Low budget beauties: the many highs of upcycling

By Shelley Wildgen

up·cy·cle verb
reuse (discarded objects or material) in such a way as to create a product of a higher quality or value than the original.

It’s a thing. A great thing. The opportunity to refresh and redecorate is available to everyone because if there is one thing we all have in common, it’s trash. Lots of it. The trick is to stare at it for a really long time and then begin to see it as something different. Something useful; beautiful even. Waydreaming, I call it. That’s the luxurious part right before the actual upcycling work takes place.

Imagination is definitely an asset when setting one’s mind to upcycling, but it’s not entirely necessary. Sometimes upcycling simply involves ridding yourself of the ‘extras’ and shining up the good, old stuff that’s left. Or you can reinvent an item that’s overstayed its welcome. All good! There are countless upcycling sources that will give you the ideas and the methods to put it all together and the end result is equally noble. You will have created something that isn’t exactly what it was but still has purpose. Sort of like an ‘alternative fact’, except that it’s real and better for the environment.

Like just about everything that’s good for the environment, upcycling can be as simple, creative or complicated as you want it to be. Whichever route you elect to take – creatively original or copied from someone else - it’s all positive. Good for your mind and good for the land we live in. Now, you can go full-on upcycle with Instructabcles.com, a tutorial website which is sort of a DIY/upcycling hybrid type deal, where you can learn everything from what do with all those pallets we see everywhere to how to make a ‘nap tub’. Oh yes!

Upcyclethat.com is a favourite website, home to the motorcycle lamp and plenty of tree branch décor. You’ll find a healthy dose of fun and relatively simple projects with the emphasis on whimsy. Then there’s Recyclart.org, a super elaborate website. It has a database and everything. A lot of people spring to attention at the mere mention of ‘database’. Recyclart has upcycling organized and sectioned off into methodology etc. Whatever floats your duct tape boat.

I prefer to stare at things for a long time and let them take shape, but that just goes with my sloth-like personality. You have to find what sort of upcycling modus operandi works for you and then get to it. If a lot of pre-project online inspiration is necessary, a great upcycling place for upstarts is Pinterest.com. You’ll get to see myriad creative efforts from everywhere. And really, what’s not to love about a tea light-infested piece of driftwood!

There’s a fine line between upcycling and crafting because, really, crafting has been a form of upcycling since the advent of the macaroni art we all made in grade school. The difference is that a dedicated upcycler just might build an entire house of macaroni. Upcycling can be as big or small a project you wish to take on. Each unquestionably ends with a hands-on-hips moment and a big, self-satisfied “There!”

The unwavering desire to turn trash into treasure is something I come by honestly, I think. Sometime in the 1950s, my grandfather transformed an old radio into a china cabinet (I have since reinvented it as a liquor cabinet). In recent years, I’ve created a jewellery holder from an old wooden window screen, my husband’s childhood bedroom window has been made into a mirror and various family heirloom pressed back chairs have been reborn in silver and some in red – with the shake of a spray paint can. It’s just not that difficult to reimagine, reinvent and redo.

Last year’s upcycling challenge was found in our 150-year-old PEI farmhouse. When a house is that old, filling it with new ‘pictures of wood’ furniture and accessories just seems wrong. I found inspiration everywhere! Junque shops, roadside cast-offs, Kijiji and our own backyard. Treasures were scattered all over the property: plaster planters, side tables, even the chassis of an old truck – all found in the tiny woods behind the house. Now this may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I adore ancient relics enhanced by fresh paint. It’s like giving them a victory lap after a lifetime of service, and I just plain like the look. I brought a picket fence inside, treated it with various paints and potions then propped it up in the freshly painted kitchen next to some rotted old red barn windows and an oversized fork of unknown origins. If you’re squeamish about the germ factor, just scrub and seal.

Inspiration can be found anywhere. This picket fence and the worn old red barn windows now live inside the house in a lovely freshly painted kitchen.

Inspiration can be found anywhere. This picket fence and the worn old red barn windows now live inside the house in a lovely freshly painted kitchen.

The stairs to the bedrooms were an eclectic combination of brown paint and wallpapered risers. A friend suggested I remove the wallpaper and sand off the brown paint to see what was underneath. Voila, a pretty aqua blue showed through so now we have a nice, sanded blend of the old brown and even older blue paint resurfacing with a whole new look – and not a cent spent. A kind of stylish, newish set of not-so-fresh island farm stairs, and I love them!

The largest project at our PEI farmhouse was the upstairs bathroom, which was previously an unused attic. Now, I certainly had a lot of help with this project as the ability to plumb and drywall is nowhere to be found in my tool belt. But once our friend, Morley, did the rough stuff, laid the floor (some leftover shiplap from the local hardware store) and installed the fixtures, I was able to bring my trashy design sensibility to the room. I found a huge bag of old metal letters from a factory teardown at a yard sale down the street. It took precisely five seconds to spell the word ‘LOO’ for the bathroom wall. A bunkbed ladder was found in the attic, and after a little sanding, painting and sanding again it became our towel shelf. The pride of realizing this bathroomy rustic retreat dream was so enormous that I had to crown it with a chandelier.

Sometimes an empty space is the greatest inspiration. A previously small unfinished attic is now a lovely bathroom retreat.

Sometimes an empty space is the greatest inspiration. A previously small unfinished attic is now a lovely bathroom retreat.

