Ask an Expert: The Secrets of Successful Upcycling
Like the idea of upcycling but don’t know how to start? Let the experts inspire you to see the potential in disused and discarded pieces
Upcycling is, in part, a rebellion against the identikit 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 scrapyards, in charity shops or even in your own home. More than that, it’s a chance to save something from going to landfill, to create a piece with a little more integrity – and hopefully to have some fun and learn something new while you do it.
Many 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 upcycling company Reestore, but there’s really no reason to be afraid of getting stuck in – even the experts had to start somewhere. Here, two of them share their experiences of how they began and what they’ve learned throughout their careers, in the hope of inspiring you to get your hands a little dirty and maybe even create something you love along the way.
Professional advice from:
Max McMurdo of Reestore
Ursh Stevens of Refunk’d
These days, you can walk onto your local high street and buy virtually anything ready-made and pre-packaged, or simply order it from the comfort of your living room. It may be convenient, but, according to Max McMurdo, ‘British society is losing the ability to make.’
And yet you don’t need any training or experience to pick up a brush and start painting, or to use a sander, a screwdriver or even a power-tool. ‘I didn’t have any formal training when I started,’ says Max, ‘it was all a bit trial and error.’
There are hundreds of furniture banks and charity shops across the country with pieces that could easily be restored and personalised with a lick 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,’ says Max. ‘But you could start painting it, distressing it, splashing some gold leaf onto it or dipping the legs in paint.’
‘You see so many small tables and vintage dining chairs in charity shops and skips,’ adds Ursh Stevens, ‘but they could make a great feature in a room.’ Some simple sanding and painting may be all you need to do to transform such unloved pieces into something you really treasure.
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If you start out with the basics, you’ll soon find you grow in confidence, and might find yourself undertaking projects of which you wouldn’t have thought yourself capable. Today it might be 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. Both Max and Ursh have worked on some pretty wacky projects over the years. For instance, Ursh 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.
Max has taken it to even greater heights. ‘I was given an entire jumbo jet to upcycle,’ he explains. ‘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 jewellery.’
In some areas of life, making mistakes might be seen as something negative. But the opposite is true with upcycling.
‘Every project has slight disasters,’ says Max. ‘If anyone fails in the workshop, we celebrate it. The first chair I made out of a shopping trolley completely collapsed… with me in it,’ he says, laughing.
‘I once painted an old bureau in silver, only to finish and realise it looked absolutely awful,’ says Ursh. ‘It’s a learning curve, and you soon come to realise what works and what doesn’t.’ Happily, many mistakes can be reversed – paint can covered, handles removed and parts replaced – so don’t be afraid to be a little adventurous.
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Part of being adventurous means testing out different processes and tools. ‘You want a range of materials and a range of styles,’ says Max.
‘I use everything from a sander to an angle grinder,’ says Ursh. ‘Most power tools are just common sense. Just practise a little on something that doesn’t matter.’
Max 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 explains, ‘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?’ Max adds.
Disclaimer Always read and follow relevant safety instructions. There’s adventurous, and then there’s plain reckless!
Of course, not everyone will have a workshop, 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,’ says Ursh. ‘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 scrapyards, reclamation yards, charity shops and second-hand stores, you can never be certain 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 Ursh. ‘It’s important to keep an open mind.’
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For people who are into it, the world of upcycling has become a real community, with fans around the world sharing their latest discoveries across social media and blogs. ‘That sums up the upcycling movement,’ says Max. ‘You share your information and give away your techniques rather than guarding them and trying to make money from them.’
Various events, both local and national – such as The Brancott Estate Great Home Hack and The Handmade Fair – bring expert upcyclers and crafters together to share their tips with rookies as well as with each other. Get involved!
Have you ever upcycled anything? We’d love to see a photo and read your advice in the Comments below.