09/29/2014 12:40 EDT | Updated 11/29/2014 05:59 EST

Upcycling: How to Turn Old Into Gold

You probably possess at least a few items with which you're tired? Or perhaps you've spotted a tempting piece of junk furniture in a thrift store that could be somehow transformed. As we oft' opine: "It's not how much money you spend, rather how you spend it that makes the biggest difference."


When budgets are tight, there's only one way to create a brand new home style and that's by reusing what you've got say Colin & Justin.

The inspiration required to brandish our quills can derive from the most unlikely sources. Recently it came during a business lunch at the Holt Renfrew Café, a venue of choice when we need uncomplicated food, fast service and a lovely environment in which to catch up with friends.

Whilst guzzling in the hallowed Toronto eatery, we happened upon a trio of 'ladies who lunch'. Three gals who a co-diner whispered are daughter, mother and grandmother. But this three-tiered family tree was different to most others, bearing, as each member did, an uncanny (almost triplet-like) resemblance to the other two. Age, clearly, had been somehow transcended, nay, "amended."

Struggling to avert our gaze, we estimated the immaculately coiffured trio were perhaps in their late 30s, late 50s, and late 70s. Either genetics had been particularly kind, or a familial surgery deal had been brokered to give each identikit gal the same nose, the same lips and, in fact, the same, well, everything. Blimey -- pull cord and stand well back.

As much, however, as each generation appeared immune to the ravages of time, each bore the same uncanny resemblance to ET's mother... in a wind tunnel. That said, we admired their efforts to look good. In short they'd 'reversioned' or, to use a current media buzz term, they'd 'upcycled'. Their faces. And, by the look of it, they'd also worked south by paying similar attention to their bodies. Bum lifts, boob jobs and liposuction. Aye, by the looks of things, the titillated trio had done its best to halt the passage of time.

But what does our fountain of youth story have to do with design? Let's just say we're using the girls as an analogy for making the best of that which you already have. In the same way that our glamorous ladies had 'self improved', so too can you rework existing furniture items or bargain buys to commandeer a whole new look -- or indeed brand new purpose.

As illustration, we've assembled, for your cash-saving delectation, a guide to decorative optimization. You probably possess at least a few items with which you're tired? Or perhaps you've spotted a tempting piece of junk furniture in a thrift store that could be somehow transformed. As we oft' opine: "It's not how much money you spend, rather how you spend it that makes the biggest difference." And today's radical, yet simple, before and after exemplifies this logic. Sure the room was dated, but over the course of just one weekend, we brought it to life... on a strict budget.

In terms of colour, we kept everything fresh with blue latex set above white painted paneling (and below a white painted wooden ceiling) and accessorized our new look with a trip to Homesense. We struggle to think of a project in Canada (or in Britain, for that matter) where we didn't raid Homesense for 'final styling'.

As much as our overall fix was simple (new flooring, upholstery and lighting) reworking the existing dining set would be the coup de grâce that brought everything in on budget. Structurally sound and devoid of woodworm or other infestations, the set was proportionally perfect and easily fixable with care and attention.

Due to TV time constraints, we sent the furniture to a specialist renovator (to be revamped with a lime wash finish) but you can achieve similar results on a DIY basis. From staining kits to marbling sets, and from paint and graining tools to decals, the DIY market (via craft stores and big box outlets) expounds with choice. To further update proceedings, we recovered the tired chair pads using fabric remnants stapled securely in place on the underside. The material cost just $20 from Designer Fabric Outlet in Toronto. We're Scottish, you see: it's not that we're tight, we just prefer saving money whenever we possibly can.

As with any design project (be it a complete room overhaul or the application of funky wall transfers to update plain space), it's important to consider preparation. Just as our Holt Renfrew trio probably didn't go for the chop on the first day they dreamed about how they might look with their, ahem, upcycled faces, it's important to do your ground work and ready everything for subsequent 'improvement'. To fail to plan, after all, is to plan to fail.

Preparation is critical and, when reworking lumber, genus is an important consideration. Pine grain, for example, can be easily opened via simple sanding, whereas mahogany's denser compositional 'structure' renders it is less able to absorb finishes quite as easily. This oak set, fortunately, responded well to sanding: our specialist explained that, after abrasion with rough then medium gauge paper, it easily absorbed the lime wash finish as applied.

The trick when using finish is to lay it on lightly and apply with a lint-free cloth. If you drown the grain, it won't properly penetrate the surface, which may impart uneven results. Allow product to dry between coats, then buff with wax polish till surfaces are smooth. You could use standard latex (watered down) to build up your finish as opposed to pricier specialist product, but the latter is likely to proffer better results.

In summation, it's fair to report that proficient upscaling comes down to what you have, what you can find and how much time you're prepared to spend making better of it. As we all search for new ways to stretch the dollar, upscaling couldn't be more relevant. As Greek philosopher Plato once said, "Necessity is the mother of invention." Holt Renfrew diner in mind, we'll add daughter and grandmother to that matriarchal sentiment. Now go grab some sandpaper and start planning your next decorative facelift. Your fountain of (designer) youth awaits...

Further reading: "Upcycling: Create Beautiful Things With the Stuff You Already Have" by Danny Seo, published by Running Press and available mid August.

Tune in to Colin & Justin's Cabin Pressure on the Cottage Life network or find us on Cityline appearing on alternate Mondays!

Living room -- before and after

Dining area before and after


Photo gallery How to decorate your rented home See Gallery