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A Clueless Fool's Guide to Upcycling: Top 5 Survival Tips

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

Written by a genuine clueless fool

Have you ever been riding on a bit of a high due to an unexpected success, gotten a bit too big for your boots and then fallen flat on your face because your overconfidence persuaded you to try something WAY beyond your skill level?

Boy, do I have a treat for you today. Welcome, children, to the wonderful world of my attempts at… UPCYCLING.

What was I thinking? Well, looking back at it all, I do know what I was thinking. I was perusing Facebook Marketplace for second-hand furniture, searching for a few bits for our soon-to-be new house. There tends to be two types of furniture on Facebook Marketplace: the bashed-up stuff that smells of nicotine and looks like someone’s thrown it off a balcony, and the nice stuff someone’s upcycled to make it look beautiful. Of course, the latter comes with a much heftier price tag.

One seller had posted up a nice-looking children’s toybox, but hadn’t actually put a price on it, so I slid into her DMs to ask her about it.

Her answer made me choke. Around twice the price of a similar, brand-new toybox I was comparing it to on Amazon.

I mean, it looked nicer than Amazon’s, but it was still second hand, for goodness’ sake. Any child could splash a tin of boring white paint on it and call it ‘upcycled’. It doesn’t mean it’s suddenly worth twice what it would’ve been brand new.

She asked me whether I wanted it.

What I wanted was to tell her, “No, madam, thou shalt not fleece me! You’re committing daylight robbery here, I tell you! Daylight robbery!

But of course, I didn’t say that. I’m far too British. I smiled my best smile and typed back something along the lines of, “Mmm, well, it’s very nice. You’ve done a lovely job of the… lamination. I’ll just go and measure some things.”

(Note: Yes, for those of you wondering… lamination is something Prue Lieth waxes lyrical about in the GBBO tent during pastry week. It has nothing, as far as I’m aware, to do with furniture.)

I then made some excuse about the dimensions not being right for my space and hot-tailed it out of the conversation before the seller realised I was talking out of my derriere, still inwardly swearing at the furniture I couldn’t afford.

I could do that, I thought. I could easily sand down some of the furniture I’ve already got and give it a coat of paint. How hard could it be?

Famous. Last. Words.

It turns out I’m horribly bad at upcycling. I’m learning, but the curve is steep. So as I sit here, curled on my sofa, covered in days’ worth of paint, aching all over and trying not to think about my poor life choices and the chaos I’ve created all around me, I thought I’d take a moment to share some of the tips I’ve learned over the last week. Less of a ‘how-to’ guide, and more of a ‘how-not-to’.

Buckle up, buttercups, and get ready for the grim and paint-splattered world of UPCYCLING: a Fool’s Guide, written by a genuine fool.

Tip 1: Choose your Project Carefully

No matter how simple you think this upcycling adventure is going to be, or how good you think you might be at it, do yourself a favour and START SMALL. I cannot express this strongly enough. Pick out a battered old bedside cabinet or little side-table. Choose something you won’t cry yourself to sleep over if you accidentally destroy it. Pick one project and stick with it, using it as practise for developing all the different skills you’re going to need without putting your grandmother’s priceless antique cabinet in the firing line.

Do not, as I did, run away with grand ideas of having all the furniture in your living room matching, then get impatient and try to do lots of things at once. ‘Oh, but this table is going to take so long to dry, I might as well get a headstart with this cabinet while I wait,’ I thought. NO. BAD RACHEL. Put the electric sanding machine down, for the love of goodness, and have some patience.

Because otherwise, what happens is you end up with a collection of random furniture legs, doors, hinges, screws… and guess what? You’ve just painted them all the same frigging identical colour. They’re wet, they’re sticky, and they’re scattered all over your house. There’s not enough room for all the pieces to dry, and no longer any way of telling which bit belongs with what. It’s like getting a bunch of jigsaw puzzles and throwing all the pieces in together for funsies… but messier, more expensive, far less fun, and the smell of all the paint will make you want to die.

Rachel is a paint-encrusted twit with no patience. Don’t be like Rachel. Think through your project before you start!

