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A guide to upcycling and repurposing


With the phenomenal rise in popularity recently of programmes such as The Repair Shop and Money For Nothing, the phrases upcycling and repurposing are heard more and more frequently. But what exactly do they mean and is there a difference between the two?

The difference between upcycling and repurposing

When you upcycle an item, you are essentially giving something that may otherwise be thrown away, a fresh lease of life, in order for it to continue in its present form, with the same function it was created to carry out. So, an old desk that has seen better days and that has been given a contemporary makeover in order for it to continue as a desk, has been upcycled.

By contrast, however, repurposing, as the name implies, means taking an item and completely changing its function, giving it a new purpose. A great example of repurposing at its simplest is when Great Aunt Edith finished her tin of biscuits and then used the tin to store her buttons! Or how about the pencil pot that Grandpa kept in his shed that was once a coffee jar?

The key to effective upcycling and repurposing is the preparation. Make sure the item to be worked on is in good order and make sure you have all the equipment, tools and resources you need before you start. Invest in the best paintbrushes your budget will allow and take care to maintain them and store them carefully when not in use. As your upcycling or repurposing journey is limited only by your creative vision, and time, be imaginative when you spy pieces that could be perfect.

Upcycling can be as simple or as elaborate as you like, from something quick and easy such as adding an eye-catching wallpaper to the sides of drawers for a vibrant splash of colour, to a much more complex project, which involves completely reupholstering a large Chesterfield! While some projects require little more than an application of the currently in-vogue chalk paint and perhaps the addition of some stylish ceramic knobs for it to take on a whole new character which will allow it to go on for several more years, others may need metres of fabric and a level of technical expertise.

Mid-20th century furniture has been enjoying a revival in recent years and when deciding to upcycle a piece such as a 1950s cabinet, it is important to be mindful of the original style of the piece. A sympathetic upcycler will understand that such a piece will probably not suit a pastel-themed, shabby chic re-style and is more likely to retain the features it is coveted for, with the addition of a bolder colour palette or a striking geometric wallpaper.

As with upcycled items, repurposed objects can be as simple or complex as you want them to be, but in order to change the function of a piece, for example turning an oil can into a table lamp, a degree of technical know-how may be required. From reworking a vintage mirror with a new paint finish into a cute candle tray that will suit homes from the traditional to the Bohemian, to repurposing old, wooden pallets into garden furniture, the world is your oyster.

A really quick and easy project that anyone could do, is to take something simple like a vintage cheese grater, wall mount it and pop your utensils into it! Similarly, an old, pine kitchen stool can be painted and upturned. Add some castors and voila, you have a great storage solution for wrapping paper and accessories which can be hung from the cross bars of the legs.  

Old ladders are perfect for displaying cherished items. In the garden, they make great display for plants and can be given a rustic makeover, or a contemporary finish to complement your outdoor space.  In the home, they can be used to display vintage linen or quilts and they are a great way to store/display shoes, where they can be easily seen and selected. If wall-mounted, a repurposed ladder will provide extra storage, and will serve well as a bookcase, or display cabinet.

If you have the vision, the expertise and the technical know-how to upcycle and repurpose pieces for the home and garden, you need to source quality items that will survive the transformations. With the main focus for upcycling particularly being furniture makeovers, a visit to Hemswell Antique Centres will provide an abundance of items ripe for upcycling.

For those who hanker after items that have been repurposed, but who do not have the time or space or skill to do it themselves, do not despair! Upcycled and repurposed items can be found at Hemswell Antique Centres, where we have dealers who specialise in transforming discarded items into something desirable for the home. On a trip to the centres, you will find their work in Building 3 and if you would like to display your items where you can be sure of an audience that is invested in what you do, we always welcome new dealers to join us. 

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