Now, back in Ontario, my discerning eye for upcycled décor has been taking a gander at the riverside home of my daughter, Laura and her fiancé, Sam. If your kids think they may need some help fixing up their house, cash is low and they wonder if you can get them started – DO IT! It’s a privilege and a compliment to be asked – truly, it is. Here’s what I know. They trust me. They know I won’t throw out much. Sentimentally saved baby boots may become salt and pepper shakers by day’s end, but I won’t throw them out. I KID!!! The purging is up to them. They leave a stash for me to work with. What I didn’t know was how much fun and how rewarding upcycle renovating other people’s stuff would be! The starting point was Laura and Sam’s humble bungalow on the Moira River. Dark cupboards, dark paneling, many tiny rooms. Cozy, right? Well, OK. But mostly, it was dark, with a view of the river! See where I’m going? That pretty sight was a great motivator. Sam chose the house for where it was and that’s smart. Now, my challenge was to make the inside as pretty as the outside.

Colour me basic but starting fresh always includes lots of white. Objective: white, light and happy. Translation: Maritime White (by Benjamin Moore) paint on all walls and Pure White paint from Canadian Tire on all trim and doors. For accompanying colours, we chose an inspiring vase – blue, two greens and a splash of red. Then it was go time.

This isn’t HGTV and I don’t have a real budget, but I do have time. Afternoons mostly. The money part worked out because we shopped mainly from their garage, my house and the ReStore in Belleville (365 Bell Boulevard). All very budget friendly choices. The trick to effective upcycling is not about making something out of nothing with everything. It’s more about choosing the right things. Some things for this project were made into other things, like the workbench my brother built years ago – now, with a coat of paint and a butcher block topping it is a magnificent kitchen island! Other things were already pretty good. Solid wood cabinets may have clunky handles and some banged up dark stain on them but they’re solid wood cabinets and they definitely get a second life.

A kitchen renovation is an expensive undertaking. If your budget doesn’t allow for the big reno and the footprint is good tackle the surfaces and reuse, repaint, relight…use your imagination.

A kitchen renovation is an expensive undertaking. If your budget doesn’t allow for the big reno and the footprint is good tackle the surfaces and reuse, repaint, relight…use your imagination.

Week One was devoted to the dark kitchen with the river view. Kitchen cupboards were patched, primed and reinvented with a can of white paint and some leftover cupboard handles from our house (which were actually some leftover handles from my friend, Deb’s house). The real reward for a clutterbug is to paint the insides of the cupboards and fill only with necessary items.

The cool thing about taking on a house-sized upcycling project is that friends often want to help. They come by with paintbrushes and cups of tea. And Laura and Sam pick up where I leave off every weekend, sometimes clearing a room or adding another coat of paint. The finer, expert touches are left to the pro. Our handy friend and contractor, Joe Z. looks after a lot of the heavy lifting and often sees things that could use some value-added help, like topping the workbench with a bamboo worktop and quietly picking up two $5 task lights at the ReStore and installing them directly above the sink (in place of the previous Christmas light adorned fluorescent tube).

Now, some of the larger details. Doors. The two small bedrooms off the living room had a bi-fold door and a curtain on them. The whole look needed a little love. Maybeeee some….used French doors! Ooo la la! Keeping in mind that our budget is only as big as what’s left in my wallet after grocery day, I headed to the ReStore in Belleville. OK, so aside from the tidiness of the ReStore, the first thing I noticed was how helpful their volunteers are. I can be a little flaky when describing a project so while explaining my rather abstract need for French doors on bedrooms which are off the living room, I was delighted to be guided directly to a pair of $45 white French doors with bubbly privacy glass in them. Really! And the old bi-fold doors? They’ll be painted and repurposed as a coat closet at the front door.

I have to admit I’m more than a little excited about the next living room switch up when an extra (and unsightly) exterior door gets camouflaged by one of our family’s century old log cabin quilts. The door will be behind the quilt and the frame of the door will serve as a frame for the quilt which will hang off a piece of dowling. I already measured. You bet I did!

So, that’s about where I am now. Kitchen: painted and fluffed, living room/dining room paint almost complete, French doors hung on the bedrooms. The laundry room is now being transformed into a dressing room (with wee chandelier). There’s no denying this is a big project and it will probably continue for a few months, easily, but knowing I can breathe newish life into an old house for hundreds, not thousands, of dollars and a bit of pondering – is exhilarating!

If the budget doesn’t allow for large renovations entire rooms can be transformed and given new life with the right paint colours and less expensive changes such as new doors, hardware, lighting and décor.

If the budget doesn’t allow for large renovations entire rooms can be transformed and given new life with the right paint colours and less expensive changes such as new doors, hardware, lighting and décor.

The best part? Whatever you choose to re-purpose, you simply won’t make a mistake. It can’t be any worse than how it started so you can take a run at it again and again and again. If you do take on the upcycling of a house, I think an important thing to remember is not to get too carried away – construction wise. Hiccups will happen so be flexible with your vision, leave the big stuff to a trusted expert, and see the incredible difference you can make with a paintbrush, a mittful of sandpaper and a drill…then get as carried away as your triceps will allow.

Looking for inspiration or a place to start? Numerous Country Roads advertisers carry the perfect products for your upcycling vision, or offer workshops and ideas on how to get your low budget project on the go. Flip through the pages of this issue and pay these businesses a visit.