Tip 2: Location, location, location.

It goes without saying that you should think about where you’re going to put each particular piece of furniture before deciding how to paint it, and be sure that it’s actually going to fit where you’re imagining it to go.

I’m getting a bit overexcited about the house we’re trying to buy, which currently has the living / dining room decorated in a charming shade of fuchsia pink. As I don’t particularly want the song "Barbie Girl" to play in my head every time I enter my main living space, I’m reimagining the space instead in a lovely shade of Bridgerton blue, offset by white and gold in what I hope will be a very classy-looking combination. I’ve spent plenty of time looking at wallpaper (the ultimate middle class pastime) and chosen one I think will be perfect, and now I’ve picked my furniture paint to match. All systems are go.

Only trouble is, I can’t yet go in there and take measurements as it’s not yet my house. I have a few items of furniture which I know I want to keep, but as I don’t have accurate dimensions yet, I’m not completely sure whereabouts in the house it will end up.

Now, I’ve got a choice to make… do I do as I’ve imagined with this furniture and hope it all fits in the spaces I want to put it in? Or do I hold fire until I know for certain? Knowing my lack of patience, I will throw caution to the wind and go for it anyway. However, I know I’m running a risk here. If my lovely white-and-Bridgerton-blue chest has to be sanded down and repainted because it’s now going in my son’s red-and-royal-blue Lightning McQueen themed bedroom instead, I will have wasted a lot of time and paint, and I may just have to sit in a corner and cry for a while.

Either way, I just hope nobody damages that furniture as it’s moving between houses, because if I have to sand it all down AGAIN to repair the dents, I may not be responsible for the fire-breathing monster I become.

I may be coming back to this section at some point in the future to update you all with advice on how to avoid the mistakes I’m about to make… but for now, if you’re not sure where your item is going, try to have a little more patience than I have!

One last thing while we’re on the subject of planning where to put furniture: don’t forget to think about the little details too. For example, you don’t want to use the kinds of metal hinges or screws that will rust if your furniture is going outside or in a steamy bathroom. I’ve invested in a good Rustoleum sealant spray, which should protect anything that might be forced to brave the elements. Think it through before opening your wallet, and you’ll thank yourself for it later when you're not having to pay out again to repair the damage.

Tip 3: Choose your paint carefully

There’s more to paint than pretty colours, it turns out! Do your research on paint types before you get started. They all have their advantages and weaknesses, and you’ll find that you need to consider the purpose of that piece of furniture before you start mucking about with paintbrushes.

For example, the kind of paint you’d need for garden furniture will be very different from the sort of paint you might want to use on your TV cabinet. Do you need it to be waterproof? Hardwearing? Wipeable? What sort of finish are you looking for- do you prefer the fashionable elegance of chalky paint, or are you looking for a shiny gloss effect that will catch your tears of despair as you have to sand off yet another accidental fingerprint? Choices, choices...

Just in case you weren't confused enough, you also need to consider the material you’re painting. A soft wood or porous clay will suck in liquid like a groom on a stag do unless you use some sort of primer or sealant, but something like metal or laminate will need totally different preparation and specialist paint if you want it to stand any chance of sticking.

You’re not going to want to use porous chalk-effect paint on a dining table, only to have your toddler immediately redecorate it with spaghetti Bolognese. In the same way, you wouldn’t want to use a toxic lead-based paint on the custom-made dog house you’re trying to build, or you could land yourself with a very expensive vet bill if little Rover decides to have a nibble on one of the corners.

And we all know he will, the little sod.

Tip 4: Select your Weapons

Even things like brushes and rollers can open you up to a whole world of overwhelming choice. Sometimes marketing will dupe you into forking over a fortune for a fancy tool which really doesn’t do anything more special than the cheap store-brand version. Other times, quality matters and you’ll be making a false economy by choosing the cheap option. I spent three times more on a cheap-brand paint than I would’ve done if I’d just gone for the fancy stuff in the first place, just because it needed SO many more coats of the stuff just to look half decent. Reading reviews on different paints and tools before you buy will help to to work out what’s worth the asking price and what deserves to die alone on a shelf like a nineteenth-century spinster unmarried at the age of one-and-twenty.

