Over the past decade, people’s furniture budgets have gotten tighter, and there has been a much bigger emphasis on eco-friendly practices. These two factors combined have meant a resurgence in repurposing items and giving them a little TLC instead of sending them to the tip. Taking something ugly or broken and making it pretty or just usable is called upcycling in most circles. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve probably seen peoples attempts at it all over the internet. The practice of upcycling has become even more common during lockdown restrictions put into place because of COVID-19 because people have had much more time on their hands.

Amongst the people upcycling furniture, clothes, and utensils for their own homes, many creators are making big money from their upcycling projects by selling them and showcasing their ventures on social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Reddit and TikTok.

The internet undoubtedly popularised upcycling, but is it likely to fade away over time like most internet trends? We can't predict the longevity of internet trends, but when it comes to upcycling, people seem to have a real passion for what is realistically, quite a simple idea.

What is upcycling?

As we touched on above, upcycling is the process of taking something old, broken, unwanted or useless, and turning it into something of greater quality. It is also known as ‘creative reuse’ by some[i]. You might be struggling to understand why it’s so popular when it’s miles easier to buy a new item than fix up or make a new one. This is the exact mentality that upcycling is trying to push back against.

Why do people upcycle?

Reasons people have fallen in love with upcycling include:

  1. People yearn to be unique – mass-produced furniture doesn’t allow them to show people their personalities
  2. It’s better for the planet. The more people repair their furniture instead of buying new, the less demand there is on supply chains whose processes damage the environment
  3. Upcycling cuts costs on buying new furniture, clothing and other essential items
  4. It helps people to appreciate what they have – something that is increasingly harder to do in a fast fashion led world
  5. Turning something ugly into something beautiful is a cathartic experience. A finished project makes people feel satisfied and fulfilled

The environmental benefits

Upcycling, especially when done en masse, is hugely beneficial for the environment for a few reasons. Creating new materials can use an excessive number of natural resources – for example, it takes over 2,700 litres of water to make just one cotton t-shirt. That’s more than one person drinks in 3 years[ii].

When you upcycle, you[iii]:

  1. Reduce the amount of waste going into landfill. Even if you donate furniture instead of throwing it, it could still end up being chucked if the charity shop has no space or it isn’t of sellable quality.
  2. Save items from landfill. If you’re skilled at upcycling, you may see potential in other peoples broken or old items and take them off their hands to upcycle, preventing them from ending up at the tip.
  3. Use fewer natural resources. When you use resources that already exist, you stop raw materials being created.
  4. Help to break the supply and demand cycle. If there’s less demand for something, over time, there will be less supply.

Personal benefits

As well as doing your bit to help the environment, upcycling can provide a host of other benefits.

  1. Financial gain. If you do upcycling well and decide to sell on your pieces, you can make an excellent passive income.
  2. Improved mental health. Upcycling is an art form, and any kind of art can be beneficial to your mental health.
  3. Exercise your creativity. Upcycling is the perfect hobby for people with a creative streak.

A beginner’s guide to upcycling furniture

The great thing about upcycling is that there is no right or wrong way to do it. If you’ve decided to go for it and start your own upcycling project, you might like some guidance to make sure you’ve thought through everything you’ll need to do. We’ve put together some pointers below.

Source your furniture

Finding the perfect piece of furniture for your project is the fun part. Now, the point of upcycling is to use and repurpose existing materials, so keep this in mind whilst you’re on your search. There are plenty of places to look, including:

  • Your own home – is your sofa looking a bit tired, or could your dining table use a little love? Use existing furniture that you wouldn’t mind parting with if your project doesn’t go to plan.
  • Charity shops – you can find some real gems in charity shops that won’t cost you much at all. Shop around and see what you can pick up.
  • Auctions – if you’re looking for something truly special, it might be worth going to some auctions. We’d recommend only doing this once you have some upcycling experience behind you, especially if you’re planning a project on something expensive.
  • Facebook Marketplace – this is a great way to find unwanted furniture in your local area.
  • Car boot sales – car boot sales are a perfect place to find a bargain. Just make sure you have space in your car to cart your new treasures home.

Source your supplies

The supplies you need will differ from project-to-project, but the trick here is to try and avoid buying new materials. If you need wood, track down an old shipping pallet and take it apart. Find fabric in charity shops in the form of old clothes and cushion covers. Try to be as creative as possible, but don’t be disheartened if you find yourself having to buy something new for your project.

Try to buy paint and hardware from small, local businesses where possible,

Get the right tools

Most upcyclers start with a basic toolbox and use kitchen utensils or whatever they find around their house to substitute for professional tools. The truth is, if your project is a one-off and upcycling isn’t something you want to do in a professional capacity, you don’t need to spend a lot of money on tools that won’t get used often.

You’re best off accumulating tools by buying them as you need them, but there are some basics you might want to get hold of[iv]:

  1. Pliers
  2. Hammer
  3. Hacksaw
  4. Screw puller
  5. Electric drill
  6. Electric screwdriver
  7. Cork sanding block
  8. Mini clamp

Find inspiration & upcycling project ideas

Whether you let your furniture guide the project, or you have an idea of what you want to do before you get hold of it, it’s good to have a source of inspiration. Our favourite places to find inspiration for projects are:

  • Upcycle My Stuff – a site packed full of tutorials, upcycling ideas, organisation tips and more.
  • Upcycle That – another site full of great ideas and inspiration for your projects.
  • Pinterest – an image sharing platform where you can browse and save any ideas you come across.
  • Forum boards and Facebook groups are perfect not only for inspiration but also for chatting with other upcycling fans. They can be an invaluable source of advice.

Some good ideas for a beginner include:

  • Turning an old ladder into shelves
  • Turning an old vinyl record into a clock by fitting a simple mechanism
  • Upholstering a bench or chair with old rugs
  • Transforming old tin cans into cutlery holders, plant pots and more
  • Fashioning furniture from tires

Do your research

It would be best if you had some idea of what you’re doing before you get stuck in. Upholstering a chair may seem easy enough, but there are many complicated steps and specific equipment you need to do a good job, which is why this is so expensive to have done professionally.

There’s always a certain element of using your initiative with upcycling, but know when to stop, step back, and find solutions to your problems.

Is upcycling here to stay?

In short, yes.

Upcycling, in one form or another, has been around for hundreds of years. Sure, it may take on a different name in the future, but upcycling isn’t going anywhere and is something many more people will automatically turn to instead of replacing old belongings.


References

Cash, N., n.d. The top ten essential tools for Upcycling Vintage Furniture. [Online] Available at: https://doneupnorth.com/blogs/latest-posts/top-ten-upcycling-tools [Accessed February 2021].

Chan, E., 2020. Distilling The Fashion Industry’s Water Consumption, And How To Reduce Your Own H2O Footprint. [Online] Available at: https://www.vogue.co.uk/news/article/reduce-your-water-footprint [Accessed February 2021].

Future Learn, n.d. The Benefits of Upcycling. [Online] Available at: https://www.futurelearn.com/info/courses/upcycling-for-change-from-green-ideas-to-startup-businesses/0/steps/67684 [Accessed February 2021].

Wikipedia, n.d. Upcycling. [Online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upcycling [Accessed February 2021].


[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upcycling

[ii] https://www.vogue.co.uk/news/article/reduce-your-water-footprint

[iii] https://www.futurelearn.com/info/courses/upcycling-for-change-from-green-ideas-to-startup-businesses/0/steps/67684

[iv] https://doneupnorth.com/blogs/latest-posts/top-ten-upcycling-tools