Up-Cycling 101: Making Junk Beautiful

by Jennifer Almand ~

I don’t think there was ever a point in history that could mark the ‘beginning’ of up-cycling because it’s been around since the Stone Age. Seriously, some stone-age person actually picked up a hollowed-out rock one day and decided, “I think I will use this as a bowl to hold my berries I just picked.” Up-cycling is essentially taking some un-used item from a scrap heap and transforming it into something beautiful and useful. I think I originally learned this nifty talent by my German grandmother, who managed to survive WWII, proudly relying on her own ingenuity. She was forced to take used items and make them work for herself and her four children because there literally wasn’t anything new to be bought. Everything from altering used clothing to fit the kids, to collecting used coffee grounds from US Soldiers so that she could dry them in the oven and re-sell them on the black market. Even in her later years, in her kitchen, I would see Zip-Lock bags that she had washed out and hung up to dry. Now, that’s some serious dedication to recycling!

These days, with the popularity of Pinterest and shows like “Flea Market Flip” on HGTV, up-cycling has become more of a trend and no longer a necessity. It turns out, many people have made a hobby out of re-purposing old items into something cool and interesting, and these new creations are flying off store shelves. Up-cycling is anything you want it to be. Everything from using old Rand-McNally maps as wallpaper, to transforming an old six pane window into a picture frame. Perhaps you have a bag full of old wine corks and you feel like making them into a bulletin board for your office. Maybe you see an old pallet lying on the side of the road and take it home to transform it into a hanging planter for your herb garden. The possibilities are endless; the only thing that will stop you is your own lack of imagination.

Unfortunately, I am a junk-magnet. I am guilty of bringing home junk on a weekly basis. Pallets are stacked behind my barn, 120 year old tongue-and-groove wood is stacked inside my barn, and my garage is pretty much a junk obstacle course of unfinished projects. My husband doesn’t call me ‘Fred Sanford’ for no reason; I earned that name for sure!

Wooden spool table with sander on top.With that said, I want to bring you in on my latest project: an over-sized wooden wire spool, which I bravely saved from certain destruction in a bonfire. It came from a local company that sells electrical components, and they just chunk them out the back door after they sell the wire that is spooled on them. Just like that, I found a treasure! Most people would look at it and think, “What in the world?” but not me. It will become a new rustic side table for my back porch. Wait for it…

First and foremost, I start every project off with a good cleaning. Get rid of any grime or dirt off with a hose or even a pressure washer if necessary. Sometimes I use soapy water or even a spray degreaser, but my spool was relatively clean at the start. I followed up with making sure there were no dangerous nails sticking up, and no loose hardware. Then, a good sanding with my orbital sander and 100 grit sandpaper got rid of any rough edges and splinters.

After wiping off any sanding dust, I follow up with a good coat of stain. I usually use medium stain color, something that gives it a more natural, age-appropriate look for a vintage piece. Coat the piece liberally with a disposable chip brush, wait about 20 minutes, and then wipe off any excess with a rag. (You may want to put on gloves for this step. Wood stain under your fingernails is never an attractive look and takes days to wear off.) Let the stain dry for about 48 hours.

Spool table finished with lamp and accessories. Next, coat your project with polyurethane, which gives it a shine and a protective finish. I chose oil-based poly, because my table will be outside on the porch, and subject to occasional moisture. If I am going to use a piece inside, I use water-based Polycrylic. If I want the piece to look vintage, I use a satin sheen, which gives it more of a buttery, hand-waxed look. Trust me, these details are important. If you coat a distressed piece of wood with a high-gloss sheen, it just doesn’t look right. The polyurethane will need to dry another 24 hours.

Finally, check out this beauty! From a dumpster to my back porch with minimal effort, and all my friends want one when they see it. Never underestimate the power of imagination when it comes to up-cycling. Add uniqueness to your home with things that no one else has, and it will make you feel accomplished to tell everyone, “I did that!” So, go forth and dive head first into that dumpster my friends. You never know what you will find. Just please wear a helmet.

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