Upcycling is a catchy term for what's actually an age-old penchant for savvy humans: Rather than starting anew, why not just adapt a gently used tool or outdated object into something else?
With that mindset, local upcyclers are searching out castoff furnishings and, using a variety of techniques, refurbishing even the most unlikely items into unique and serviceable treasures that add a personal note to their home decor.
The Thrill of the Hunt
"I've always had a fondness for all things vintage and began casually shopping garage and estate sales in my early 20s," says Sandi Schulte, who sells industrial items, vintage furnishings and home décor, some of which she refinishes, under the name Sandi's Shabby Shed.
Initially, Schulte only bought items she could use in her own home. After her children were born, she repainted several pieces of furniture for their rooms. But eventually she ended up selling some pieces on Craigslist. And then she was hooked.
"I could do what I loved and make money, too," says Schulte, who is a vendor at both Spokane's Paint in My Hair and Tossed and Found, two of a number of regional outlets that share Schulte's passion for upcycling.
In Idaho, Megan Eatock is a kindred spirit.
"It always seems like when we are looking for that perfect piece of furniture/decor to complete the look, we can never find it," says Eatock, an avid upcycler who created Midtown Home & Vintage Market in Coeur d'Alene, formerly called Junk.
The fun, says Eatock, is in the process — looking for interesting items and considering how to make improvements. Sometimes she'll find the perfect piece, she says, but sometimes she'll buy something that isn't quite right. No worry.
"Luckily with all of the shopping sites such as Facebook marketplace and Craigslist, it's easy to resell used items if you find something better," says Eatock, whose Midtown Home & Vintage Market occasionally buys back items to resell.
Spokane offers numerous such outlets and vendor malls, including Boulevard Mercantile, which last year relocated from North Monroe to 1012 N. Washington St.
Among their 14 current vendors, Boulevard co-owner Joellen Jeffers says two are avid DIYers: Jennifer Pluid, known for her "party animals" (vintage rubber critters wearing little embellishments), and Jane Wood, whose business goes by Travelled Treasures.
For those interested in DIY, Jeffers recommends exploring the shop's textiles — what they call the "cutter" section — comprising salvaged wool blankets, Pendleton shirts and other fabric finds.
"Our customers like to utilize these fabrics for pillows or reupholstering furniture or repairing or creating clothing articles," says Jeffers, who created the company five years ago with her husband, Dave Jeffers, and a third business partner, Dan Webb.
Another popular spot for creatives is the shop's "spin bin" — a display of whatnots and trinkets including laboratory glass, hooks, pulls, knobs, Scrabble letters and even miniature figurines.
"It always amazes us to see and hear what our customers are creating with the objects they find at Boulevard Mercantile," Jeffers says.
Selection SavvyNot all furnishings and décor are created equally when it comes to their upcycle potential. Plastics, including laminates, for example, can be problematic, requiring a range of problem-solving when it comes to refinishing them. Wood, however, offers a wealth of opportunities, and it's both Schulte's and Eatock's preferred media for upcycling projects.
Both of them look for solid pieces that are structurally sound and, in a perfect world, unpainted.
"A lot of the antique pieces have been built to last, compared to new pieces that are made out of particleboard," says Eatock. However, older pieces can be quite heavy, cautions Schulte, who has a list of preferred attributes: "dovetail joints, only needs minimal repairs, easily remedied flaws, no funky smells."
With the project piece selected, it's time for some prep.
"I always start by giving the item a thorough cleaning, which could include removing any grime, wiping off loose dirt or debris, and even a quick vacuuming," says Schulte.
Both Schulte and Eatock use versatile chalk-type paints, which Schulte says not only stick to wood, but can also cover metal, stone, laminate and even cloth. Usually the paint can be applied directly to an object, though occasionally she's noticed that varnishes and oil-based paints can bleed through, in which case she uses a primer.
Eatock uses a line of all-natural, clay-based paints from DIY Paint Co., which she also sells at Midtown Home & Vintage Market. Whether you're going for a farmhouse look or boho-chic, says Eatock, chalk paint is an essential tool.
"It has been a game changer for me," says Eatock, who used to spend considerable time prepping her surfaces. "It bonds to everything, even shiny finishes, and it is highly pigmented, so the coverage is exceptional."
Special effects are also easy to achieve with chalk paint. To create distressed edges, Eatock wipes part of the paint away while it's wet. When it comes to detailed areas like carved designs, Eatock reaches for a stiff brush, barely loaded with paint, applying it just to the raised surfaces so that the wood shows through, easily highlighting the details.
Then it's time to embellish.
"If diamonds are a girl's best friend, then the right hardware is a dresser drawer's best friend," says Schulte. "While not every drawer pull or knob needs to be replaced, a quick paint job, touch up or replacement with that just right pop of color can take your piece from ordinary to 'Oh, my!' in mere moments."
After the spiffy "new" piece settles into place in the DIYer's home, collector-types in particular may need to exercise caution. By its sheer size, once in a room a refinished piece of furniture can be a show-stopper. Or it can become overlooked under a mountain of other decorative stuff.
"Sometimes less is more," says Eatock, who takes considerable care in her displays. "When you start to collect too many things, it's easy to make your space cluttered. Stick to the items that you really love and let go of the rest."
Her last bit of advice: feel free to experiment.
"I love items with a history, that have a story," says Eatock, who notes that doesn't mean all the furniture and accessories in a room need to be vintage. "Sometimes you can create more contrast and visual interest when you pair that chippy painted piece with something shiny and new."