We’re all striving for a more sustainable home these days, and one major thing we can do is aim to minimize waste. One great way to do this is by upcycling, but if you’ve never upcycled before or you don’t consider yourself an avid DIYer, starting to upcycle can be overwhelming.
We turned to the experts to ask for some tried and true tricks, and they delivered on all the things we need to know when it comes to upcycling.
Meet the Expert
Upcycling Doesn’t Have Just One Meaning
Claire Manton of Claire’s CraftHouse tells us, “Upcycling can mean various things, including the repurposing or restyling of unwanted items into something usable, [like making] an old-style record cabinet into a gin cabinet for instance. Or [it can mean upgrading something] that can be loved again, like painting a tired, dark varnished piece into something with wow factor, fit for 21st-century style living.”
Know Your Skill Level
Lee Crowder of Taylor Morrison advises potential upcyclers to assess their skill level before diving into a project.
“Do you have the skills to refinish it and if not, can you afford to have someone to help you?” she asks. "Sometimes the ‘up’ part of upcycling can be very costly in terms of tools and products to refinish. For example, cane and rattan chairs are very popular right now, but if you find one that is damaged, the repair to that type of chair can be very costly due to the expertise it takes to repair.”
Most Items Can Be Upcycled
If you’re eyeing up a piece wondering if it can be upcycled, Manton tells us that the answer is probably yes!
“Anything can be upcycled—from small home decor items like picture frames, ornaments, vases, and lamps, to larger furniture pieces and kitchen projects,” she says. “In my specialism of furniture, the best pieces are those that were well-made and built to last to start with. Think solid woods like oak, pine, and mahogany and beautiful workmanship like dovetail joints.”
New and Old Pieces Will Work
While Manton works mostly with solid antique and aged pieces, she says that newer items will work, too: “More recently manufactured pieces can still be very successfully restyled, [such as IKEA pieces]. They often just require different prep to allow paint to adhere to newer manufacturing finishes, like vinyl wrap.”
Don’t Overlook Pieces That Appear Damaged
“It’s always great to find a piece in good condition,” says Manton, “but even pieces that have had a harder life and have some damage can be salvaged with some simple DIY skills. And they’re often the ones that everyone else overlooks!”
Consider Your Materials
While most materials can be repurposed and upcycled with the proper preparation, Manton advises avoiding anything that lacks longevity.
“Solid materials like wood, veneer, metal, glass, ceramic, melamine, stone, resin, plastic, and fabric are all materials that upcycle very well, but do be aware that the prep required for each can be very different,” she says. “If not done correctly, [it] can result in a piece that won’t stand the test of time. For instance, applying paint to a glass ornament without the correct primer preparation will result in it peeling off and not being durable at all.”
When it comes to materials to avoid when upcycling, know that anything paper-based is going to be difficult to work with. “[Avoid] materials that lack longevity in themselves—for instance, cardboard or papier mache,” says Manton. “[These] are not so successful to upcycle if you’re looking for a durable result.”
Assess Each Piece Before Starting
Before tackling a project, Manton advises assessing the piece with these considerations in mind:
- Current condition: Think about the condition; does it need repairs, and will the condition need clever styling to disguise problem areas?
- Intended Usage: What is this piece going to be used for and how much day-to-day wear and tear will it get? Consider any alterations to make it fit for its new purpose, and how best to finish it to ensure it will be durable enough for its new life.
- Best Prep: What is the piece made of, and how has it been finished? For example, if it’s a natural wood that’s been waxed and you intend to paint, then the wax will need removing with mineral spirits before you go ahead and paint. If it’s a melamine finish, you’ll need an adhesion primer to help the paint bond successfully to the surface.
- Practicality: Are there features you like and wish to enhance, or those you want to play down? [Consider] moldings, carvings, or natural wood grain to leave exposed. Are the doors and drawers close-fitting? They might need sanding back or care when painting so that they don’t stick when reassembled. If there’s hardware to remove or lots of disassembling to do, make sure you take note of how they are fixed so you can reassemble correctly. I often take photos.
- Room Design: [What are your] colors, textures, patterns, and style of the room the item will be going in? Plan your project accordingly … one size rarely fits all, so use a paint that works with your design and helps to achieve it. Chalk and milk paints will suit rustic, distressed finishes, whilst mineral paints with in-built sealers are great for super smooth, block color finishes.
Gather Must-Have Materials
Manton also advises having these must-have elements before beginning any upcycling project:
- Ventilated space, ideally a good temperature. Colder conditions will extend drying times and extra warm conditions can be challenging for painting projects when paint dries on the brush
- Drop cloth, plastic bowl with water, cloths
- Degreaser and mineral spirits if removing wax
- Basic tools, like screwdrivers and pliers
- Sandpaper or electric sander, with dust extractor if using indoors
- Wood filler
- Primer, which isn’t always needed but can be useful for stain blocking or adhesion
- Brushes, being sure to use the right brush for each job
In order to ensure your piece’s longevity, Manton tells us that good prep is important: “It all starts with good prep. It’s the bit we all like the least, but it’s really important in creating something that will be durable.”
Consider Your Desired Aesthetic
As Crowder notes, certain aesthetics will be more direct and straightforward than others. “Monochromatic color palettes are very popular right now, so even if a piece has unique trim details or carvings that currently have different colors, using one solid color will not only modernize but also save you lots of time. Simple and modern usually is easier and less expensive.”
Regardless of skill level, plenty of popular aesthetics have room for upcycled pieces. “Right now, the Americana farmhouse and organic looks [are everywhere], and they really do lend themselves to a cool find. That is what draws people to those styles,” says Crowder. “Adding that unique piece that only you have can really finish a space off."
Expect the Unexpected
“I have come across many a piece with hidden surprises,” says Manton. “It’s not always possible to vet a piece before buying … and there have been occasions where the condition has been much worse than the photo suggested.”
Luckily, most of the time, the piece can be saved. “Usually running repairs are enough—sanding back to remove deep scratches, filling dents, holes, and damaged veneer, replacing broken hardware with a replacement set, for instance,” Manton assures us. “If you don’t already have the know-how, the swathe of DIY content and tutorials found online can get you on the right track.”
Beware of Woodworm
While most surprises can be handled fairly easily, Manton revealed one that required careful consideration. “The worst surprise, and my pet hate, is woodworm. This really must be treated correctly, which involves removing any paint or varnish and stripping a piece back to raw wood in order to treat with a woodworm solution,” she says. “Not a pleasant job, but if you cut corners here then you risk introducing woodworm into your home. A very severe case of woodworm, where sections of wood are totally breaking down and crumbling, is better off abandoned.”
Don’t let any potential downsides scare you off. The most important thing about upcycling is that you have fun! “When it comes to style and design, there’s no right or wrong,” says Manton. “Have fun, play with ideas, think outside of the box, and create something you love.”