How to easily upcycle furniture and save yourself thousands

There’s something innately cool about women who DIY. It might be the self reliance and self confidence that a woman with a hand tool exudes. We DIY upcycle furniture to save money and sometimes to make money.

What has this got to do with financial freedom, you ask? A big part of financial freedom is really thinking about where to spend your money and where not to. Upcycling furniture is a great way to revamp your home decor without spending big bucks. And then there’s the satisfaction you feel in your bones at taking something at the end of its ‘shelf life’ and make it new and beautiful again. You can even make it a side hustle. All it takes is just a few DIY skills and you can get some truly beautiful results with simple changes.

So let’s take a look at how to start upcycling furniture from scratch. We’ll also share 4 recent upcycle projects from the last 3 months, and how much money we saved!

What is upcycling?

Upcycling is the act of taking an object or material that is no longer wanted or needed and turning it into something new and useful. It’s a more environmentally friendly alternative to recycling, because upcycled products require less energy to produce than recycled products.

Furniture upcycling is the process of taking an old, outdated piece of furniture and breathing new life into it. Sometimes all that’s needed to revive an old piece of furniture is a little bit of TLC. Other times, a piece may be so badly damaged that it needs to be completely rebuilt from scratch. The good news is that there are loads of creative upcycling techniques to suit different DIY skill levels. You don’t need any particular skills to start!

7 reasons upcycling furniture is good for you and your wallet

If you haven’t upcylced anything before, here are 7 reasons to give it a shot:

  1. You get a custom outcome – you can transform an old outdated piece into something that is tailored to your home and decor. Check out our recent custom dining table transformation!
  2. You save loads of money on buying retail and buying new.
  3. You’re taking trash out of the system, which can only be a good thing for the environment
  4. You can do it as a side hustle! Seriously, sourcing free or cheap furniture, upcycling it and selling it on can be a great side hustle. It’s called ‘furniture flipping’. We have flipped the odd piece of furniture and know of folks who make good money from it.
  5. You get to learn new skills for free – just search what you need on Youtube.
  6. It’s creatively very satisfying. I love looking around my house and seeing the furniture we have upcycled and thinking “I did that and girl, it looks goooood’!
  7. It’s empowering! Once you can handle a drill, sander, and paint brush you’ll be amazed at the little home improvement projects you’ll feel confident taking on.

What do you need to start upcycling?

Some folks, especially women, are afraid to try DIY projects like upcycling furniture. They’re worried about not knowing what to do or about stuffing it up. But we think they are the perfect little starter project to get your feet wet with home improvement DIY!

  1. Imagination!
  2. Youtube! This is an unlikely second, but outside of my dad Youtube has taught us just about all we know about DIY home improvement. You can find how to guides on just about everything, from how to use a belt sander to the best paint stripping techniques for stained timber… Get on it!
  3. Universal screwdriver or drill – to remove fittings and hinges
  4. A drop cloth to protect your floors
  5. Paint stripper and paint scraper – especially if you want to remove stain from the timber
  6. Sanding tools – a belt sander for heavy jobs or an orbital sander for light ones
  7. Fine sand paper – to smooth the sanded timber to the touch
  8. New fittings or revived old ones
  9. Paint or stain – to refinish the furniture
  10. Sealer or varnish – to protect the paint finish and surface from knocks or bangs

Where to find furniture and what to look for

The best place to look for furniture to upcycle are your own home or garage (yes it’s true!), curbside collection, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist (in the US) or GumTree (in Oz). From our experience there are three types of items that both upcycle and on-sell really well:

Solid natural timber pieces.

If you can buy a side table, coffee table or chest of draws for the beautiful timber and strip it back to it’s natural grain these go on to sell well. Stripping paint or varnish from timber can be time consuming. But you don’t have to strip the whole piece! Check out our dining table transformation below to see what we mean.

Classic Ikea pieces.

Ikea is huge for a reason. The brand has some classic furniture lines that are affordable and that people really love. The Hemnes range is one. If you can find anything in this line in good condition, they on-sell quickly on Facebook market place in our experience. Classic Ikea lines like this one and good enough quality to upcycle and look really great.

Anything retro.

in 2014 we bought a deceased estate investment property with some beautiful retro walnut timber lounge chairs and a sofa, in mint condition. I regret every day that we didn’t buy them as part of the sale. It was the kind of retro furniture you see selling for thousands a piece in designer furniture stores. Retro timber furniture at a reasonable price is extremely sought after. By simply re-upholstering the cushions we could have made decent money upcycling that set. The same goes for anything retro that is upholstered with a skirt. Remove the skirt, maybe add some legs and bob’s your uncle.

4 easy techniques to upcycle furniture (for beginners)

These are simple techniques that you can master without extensive DIY experience, and use to build confidence for more complex upcycle projects.

1. Remove components – fixtures, upholstery or panels.

Often less is more when it comes to modernising something. Removing strategically from a piece of furniture can truly transform it from piece that belongs in your nanna’s house to a contemporary statement piece. We say ‘strategically’ because you don’t want to remove anything structural – bracing or framing for example. It’s more about removing ornate decorative panels, fixtures such as handles, decorative metal, fabric skirting and sometimes legs. You can also remove glass panes or mirrors to contemporize furniture. Look for outdated decorative detail that is screwed, nailed or ‘puttied’ on. This way you can take it off without damaging the furniture itself.

