How to Upcycle like a Pro

How to Upcycle like a Pro
How to Upcycle like a Pro


Upcycling a piece of furniture is a really exciting process, but it can seem a little daunting at first. Ellie Harrington talks us through the basics, from how to choose the right pieces to
decorative effects and adding the perfect finishing touches. You’ll be ready to go in no time!


Upcycling provides both piece of mind for the environment and an opportunity to explore and express your creativity. I started Duck Egg Designs with my husband partly because I wanted to customise a look for our home. After studying Art for over four years, I was eager to be creative myself and upcycling gives you a chance to experiment with customisation and develop your own taste and style with minimal cost (don’t forget
you can generally paint over any mistakes!) I am a great fan of the ‘Make do and Mend’
ethos and transforming pieces can be greatly rewarding. Here I’ve put together some essential advice to think about when upcycling for the first time.

Painted Chest of Drawers
Painted Chest of Drawers

When upcycling furniture you first need to decide what it is that you’re looking for.
Antiques fairs or car boot sales can be fascinating places to wander around but they are sometimes overwhelming, so if you go with a specific idea you can direct a more structured search. Our most popular items of renovated furniture at Duck Egg are chests of drawers. Customers come to us looking for an item with history, yet a more modern finish. Vintage and antique chests of drawers have practical storage, yet the advantage of interesting carvings, ornate details and elegant handles that distinguish them from some of the mass produced pieces of today.

Look for a piece with individuality, for example turned legs, scrolled backs and detailed woodwork. This does not mean that you have to spend a fortune, just take some time to thoroughly look over the furniture. Don’t be put off by orange stains or dark veneers; this can all be transformed by a coat of paint. Detailing will look really pretty and less overbearing once painted a lighter colour. Take a paint colour chart with you to inspire you!
Minor surface scratches may also reduce the price of furniture – as long as they can be sanded over you could pick up a good bargain. Most crucially with wooden items, you need to check they are sound. This is probably most important with woodworm. Look for out of the ordinary dust in drawers and tell-tale holes. Ask the dealer if they know if the piece has been treated if you do spot these signs. Look for damage that might be difficult to repair and be realistic about your limits with regards to renovation. If you wish to paint pine furniture, look for the darker or stained pieces of wood. Also keep in mind the finishing touches or the re-upholstery that you might be able to do to transform a piece.

I love using chalk paints and customers often request these for a matt and chalky finish.
They also lend themselves to those new to upcycling. Once you have a smooth surface these are the perfect way to paint over a dark stain or veneer. They require no priming and give excellent coverage. There are also many different ways of experimenting with finishes.

Once the item has a smooth surface, apply two or more coats of paint, wax and buff the piece, then sand to add a distressed look. Sand in the areas that would generally see the most use – on corners or arms of chairs, for example. Once you are confident with applying the paint, be as creative as you can. Chalk paints allow for many different finishes: you can water them down for a streakier look, or add a crackle glaze to give the effect of an aged oil painting. Also try layering different colours which can be exposed when rubbed back. A bright white under a dark green or blue gives a fresh seaside appeal, or red will provide a warm, decadent look. If you want to use emulsion paint you will need to sand your furniture to provide a surface for the paint, prime with fine sand paper, undercoat and then use either an emulsion for a more distressed look or eggshell for a durable finish. Paint effects on top of your upcycled finds will add great charm and personalise them too. Items with carving or detailing lend themselves perfectly to gilding with a dust of gold leaf. For a more cost effective way of gilding, purchase loose leaves of brass rather than gold, which will add a rich shimmering tone. Apply gold size on the area you would like to gild, then carefully pat on the loose leaf. Use sparingly if you want to create a look of faded grandeur. I usually advise lightly sanding the carving and painting on the size sparingly and sporadically to give a hint of more opulent times – perfect for creating a boudoir feel!This effect also looks stunning on photo frames and makes those favourite snapshots glow. It’s a great technique for mirrors too, although if the mirror you are painting is gilt, you may just want to rub the paint back to reveal its former colour.

Finally, stencilling is enormously satisfying as it is creative and adds another beautiful dimension to your painted surface. It also allows you to add a painted effect without painting the whole piece of furniture. Try a bold acanthus scroll across larger furniture such as wardrobes for a Provençal approach, or use a delicate pattern that intermittently
fades for a vintage look. Stencils can be bought online or you can cut out your own designs from a piece of card using a sharp craft knife. Stipple the paint through the stencil using a large bristle brush and add a covering of wax to protect it. If you want something even more creative, try hand painting vines that diagonally flow across a chest of drawers in greys for a dazzling effect!

Green Chest of Drawers
Green Chest of Drawers

Upcycling is not limited to painting – reupholstering an occasional chair can make a great statement in a hallway. Choose those with removable seat pads when first starting out. If the webbing is intact that will also save time. Add either a new foam seat pad, which can be cut to size, or use the original if it is comfortable and cut a piece of calico and your chosen fabric to cover it. We use our Duck Egg vintage fabric prints and Ian Mankin for occasional chairs. Look for a thick weave fabric as you will need to stretch it over the seat. Fold neat tucks at the corners and staple tightly on the under of the seat pad. You can then back the fabric edges on the underside and cover the folds with Calico and a staple gun. This is a relatively cheap and lovely way to add colour and print to a dull chair, and the added bonus is that it’s an extra place for hallway paraphernalia to land! You might also want to decorate bookcases and cabinets with wallpaper offcuts to continue your vintage feel throughout the room. Cut the paper to the right size to fit the bookcase indents, then paste with PVA or wallpaper paste. I use this technique to create curiosity cabinets around our home to store favourite finds; you might also want to try this with old music scores or maps.

It’s the finishing touches that will really complete your upcycling. You may wish to replace broken handles, although we often find at Duck Egg that items are very popular with incomplete sets of handles. Ebay is a great place to find collections of vintage handles or knobs if you do want to source new ones, and there are many great companies that also sell replica antique knobs, such as Willow and Stone in Falmouth. In my experience, plain pine antique chests of drawers and tables look fabulous with large white ceramic knobs.
Upcycling is a journey. I truly believe that you grow with the piece as you adapt it, learning new techniques and skills along the way. When it’s finished, standing there in all its glory, it’s a testament to your creativity and imagination, and a truly exhilarating narrative has been added to your home. Duck Egg Designs is an online shop and community based in East Sussex. It’s keen to work alongside talented British Craftspeople to create unique furniture products in the desire to make Duck Egg a one-stop shop for all things interiors.

Ellie Harrington Duck Egg Designs Founder
Ellie Harrington Duck Egg Designs Founder

Article written by Ellie Harrington of Duck Egg Designs (for “Reloved Magazine” a wonderful magazine targeted at interiors and makeover professionals). For more details visit or email


Twitter:  @duck_egg


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