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An upcycler’s guide to vintage furniture


As we become increasingly environmentally aware, and understand the need to live a more sustainable life, there is no doubt that upcycling vintage pieces saves many still perfectly functioning items from landfill sites. But should you upcycle anything and how does upcycling affect the value of antiques?

What is upcycling?

Upcycling is the process of taking something old, or unwanted, and transforming it to give it a stylish and contemporary appeal, without changing the purpose it was originally intended for. For example, a vintage chest of drawers that may be dated, could be repainted in contemporary colours to allow it to continue as a chest of drawers in a more modern setting. Upcycling should not be confused with repurposing which transforms the original function of a piece into something completely different, for example an engine casing that has been repurposed into a lamp, or a vintage sewing machine treadle that has been turned into a table.

Upcycling is a great way to breathe new life into tired furniture but upcycling an antique could reduce its value.

What items can you upcycle?

When it comes to furniture, any piece can be upcycled, but it doesn’t follow that all pieces should be upcycled. If you are unsure of the history of anything you are thinking of working on, do some research. Look for makers’ marks, labels or identifying stamps which will help to determine when the furniture was made and by whom. Once you have established an approximate age for your piece of furniture, you will be able to gauge its value; any pieces of value should be left in their original state, while reproduction pieces or low value pieces could be upcycled without affecting their worth. So, if you have inherited a 20th cnetury writing desk from an aged Great Aunt that is perfectly serviceable but just too dark for your space, it could make the perfect project piece. On the other hand, we would suggest leaving the George III dining table well alone!

The majority of upcycled furniture receives a fresh coat of paint, or it might be reupholstered, to prolong its life and make it more suitable for a modern home.

Does painting antique furniture devalue it?

Painting over wooden furniture will cover up the grain and the original finish of the natural wood and may destroy its value completely.  As such, painting should always be viewed as a permanent change that cannot be undone; paint can be removed but the products and methods required will cause further damage. A tired, pine, bedside table however, that has a relatively low start price, could increase in value after an application of chalk paint in an on-trend shade.

Should I reupholster antique furniture?

Padding and fabrics are often the site of decay and wear in antique seating and will often fail long before the structure of the piece does. Where the fabric is beyond repair, the value of the piece will be compromised and, in these cases, reupholstering it will certainly preserve the value. However, if the fabric can be saved through sympathetic and professional restoration, this is the recommended action for an antique. New upholstery can bring a modern twist to a vintage piece and where a change of fabric style will not alter the value, this is a great way to ensure the piece remains functional for a long time to come.

Upcycling is not for the fainthearted and at Hemswell Antique Centres we have dealers with expertise in Vintage Upcycled & Repurposed collectables, whose pieces are ideal for those who want to lead a less disposable lifestyle, but who do not have the time or skill to carry out these makeovers themselves. We are always keen to discover new talent too, so if you are an upcycler who would be interested in displaying your wares in one of our four buildings, you can arrange an appointment to discuss how to become a Hemswell dealer, or fill in our online form.

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