2. Simple repairs.

We once made a quick $60 buying an Ikea tallboy on Facebook and then flipping it within the same afternoon. The original owner didn’t want the tallboy anymore because the backing panel had come loose and popped out. We simply unscrewed the side panel, slid the backing into place again and tightened all the screws. Voila! Perfectly good classic Ikea tallboy ready to on-sell. Solid or classic furniture with loose screws,, nails, hinges, and handles can be revived with simple repairs.

3. Clean, polish and replace hardware

This one’s easy because all you need is:

  • cleaning agents (which you’d probably have at home),
  • timber polish or wax
  • a screwdriver or drill
  • fittings, which you would either buy new or you could upcycle the original ones with etcher and spray paint.

You’re looking for classic pieces of furniture in great condition that you can clean, maybe polish the timber and either remove, improve or replace the old outdated hardware. It’s best to find these types of items free (like sitting on a curbside) if you want to upsell as their is less room for arbitrage. You could also look to arbitrage different marketplaces. Garage or estate sales, Craigslist (in the US) or Gumtree (in Oz) can be great to source super cheap items that folks just want to get rid of. Facebook marketplace is a good platform to upsell these once you’ve upcycled.

Back in the late 1990s I lived and worked in Japan for a couple of years, in a town called Kobe. We were dead poor when we arrived to our empty company lodgings. We ended up furnishing our whole house out of curbside finds . We’d go on ‘gomi’ hunts at midnight once a month when the neighbours put out their unwanted bulky items. We’d clamber up giant piles of furniture and return home with the most incredible stuff! Everything free, everything in working condition and perfect for this type of upcycling.

4. Stripping, sanding and repainting or staining

Up the skill curve slightly (but still at beginner level) comes repainting or re-staining techniques. Repainting or staining furniture is not just a matter of slapping on new coat of paint. A lot furniture is finished with protective varnishes or shellac paints. Some furniture looks like timber but it’s actually timber veneer. If you paint straight over these sufraces with normal paint, chances are the new paint won’t stick and your freshly upcycled piece will be chipped and peeling in no time!

Paint and stain is as much about preparation as it is application. 🙂

upcycle furniture
Stripping and sanding this 20 year old Tasmanian oak tabletop back to its natural timber

There is additional equipment for this method. You might need paint stripping agents, a paint scraper, sand paper, power sander, paint brush, primer, paint, clear varnish and so on. You also need to know a little about working with wood – how to follow the grain and what grit sand paper to use and when.

Once you’ve mastered these techniques you should feel confident to step the upcyling up a level. More complex techniques involve patching, or some basic joinery to add panels, rattan, decoupage, unholstery and so on.

Our projects (and how much we saved)

Many of you will know we moved to Tasmania and bought a new house in August 2021. Like any DIY enthusiasts, we’ve been steadily working through a ‘to do’ list of improvements to make the house our own. Here are 4 upcycle projects we’ve done in the last 3 months around our new home!

These 4 projects cost us a total of $240 and took around 11 hours to complete.
We estimate we saved around $2300 on buying the same items retail.

Custom oak dining table.

We have a solid Tasmanian oak dining table in a classic french provincial style that is about 20 years old. The table had been stained various colours over its life. After we moved house, the dark walnut stain didn’t suit the light Tassie oak aesthetic of our new kitchen. Because I knew the table was Tassie oak underneath, I decided to take the tabletop back to its original raw and natural finish.

The table top now ties in beautifully with our Tassie oak flooring and trims, and the legs are painted to match the colour of surrounding cabinetry and window treatments. We LOVE the result!

Cost: $30 for paint stripper, $149 for new Ryobi battery, $15 for sanding belts.

Time: 8 hours

Retail price purchased new: $1700

Cute fire wood storage.

For this project we found an old plywood box with rope handles on a neighbouring farm. The box was chipped and falling apart, but we thought it would make the perfect storage for our kindling. We re-screwed the box together, used wood putty to repair the chips, and then gave the whole thing a sand down on the outside. Then it was just a matter of applying some primer, three coats of paint and some stencilled letters. The best thing? This was all done with materials and tools we had on hand!

Total cost: Free!

Time: 2 hours.

Etsy for price firewood storage: $115

Standing desk with a view.

This standing desk for two is upcycled from the solid timber barn door we had in the kitchen and no longer needed. We bought some raw timber and 4 hinges and made two trestle frames to hold up the barn door table top. It’s large enough for the two of us to work without rubbing elbows and then there are those dreamy views of rolling hills and the mountain..

Cost: $45 for the timber and hinges

Time: 3 hours

Retail price for timber trestle desk: $500

upcycle furniture

the Cow Bar.

One of the best parts of our new home is the outdoor area. It overlooks our little creek and gives stunning views of rolling hills speckled with Friesian cows. Not to mention our Mt Roland on the horizon. We recently christened our outdoor space “The Cow Bar” with this honorary sign. It all started with a piece of timber salvaged for free from the local waste transfer station. After a simple sand and paint, we stencilled the letters on and then attached some rope to hang!

Cost: Free

Time: 1 hour

Etsy price for custom timber sign: $100

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