Upcycling furniture is a great way of adding character and individuality to your home.
Unique pieces customised to your style rather than buying all brand new will really help you stamp your own personality on a new place.
Upcycling as a concept has been with us for some years now. But the trend really took off last year as more people started to revamp old pieces with more modern, cleaner designs and darker colours in keeping with the eclectic interior trend and move away from the distressed, shabby chic and more romantic styles.
You may have a piece you are sentimental about that you would like to fit better with your style. Or you may have less-than-lovable, furniture that you plan to get rid of. As long as it’s a solid piece, all you need is some time, a little bit of effort, a pot or two of paint and some basic tools and you can easily get creative giving it a new lease of life.
If you don’t have anything to upcycle yet, there are lots of places to look. The most obvious place to look for second hand furniture is perhaps Ebay, but it is also worth checking Gumtree, Preloved and now there is Facebook Marketplace for local bargains you can pick up. Also, check out what charity furniture shops you have in your area – most of the big charities have them, such as the British Heart Foundation and Oxfam.
You could also check out the free listings groups like Freecycle and Freegle where you might be able to get hold of pieces that people are giving away that just need a lick of paint and a new set of handles.
What to look for
Try to look at the outlines of an item, the overall shape, to imagine what it would look like painted. Look for solid, sound pieces which only need minor repair and if you are upcycling on a budget make sure none of handles and fittings are missing as those can be the expensive bits to replace.
Try to look past the finish unless it is very damaged and you are prepared for a big job. Even vintage formica and melamine, plastic and glass can be painted with the right primer for the surface.
Getting down to it
Before you start on the fun bit of revamping a piece with paint or paper it’s vital to prep. It’s probably the Upcyclers’ least favourite task but it’s key to ensuring a good result – and a long lasting one. The finish you get is hugely dependent upon getting a good base to work on.
Clean your piece thoroughly using a mild detergent (to be on the safe side as Antique and Vintage furniture may have a Shellac finish that reacts to harsher chemicals such as those in Sugar Soap).
Once your piece is dry, you need to prep the surface ready to re-finish it.
If you’re lucky and your piece is in pretty good shape, you could simply ‘de-gloss’ any finish that is on it already by giving it a light sand and get painting. That will remove the shiny surface and give the new finish a ‘key’ to help it grip. You can do this with 180 grit sandpaper – remembering if you are sanding wood to always rub in the same direction as the grain that you can see running along the length of the wood.
If you want to smooth any visible imperfections in the surface you’ll need to use a lower grit like 120 and if you want to strip the old finish away completely to start afresh go down to 60 or 80. If there are any holes or dents too big to sand flat it’s best to use a wood filler and then sand that until smooth afterwards.
Time to paint
It’s usually much easier to paint over any areas you’ve had to fill – or work out a design that conceals them and leaves some of the wood on show, like colour blocking. There’s lots of ideas to be found on Pinterest if you need some inspiration.
Before you get started, it’s worth taking the time to remove any hardware and to take off doors and drawers as it’s easier to paint them neatly or apply paper if you are decoupaging. It’s also a good idea to use masking tape to protect any areas that don’t need painting and to help paint straight edges.
If you are painting a dark piece with a light colour or painting over a red coloured wood (which can bleed through), it’s a good idea to kick off with a couple of coats of primer before painting or papering.
You can then use any paint you like but the best choices are eggshell, paints formulated for woodwork and specialist furniture paint and they will go on easier and last longer than regular emulsion for walls, which will scuff quite easily.
If your newly upcycled piece will see a lot of use make sure to protect it and keep it looking good by finishing up with a couple of layers of a clear top coat.
Designer and professional upcycler, Nicky Cash, has been buying, selling and renovating vintage furniture for more than 20 years. Her business Done up North specialises in giving old furniture a new lease of life through restoration and painting, creating unique and personal pieces for customers as well as hosting furniture painting workshops for budding upcyclers. Find out more here.