become a real community, with fans around the world sharing their latest discoveries on social media and blogs. “That sums up the upcycling movement,” McMurdo says. “You share your information and give away your techniques rather than guarding them and trying to make money from them.”