Top 10… ways to give old furniture a facelift

| 25th May 2012
Top 10… ways to give old furniture a facelift
Don’t go to IKEA – unleash your inner artist and revamp your table and chairs instead. Lisa Stephens shares some expert advice

The legs start going on that old wooden chair so it must be time to replace it. But before heading to the skip, think about what you're getting rid of and what the environmental impact is likely to be. UK households throw out millions of tonnes of domestic furnishings each year and according to the Furniture Industry Research Association (FIRA), sofas account for 34 per cent of the total – an expensive investment simply tossed away. Instead of sending old furniture to landfill, giving it a makeover isn’t just green – it’s good for the finances too. With Britain back in recession, people are already buying less. A survey by FIRA showed that UK expenditure on furniture and household items dropped by £6million between 2007 and 2010. 

Mary Gander, from furniture restoration experts, Sweetpea and Betty, believes this reflects a growing realisation that achieving your dream home doesn’t have to mean buying everything new. 'We've ditched the decadent attitude we've had for years and replaced it with a sense of austerity,' she explains. 'We're more concerned about not adding to the huge amount of waste dumped in landfill. Taking the time to totally transform our household furniture, is now considered the norm.' So where do you start? Hannah Ricci, creative director of furniture maker, Ruby Rhino, has some ideas. 'Upcycling furniture is hugely satisfying,’ she says. ‘The whole process from sourcing a dated and unloved piece that has seen better days to completely transforming it and giving it pride of place in a home is so rewarding.'

Say yes to hand-me-downs
Whether it's grandma's old rocking chair or an antique dresser, most of us have been offered pieces of furniture with sentimental value that we've turned down because they don’t quite fit in with the rest of our home. 'Sometimes people inherit a piece of furniture in the family and can't get rid of it, as much they'd like. The perfect answer is to give it a lick of paint and turn it into a treasure that you adore,' advises Gander. The Old Cinema, a London furniture store specialising in restored and upcycled furniture, is a great place to go for inspiration and has a wealth of handy hints and tips on its website.

Re-purpose it
Just because it was a wardrobe in its previous life, that doesn't mean it won't make a great bookshelf in its second. HometoLife has some great examples of creative re-purposed furnishings, including a rather quirky bathtub-turned-sofa. Ricci suggests upcycled door tables: 'We absolutely love old doors, they hold so much character and charm that lend themselves perfectly to being upcycled into wonderfully rustic table tops.'

Preparation is key
As tempting as it is to start slapping on the paint, first check that the surface of your chosen piece has been correctly prepared. Creative Director of REvived Furniture, Kristen Rosenberg, suggests doing a thorough clean before you get the paintbrush out. 'Make sure the piece is clean by using a paint stripper and sand the whole thing down to create a smooth surface,’ she advises. ‘Then put on a couple of layers of undercoat.' Depending on the condition of the of the wood, you should to consider using a primer too. Auro have a range of eco-friendly primer paints to choose from.

Paint matters
The right colour and texture of paint for your item can completely transform it, so choose carefully. Rosenberg advises investing in a good brush. 'Paint the piece using a good paint brush that doesn’t lose its hair,’ she advises. ‘It might need two or three coats depending on which effect you want to achieve, and use masking tape to separate areas if you wish to paint two or more colours. You should also use a clear topcoat to make it more durable.' There is a huge range of tried and tested planet friendly paints to choose from. Annie Sloan Chalk Paint is one of the best according to Gander. 'This paint comes in lots of great colours and it even sticks to metal, floors, concrete and walls – there's nothing much that you can't transform. Candlesticks look fabulous painted, so do mirrors, picture frames and outside furniture... It's addictive.'

Spend time on the base
'The 80/20 rule is as useful for furniture upcycling as for anything else,’ Lina Weckner, designer and managing director at Weckner Design. ‘Spend 80 per cent of your time and energy on the base and you won’t need more than 20 per cent for the finish. Without a good base, it doesn’t matter how much time and energy you put down on the finish. Use glue if you are working with old furniture to ensure the structure is stable before you start. If not take it apart and re-glue it – no one wants a wiggly old chair.'

Take the distressed approach
A popular trend among experts, and a favourite of artist, Jo Spaul, slightly battered looking pieces are great if vintage or shabby chic is your thing. She recommends choosing a neutral pale topcoat with an undercoat of your 'accent' colour to match your room. ‘'The colour goes on first as a primer, then the topcoat after,’ she explains. ‘Sand back the paint lightly, over the areas where there would naturally be the most wear, to create a subtle and convincing aged effect.'

Theme pieces
Whether it's African tribes, country living or Walt Disney characters, theme styling your furnishings can be the start of a whole new look. One of the easiest ways to this is by hand painting the pictures and details of your choice. 'These can include many small symbols that fit into an overall theme along with the main decoration and colour scheme,' explains Spaul. If you’re lacking the creative gene, Spaul suggests using stencils instead. Try eBay for unusual designs at low prices.

Recycle old fabric
Not only will reupholstering furniture give it a new lease of life, it's a great way of recycling old fabrics and canvases too. 'If you are doing a lot of upcycling, save old materials even if you don't have an immediate idea of what to use it for because having different things to combine usually helps you to come up with ideas,' suggests Weckner. To make your own cushion cover, Weckner advises using the old one as a guide before adding embellishment and anything else you fancy. 'Take the old cover apart and use the pieces as a guide,’ she explains. ‘The old parts won’t necessarily be 100 per cent symmetrical but starting from the same shape usually gives the best result.'

If you can't use it indoors, try it outside
No space for that coffee table? Try sprucing it up and giving it a coat of varnish to keep it weather proof. Same goes for those wooden chairs that you love but are looking a little bit worse for wear, sand them down and finish with a sealer - they'll make great rustic features in your garden. Alternatively, break down your unwanted wooden furniture or flooring planks, and make a quirky garden fence like this one by Sunset (above).

Keep it natural
Sometimes less is more. Weckner recommends keeping good quality wood as natural as possible. 'If you’re working with wood and want to keep the wood colour I would always use a plain French polish,’ she says. ‘If you do decide to change the colour of the wood, I would suggest doing this with a stain before you polish as this normally gets the most natural result.’


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