How to ‘Upcycle’ Furniture, Because That Shit’s Expensive

How to ‘Upcycle’ Furniture, Because That Shit’s Expensive
Photo: sarasang, Getty Images

Upcycling furniture can add original flair to your space while keeping furniture out of the landfill — a real win-win, especially when you remember how expensive it is to buy new furniture, and how much of it isn’t built to last unless you’re willing to pay top dollar. (And maybe even then…) If you go the upcycling route, you can save money by finding furniture anywhere and figuring out how to make it work in your space. Here are some pointers to get you started on your upcycling adventure.

Where to find furniture to rescue

You’ll often spy unwanted but still perfectly serviceable furniture out with the trash or left on the street. This can be a viable way to source rescuable items, but personally, I’d skip the curb couches, or anything with a lot of cushion — it’s best to know as much as possible about where your soft, upholstered pieces are coming from. Neighbourhood free groups, yard and estate sales, thrift outlets, and your very own garage are all places to look for likely candidates. Furniture made from solid wood or metal is a good choice, as pressboard and composites can break more easily and be more difficult to upgrade. Imagination and an ability to see the potential in what’s in front of you are necessary to choose the right piece for you, but don’t be afraid to err on the side of practicality, either — if a project is going to take more work to perfect than you can realistically accomplish, leave it for someone more industrious.

Start small

If redoing or rebuilding a whole piece of furniture seems ambitious to you, try starting with a simple upholstery project. If you’ve got a worn out headboard or and threadbare dining room chair that you want to salvage, that would be a good projects to start with. These jobs require some fabric, batting, a staple gun, and maybe a few other simple tools, but they won’t require a lot of construction to complete.

For reupholstering, the first step is to remove the old fabric with a staple puller (or a flathead screwdriver) and some pliers. If you’re working on a chair seat, you’ll need to remove the seat first by unscrewing it from underneath. If it’s a headboard, remove it from the bed. Then, stretch your new layer of batting evenly over your surface, wrap it around to the back, and staple it on. Once the batting is secure, take your new piece of upholstery and fold the back or bottom edge under. Staple it along the underside or back side of your piece, beginning in the middle and working your way to the edges, smoothing away wrinkles as you go. Repeat this step along the opposite edge, and then sides. Finally, work your corners into a “hospital corner” like you would on a bed sheet and attach those too. Trim excess fabric in the corners if it’s looking too bulky.

Change your hardware

It’s surprising what a new set of handles or drawer pulls can do for a piece, and it’s just about the easiest upgrade there is. Look for hardware that fits the existing number holes in your furniture so you don’t end up with a bunch of visible holes left behind that you’ll need to patch.

It goes beyond drawer pulls: Some sofas, chairs, dressers, and sideboards have legs that screw in from the bottom. If they’re scratched up or look dated, you can replace them with something new. If you’re unsure of the size, take your old hardware to the store with you for comparison, or shop online for sites that offer a range of custom replacements. Speaking of which…

Add new legs

Old desks and tables with damaged or missing legs can be rescued by replacing them. It’s unlikely you’ll find an exact match for the leg you want to replace, so it’s usually a good idea to replace all of them at once. If the legs screw in from underneath, you can simply unscrew them (phew). Some legs will have brackets or other hardware holding them in place, but you can get new brackets for the new leg you choose to add if the old ones don’t fit. You can buy pre-made legs, or if you’ve got the tools, make your own. New legs can also lend a modern feel to an older piece.

A fresh coat of paint

You can breathe new life into a piece of furniture by sanding and painting it. First, sand off the old, uneven finish until your furniture is smooth. Wipe it clean with a damp rag, then paint or refinish. Make sure to apply the paint as evenly as possible to keep the surface smooth. It’s a good idea to prime your piece first to ensure an even coat if you’re changing the colour drastically.

Turn a shelf into a cabinet

An old bookcase can easily be converted into a cabinet with the addition of doors to its front. Old shutters or kitchen cabinet doors can be repurposed — or, if you’ve got the skills and the tools, you can build some to fit. All you will need to attach your doors is a screw gun and hinges. First, attach one side of your cabinet hinges onto the inside of your door. Then, open the hinges and line your door up to the edge of your self in an open position. Attach the cabinet hinges to the edge of the shelf with the door open and level. You can set the bottom edge of the door on a shim or a scrap of wood to help keep it level. Add a magnetic cabinet catch to keep the doors closed. Finish your piece with matching paint to pull it all together.

Use your imagination

Older furniture can be repurposed in many ways; the only real rule is to check for lead and mould before you bring a piece into your home. Reducing waste while saving money is about as good as it gets when it comes to home furnishing (that shit’s expensive). Be creative and bring your own style to your one-of-a-kind upcycled treasures.

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