As with anything, do your research before you make any decisions, and think through the practicalities of your choices before throwing your money down the toilet. You can’t return opened paint tins, no matter how strong your claim of diminished responsibility due to the sight of all the pretty colours. I know. I’ve tried.

Tip 5: Think about your environment

All the upcycling videos I watched showed chilled-looking people in studios, smiling while they added delicate shreds of gold leaf to their creations with their Cath Kidston tweezers. Calming music played in the background as they explained, with all the serenity of nuns on a spa day, the importance of making sure you have proper ventilation in your chosen workspace, and cover surrounding surfaces to avoid paint drips. Not that these people ever drip paint, of course. They’re far too sophisticated for such things, their clothes and skin always suspiciously spotless. What are those paint-repelling false nails made of, anyway? Teflon? I digress.

The reality, my friends, is nothing like the videos. You won’t be working in a swanky studio. You’ll maybe be working in your garage, where there’s no electricity, you’re choking on dust, and you’re in constant danger of gangly spiders and other creatures of the dark throwing themselves to their deaths onto your newly-painted surface. Or perhaps, like me, you’ll have kids to supervise at the same time… in which case you’ll be doing it in your living room.

No spa music for you, my friend. Instead, you’ll be doing your upcycling project to the calming sounds of your children bickering over the one-toy-in-thousands that they both MUST have at that very moment. You won’t be able to hear them anyway, of course, because you’ll be too busy trying to prevent the dog from stealing and running away with your wet paint brush, dripping brilliant white gloss all across the carpet and flicking it up the walls as he gleefully dodges your attempts to catch him. When you finally do manage to wrestle your paintbrush off the dog, you’ll look back to find your toddler merrily splashing in the pot of paint while the cat is curled up, purring, right on top of the wet tabletop you’d just spent the last hour painting.

Hope you’re comfy, Puss. That was gloss. You’re stuck there forever now.

Of course, if you have the luxury of a garden, you could always choose to go ‘al-fresco’ and take your project outside to paint. There are many advantages to this. No pungent paint stinking out the house, no carpets to destroy or walls to scrub afterwards. Just you, a nice fresh breeze to keep you from paint-fume headaches, and the sunshine to make it all dry faster. Lovely.

Until you realise that the wind is blowing bits of leaf debris all over your freshly-painted project, and little flies are now stuck to it too, and whoopee, a nice fat WASP has come to join the party. He’s angrily paddling in your paintwork, getting more and more irate as he becomes increasingly stuck, and you know that if you try to rescue him, he is GOING to kill you. As you contemplate leaving him there and claiming that he’s an intentional part of your inspired modern design, you feel it… the first few spots of rain.

Quick! Everybody in, wasp and all. Time to run for cover before your hours’ worth of work is ruined beyond repair. You drag your dripping project, piece by piece, into the house, which of course causes wet paint to splatter all over the floor, your clothes, the curtains, the furniture you already thought you’d finished… and now you’ve got sticky great fingerprints and water splashes all over the newly painted projects, which you’re now going to have to sand down and start again. If you’re really unlucky, you might’ve even knocked the furniture against something in your rush to get it in, which now means using wood filler to patch up the dent before you strip it all down and give it another go.

You can’t even take a few deep breaths to calm yourself, as the paint fumes now wafting around your house will probably kill you (if the wasp doesn’t get there first).


The spiders in the garage don’t look so bad now, eh?

The moral of the story is this: think about what you’re going to be doing BEFORE you start doing it. Sanding things down outside is for the best, as it reduces the amount of dust and other nasties floating around your house. However, unless you happen to have a cloudless, still day ahead of you, don’t assume that going alfresco is necessarily the best option. Use a garage if you’ve got one, or do it indoors once your kids have gone to bed so that it can dry undisturbed (hopefully) overnight.

Alternatively, sit down, pour yourself a glass of wine and reconsider buying that upcycled furniture you saw in the shop instead.

I won't tell if you don't.

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