Moving up in the world: upcycling

Moving up in the world: upcycling

Old, a bit shabby, but you sense there's potential for something fabulous? Then upcycle it, says Kathryn Beighton

Parrot upcycled sideboard Lucy Turner

Creative, ingenious, inspired...Lucy Turner upcycles vintage furniture using Formica. This Parrot design transforms a G-Plan sideboard into a piece of modern art . Prices from £295.  

It’s become a buzzword, but in case you’re still unsure exactly how it differs from recycling, the Oxford English Dictionary defines upcycling as 'a verb meaning to re-use discarded objects or material in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original'. Or, in more common parlance, to take a tatty or outmoded piece of furniture and turn it into something attractive and up-to-the-minute.

In our still throw-away society there is plenty of old furniture ripe for the process – pine being a prime example. Go back 30 years and no trendy bedroom or kitchen was without a pine tallboy or dresser, but fashions change, and perfectly sound, sturdy pine units are often discarded or go for a song. Yet shabby chic painted pine with its hint of French chateaux is a popular choice, as Sonia Morgan of Vintage Uniques discovered. ‘I found my love of up-cycling furniture purely by chance,’ she recalls. ‘It started as a money-saving exercise when my kitchen was looking very tired but I couldn’t afford to replace it, so I painted the oak units. Once I had started I just couldn't stop.

'I do have to love the piece to want to work on it'

‘All the furniture we up-cycle is of quality manufacture and we see through the 'old ugly ducklings' and make them beautiful once more. We use various high quality ethical paints including Autentico Vintage, Annie Sloan Chalk paints, Farrow & Ball and so on, and I source my furniture from the local paper, house clearances, word of mouth and on the internet. I love dressers, and in particular Ercol dressers as they are finished beautifully – I do have to love the piece to want to work on it.’

Vintage teak from the 1950s-1970s is also a good source of up-cycling – although it is now becoming trendy enough in its own right to look at home in fashionable houses again. If you wonder what can be done with a large, old-fashioned sideboard or dressing table, take a look at Lucy Turner’s ideas on her website.


Mary Rose 8-drawer chest from Little Tree Furniture is made from reclaimed boat timbers. £475
Revamped sideboard by Lucy Turner
Funky chest of drawers by Swedish company Design By Leftovers. Prices on application
A '50s filing tray becomes a stool, from Something or Other
Old maps are turned into lampshade by Guy Trench of Antiques By Design
Fabric covered bentwood chair, £95, with fabric covered phone to boot. www.designs
Eh voila! Kiss the Frog turn an old tin bathtub into a shabby chic shelving unit

It’s not just domestic furniture that is open to up-cycling. Jenny Lloyd from Something or Other enjoys turning everything from old filing cabinets to discarded ammunition boxes into contemporary furniture. ‘When I started upcycling, the word didn’t even exist,’ she says. ‘I’d been doing this for myself for years and years before I decided to take it more seriously as a business.”

Meanwhile, out in rural Essex, Guy Chenevix-Trench of Antiques By Design turns old galvanised water tanks into coffee tables, railings into consoles, mangles and treadles into dining tables and discarded musical instruments and sporting equipment into lamps. Similar originality is on offer at East Sussex-based Little Tree Furniture where old Indian window shutters, fishing boats, railway sleepers and apothecary chests are given a new lease of life in the sitting rooms of England, while at Kiss The Frog Again tin baths become shelving units and skis and leather belts become chairs. Caroline Vincent, who founded Kiss the Frog Again with her sister Jenny sums up the joy of upcycling: 'Our ethos is simple - we live in such a throw-away society, yet we believe there's value in much that is discarded. We want to provide a vibrant and exciting alternative to mass-produced living.'


The beauty of furniture upcycling is that anybody can have a go and produce something unique for their own homes. Old furniture can be found free on sites like Freecycle, for pennies at boot sales and jumble sales, for a few pounds from newspaper small ads, Ebay or Gumtree, or a little more from auctions and secondhand shops.

Unless you are a proficient carpenter, look for pieces that are structurally sound, and always check thoroughly for woodworm and other pests. Avoid anything with those tell-tale little holes – you don’t want it spreading to the rest of your furniture. Small pieces of accidental damage can be repaired with flexible wood filler, which comes in several different shades of wood colour, or in a white version that can usually be painted over. Use wood hardener first if the wood has become spongy with damp.

Now it’s a question of using your own imagination: legs can be added or removed quite simply; pieces can be painted, varnished or decorated with decoupage, stencilling, limewash or crackle glaze; while the addition of new handles can completely change the look of an item.


Old skis and snowboards can become colourful modern garden benches. From £325. Kiss the Frog Again
Garden tools and bric a brac are bases for lamps. Antiques By Design
Glass topped table by Antiques by Design is made from a 1920s' galvanised water tank. £1,395
Great granny's monstrosity in dark-stained wood becomes pale and interesting. From Vintage Uniques

Other sustainable furniture suggestions

Restoration: It’s possible to have your original furniture restored to an extent where you’ll fall in love with it all over again. Sagging sofas can be repaired, re-stuffed and re-covered in modern fabric, while wooden furniture can be polished back to its former glory. Good craftsmanship doesn’t come cheap, however.

Vintage: Refers to items from the 20th century. This era is tremendously collectible, with original pieces from the 1950s and 1960s being particularly treasured. But it’s still possible to unearth classic pieces by companies such as Ercol and G-plan for reasonable sums.

Antique: Antique furniture means items which are a century or more old, such as Art Noveau, Arts & Crafts, Biedermeier, Regency and Revival pieces. According to dealer Caro Brewster of Domani, a Devon-based firm which specialises in selling fine antique furniture online: 'I could go on for hours about the beauty and functionality of antique furniture, but its crowning glory in this crucial time of saving the planet from over-exploitation is, of course, that not a single tree has to be cut down to make it as it has all been around for centuries. This has to be the ultimate in recycling. The derogatory adjective ‘brown’ is a complete misnomer and should be replaced with ‘green’ and prefixed by the words ‘interesting, eco friendly, environmentally friendly, functional and inherently beautiful’.' 


Green for Go: Having your own furniture restored, or buying upcycled, vintage or antique is reducing the carbon footprint connected with manufacturing new furniture, and saving older pieces from landfill.

Amber for Caution: Be careful if you are removing old paint from furniture yourself as it may contain dangerous lead.



VintageUniques-PaintedFurniture's picture

Thank you for including Vintage Uniques in this fab article.  Just browsing your pages and know I'm going to love what you are doing . ~ Sonia Morgan

Very informative article thanks