Breathing Life Into Unloved Furniture

A Step by Step Guide to Upcycling

by Jessica Bargh

Upcycling is a popular new trend where people have been transforming furniture from old to new. The phrase was first used in print 1994 in Salvo, where Reiner Pilz was quoted when discussing downcycling (where items are broken down into recyclable materials): ‘What we need is upcycling, where old products are given more value, not less’. Upcycling has been carried out in developing countries for years as people repurpose old materials and clothes, but it has increased in popularity in other countries as interest grew in eco-friendly products. Since around 2013, there has been a huge rise in the number of products on sites such as Etsy tagged with the word ‘upcycle’.

However with this increased popularity is increased online information! There are so many videos and articles online about how to do this which can be quite overwhelming, so I thought I’d write a bit about my own experience trying upcycling for the first time!

'I was moving house and needed new furniture, but was shocked by the prices of ready-made pieces in well known stores.'

I decided to try upcycling when I was moving house and needed new furniture, but was shocked by the prices of ready-made pieces in well known stores. I began to explore Instagram and YouTube to come up with some ideas for how to upcycle something myself.

You might already own some furniture that needs sprucing up, or perhaps you want to make some alterations to suit a new decor. If you're looking for a new (old!) piece to fill a space, I'd recommend searching Facebook marketplace and charity shops, as there are some real bargains to be found!

Once you’ve found a piece you’d like to upcycle, it’s time to start thinking about how you want it to look. Again, the internet is a great resource for finding inspiration, but I also found browsing expensive furniture stores a good way to see what’s currently in trend that you can recreate for a fraction of the price.

First things first, you’re going to need a few tools and materials to upcycle your piece. This will depend on what changes you want to make to it, but here’s a basic list of some of the stuff I used:

  • Primer paint

  • Chalk paint (this is the type of paint I decided to use for my project; some internet research can help you decide which paint is best for your type of furniture)

  • Paintbrushes

  • Sandpaper

  • Clean spirit (an eco-friendly alternative to white spirit)

  • Sealant (can be a wax or varnish)

  • Wood filler

  • Scraper knife

I recommend Wilko for getting any new tools or materials you need - it’s great value for money and they stock pretty much everything you need. Whilst they don’t have the greatest range of colours to choose from, they had the cheapest chalk paint I’ve found, and it’s still great quality. Otherwise, borrowing from friends and family is a great idea as it can save you money, and also uses up items that might be hanging around in their sheds! Furthermore, you probably won’t use up all of the products you buy, which means there’s plenty left for future projects!

The first pieces I bought to upcycle were a pair of bedside tables from Facebook marketplaces - so here’s a step by step guide of what I did to transform them!

Step 1

First you need to prepare the surface of the furniture for painting. This means removing any old paint, varnish, gloss or other substances. My pieces looked like they were from Ikea but the previous owner had spray painted them bright orange; because they hadn’t primed the surface prior to this, the spray paint was easily chipped off with a scraper knife. With paints that are a bit tougher to remove, clean spirit should do the trick.

Next, I lightly sanded the surface of the tables. Because they were from Ikea, the original veneer was smooth and shiny, so sanding them just made the surface a bit tougher, and a better surface for your paint to stick to.

Step 2

Before using any paint or primer, you need to clean down all the surfaces you’re going to paint to make sure any bits of dirt or dust are removed. I again used white spirit for this, but sugar spray also works well.

Once the surface has dried from cleaning, it’s time to paint! I first used a few layers of primer, which some will say doesn’t need to be used with chalk paint. I used a couple of layers anyway, just to make sure the chalk paint had a good surface to stick to.

Step 3

I decided to use chalk paint to upcycle my furniture, although it can be quite difficult to use. It dries very quickly therefore you need to paint surfaces in sections - this is so you’re not going over the same area twice, which can make it start to flake. I used a side to side motion with the paintbrush to ensure I was getting good coverage; this also meant I wasn’t going back over where I’d already painted. I did a few layers of chalk paint to make sure the colour was really solid.

Step 4

When the paint has fully dried, it’s time to seal it in and prevent it from chipping. Some people use special furniture paint waxes for a softer look, but I opted for some Ronseal varnish with a satin finish to protect the paint from chipping and spillages. This was a more expensive material, however I only used a very small amount so I have lots left for future projects. I put on about three layers of this to make sure I’d fully protected the surfaces.

When the furniture has fully dried and cured, you’ve done a basic upcycle by painting! I also made a few other alterations to my bedside tables. Firstly, we changed some of the structure of the drawers, making more space by lowering the piece of wood. This process required a bit more work as we had to buy some new MDF boards, saw them into the right size, then nail them back into the furniture.

I also made the drawers a bit more exciting by adding some patterned wrapping paper that I ordered from Etsy. I stuck this to the front of the drawers using a mixture of 50% water and 50% PVA glue, and then used this same mixture as a glaze over the top.

Finally, I replaced the original grey plastic handles with some new copper ones. This involved drilling a new hole for them, so I’d definitely recommend getting someone to help with that if you haven’t done it before!

The changes I made to my bedside tables are just a few examples of ways to switch up your furniture. There’s so many different things you can do with upcycling, so I 100% recommend watching loads of videos on the internet to give you some inspiration.

'It’s such a great way to get creative and give an old piece of furniture a new lease of life.'

Upcycling is definitely more time consuming than buying a brand new piece of furniture, however, it’s also a very satisfying process. I did my first project over a weekend, but the stages can easily be spread out over however long you need to complete it. It’s such a great way to get creative and give an old piece of furniture a new lease of life.

The process is also obviously much more sustainable than purchasing new items, as it means you’re re-using second hand furniture or repurposing your own. This saves furniture from going to waste, and if you’re buying from a charity shop your money is going to a good cause!

Using chalk paint is also a good eco-friendly option as it’s water-based, not solvent-based, so it’s low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs). This means there’s less atmospheric pollution produced from the paint you’re using.

' can keep reusing the same furniture for years to come!'

There’s also nothing to say you can’t keep upcycling the same furniture over and over again! Most surfaces can be removed with white/clean spirit or a hot air gun, meaning you can keep reusing the same furniture for years to come!

Since finishing this project (and I’ve still got ideas of how to improve the bedside cabinets further) I’ve painted two further pieces of furniture. The process is so enjoyable and such a great alternative to buying new furniture, and at a fraction of the cost! I’d recommend upcycling - even if it is just a quick lick of paint - to anyone who’s trying to get furniture on a budget.

Jess Bargh is a physiotherapist living and working in South Yorkshire. During the pandemic, she has been trying to find more sustainable lifestyle habits such as upcycling furniture! In her spare time, she goes horse riding, explores the beautiful countryside near where she lives, and walks dogs at local animal rescue centres.