Kitting out your new home doesn’t need to cost a fortune. Whether you seek out savvy buys online or go bargain hunting at car-boot sales, you can pick up plenty of second-hand furniture that’s ripe for renovating or upcycling into something completely different. We asked some thrifty homeowners and upcycling experts for their top tips and ideas.
Where to bag a bargain
From junk shops and flea markets to car-boot sales, auctions and salvage yards, there are plenty of places to find bargain buys when you’re out and about. Experienced upcycler and founder of badgersvelvet.com, Ros Badger says it pays to be constantly on the lookout: “It’s about always being open to the unexpected. I go into junk and second-hand shops wherever I am. Car-boot sales are also a really good source, and you’ll find them in most places around the country. Or for slightly swankier upcycling, try antiques fairs, like the twice-monthly one at Kempton Park Racecourse1. Don’t be afraid to ask dealers what their best price is and to negotiate.” Search for car-boot sales near you at carbootjunction.com and antiques fairs at iacf.co.uk.
Online marketplaces are also great for bargain hunting. Some have sections for free listings, too, which are yours for just the cost of picking the item up. Also look for free stuff on ilovefreegle.org, which is organised around community-based groups so you can see what’s available in your area. Local social media groups and marketplace apps like Shpock are also good options.
When it comes to bargain hunting online, Ros advises: “I find looking online works best when I’m after something specific, because there’s just so much there. I always look very carefully at the photographs and check the dimensions. And I find out as much as I can about the material something’s made of. You can’t just assume that it’s a nice piece of old pine or whatever.”
What to look for
Ros Badger, badgersvelvet.com
If you’re putting in the effort to upcycle something, you want it to last, so – if you’re not buying online – test before you buy: sit on chairs, lean on tables to check for wobbliness, open drawers and generally give the item a good look-over. Ideally, go for real wood over MDF because it’s far easier to work with and, if you’re buying metal furniture, make sure it’s solid and has a robust feel. Don’t be put off by scratches, marks, dents and the like – these all add character and can often be camouflaged.
Upcycling experts Jenny Vaughan and Simon Young travel widely to find furniture and objects (and ways to transform them) for their website2 and store – RE, in Corbridge, Northumberland. “As this is our full-time business, we’re lucky enough to be looking, hunting and thinking all the time,” they say. “When something unusual catches your eye, go for it, but obviously do some checks – things like woodworm, hinges, whether it’s manageable for you. A lot of problems can be overcome, but there may be a cost involved. Beware of things that need a lot of work. If you haven’t got the knowledge and skill to work on it yourself, it can be very expensive.”
Some of the best finds are pieces that you can upcycle over and over again, changing their look as you update your home. Liz Bauwens, author of Upcycled Chic and Modern Hacks and owner of vintage shop Otto Trading3, says: “One of my biggest upcycling successes was an old shop drawer unit, bought many years ago. It’s survived several changes of address and has been used in many different places – a hallway, a bedroom, a children’s room, and back to a hallway. I’ve painted it a different colour in each situation, and it’s had its handles changed many times, from wooden knobs to pretty glass.”
Ros adds that it’s best to trust your instincts and your own taste: “One of the most unusual things I’ve picked up is a pair of gilded ornamental branches with leaves on – they look sort of like crazy antlers! I didn’t know what they were or what I was going to do with them, but I bought them because they were lovely and not that expensive. I’ve placed them horizontally above the fireplace in my house, and hung them with old glass chandelier drops – which I also collect. They’re just decorative, but very beautiful.”
From trash to treasure
Hester Van Overbeek, hestershandmadehome.com
Author and blogger Hester van Overbeek4 uses her self-taught DIY and craft skills to transform what most of us would think of as junk into creative and quirky pieces for her South Coast home. Wooden pallets become shelving units; an old door is reinvented as a bench; and worn jeans are upcycled into cushion covers.
“Everything can be turned into something,” says Hester. “So have a good look round and be creative.” One of Hester’s favourite projects is her built-in bedroom wardrobe – made using an inexpensive shop-bought pine framework, but fronted with reclaimed doors. “The doors give the wardrobe real character. I love reclaimed timber – the wear and tear, the patina and the odd shapes. I think an old door is so much more interesting than a new one.”
‘Junk’ that you can repurpose for your home can be spotted anywhere, including in skips and abandoned on the pavement – just remember to ask permission from the skip or house owner before taking anything. Hester suggests looking in family and friends’ attics or sheds. “They may have some great spare pieces.” She adds: “Reclamation yards are also brilliant – I found my dining table under a wood pile in a reclamation yard and bought it for a tenner. It’s an old school trestle table, covered in drill holes and mathematical formulae. I gave it a soft sand, painted the legs and made them a bit more sturdy. It’s one of the best-loved pieces in my home.”
Liz agrees that it helps to think laterally. One of her most successful upcycling projects is some improvised shelving she created for her shop (but which could work just as well in the home). “I had a pair of old wooden ladders which I bolted to the wall vertically on their side edges,’ she says. ‘I then ran scaffolding planks through the rungs, so I can vary the height of the shelves, and whitewashed the whole thing. Now I have versatile shelving that’s really stylish, but cost me next to nothing.”
Learn the skills
You can find courses that cover a range of upcycling skills, but most of our experts agree that online is the ideal place to look and learn – and it won’t cost you anything.
“I use online videos for everything,” says Ros. “Someone will talk through exactly how to paint a piece of furniture, from the undercoat to what type of paint to use. Even things like the best glue for sticking shells on to wooden boxes – a special type of PVA for wood, as I recently discovered!”
Upcycling bloggers like Hester are also great sources of practical and creative tips – see hestershandmadehome.com for DIY and craft tutorials on everything from upcycling pots and jars to building a cosy day bed. And look through interiors magazines and books, too.
“Inspiration has never been more readily available than it is today,” says Ros. “If you’re creative and you want to make an individual environment, it’s easy to be inspired.”
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