Upcycle your furniture

Tap into powers of restoration and give your home a fresh new look

The trend for upcycling gives old furniture and interiors a modern twist and can be a marvellously therapeutic outlet.

Business adviser Stephen Milne never throws furniture away because he can always envisage a new life for each piece. But for him transforming furniture, known as upcycling, is far more than a leisure pursuit.

“I don’t really regard the painting or upcycling I do as a hobby; I look at it as problem-solving,” he says. “For example, if I have a piece of furniture that doesn’t work in a new decorating scheme, I’ll change it. Or if I have a need for a piece, I’ll find one and work on it.”

An antidote to modern life

Mr Milne, who lives in Oxford, is part of an ever-growing group of keen upcyclers – people who spend weekends and evenings restoring and updating discarded, unloved or worn-out pieces of furniture.

With increasingly busy work lives, more and more people are embracing upcycling projects as the perfect antidote to the stresses of long working hours. As well as the satisfaction of being creative, there is a sense of reconnecting with the past that comes from making something new out of something old.

Annie Sloan, colour and paint expert, says: “Everyone is upcycling – changing the way something looks or the way it functions so it can be used again. Whether you’re in the city, the country or the suburbs, everyone can do it in their way. Upcycling is about personalising something to make it individual, and that appeals to everyone.”

For Mr Milne, his love of upcycling developed after moving house. “I lived in Paris for a couple of years and it wasn’t worth bringing a lot of furniture back. I ended up in London with very little and quite a big house to fill, so I began to upcycle furniture that nobody else wanted. I had some basic skills, but I’ve still had to learn some along the way.

“The most difficult was how to do traditional upholstery – that is hard work. Like most people, I find pieces to upcycle in charity and second-hand shops. And sometimes you find them from friends who are disposing of furniture because they’re moving or are changing their schemes.

“I once found the base of a 1940s to 1950s Singer sewing machine, which was down the road from my house in a skip. With permission I converted it into a desk I used for many years.”

Helping the environment

Beyond its enjoyment, there is a significant eco-benefit from upcycling – reusing and refurbishing furniture ensures there is less going to landfill.

Melanie Porter, who runs her own design studio that focuses on traditional crafts, says: “As people are becoming more aware of the origins of belongings and the environmental damage of a throwaway culture, I’ve found I’m increasingly asked to restore and upcycle existing furniture rather than source new ones.

“This goes back to the origins of upholstery as an industry, but can encompass all kinds of products, including chairs, sofas, tables, lamps, lampshades and even vases and headboards. I think this essence of upcycling appeals to suburban and city dwellers. They’re so inundated with commercial products and feeling part of a mass they seek individuality by producing or commissioning one-offs.”

Interior designer Simone Suss, founder of Studio Suss, says: “Items ripe for upcycling often don’t have a huge resale value, so the process helps increase its intrinsic value. No two people will upcycle in exactly the same way, and it provides a way of adopting a more contemporary decor while staying true to the more traditional origins of a home.”

Scope for experimentation

Personalisation is certainly an aspect of upcycling that appeals to Mr Milne. “I think some projects can seem never done, but not in the sense you’ve never finished them,” he says. “You’re always thinking of ways to improve what you’ve done or reinvent it.

“For example, with a cabinet to display china, I’ve experimented with a lot of different colours for the inside to best show off the colour of my compote jars. It’s been many colours inside – white, black, red – and is currently Aubusson Blue by Annie Sloan. At the moment, I think it looks the best – but that does not mean I will never change it.”

Mr Milne admits his passion for upcycling means he often ends up with surplus pieces that need to be rehomed. “I always give them to friends or, on occasion, sell them,” he says. “I once ended up with a garage full of upcycled furniture so I put it all to auction.”

Perhaps most satisfyingly, he finds his upcycling often inspires other people. Mr Milne says: “Everyone who sees the pieces I’ve done wants to immediately go out and try it themselves. Or sometimes they want me to do pieces for them.” Upcycling is like that.

Transformations to try

1) Get that extra shelving

Cut down old floorboards, add a wood stain and put them up.

2) Make a bespoke mirror

Scour salvage yards for a period-style window frame and swap the glass for a mirrored panel.

3) Feature a chest of drawers with an ombre effect

Pick shades from the same colour palette. Use the lightest on the top drawer, the darkest on the lowest.

4) Create individual furniture

Mix contemporary with classic. Reupholster a sofa or chaise longue in a modern graphic print.

5) Don’t forget about comfort

New springs, padding and scatter cushions are an easy way to refresh armchairs and sofas.

6) Set off some greenery

Paint an old wooden ladder – perfect for displaying plants.

7) The devil’s in the detail

Use stencils to add pretty motifs to plain furniture or masking tape for painted shapes with clean lines.

8) Disguise scratched or damaged glass

Add frosted window film to a dresser, tallboy or cupboard.

9) Add a layer of luxe

Use metallic spray paints on mirror frames, side tables or ends of chair legs.

10) Deploy leftover fabric from upholstering

Wrap storage boxes, make matching cushions or cover a small lampshade.


Need to know: DIY upcycling and restoring

1) Start small

Side tables and footstools make good first projects, while dressers, sofas and bedframes are better to tackle when you feel more confident.

2) Be patient

Not allowing coats of paint to dry or rushing upholstery will end badly.

3) Watch out

Avoid furniture that has any rotten patches or woodworm.

4) Start a collection

Keep hold of hinges or screws you have removed, as they may come in handy for the next project.

5) Get a decent cover story

Choose the right paint finish. Eggshell gives a classic mid-sheen that is good for several items in the same shade (eg, a set of chairs), while gloss will make a statement piece of furniture really stand out. Older items often have imperfections, so pick a medium that can hide a multitude of sins, such as chalk paint.