Upcycling for Beginners: 5 Tips to Get Started

Earth-friendly, wallet-friendly, and incredibly creative, everybody seems to be "upcycling" lately. If you're ready for a DIY project that benefits the planet, it might be time to start.

With upcycling, there’s no limit to what you can create. And the more you make through upcycling, the more good you can do. Plus, it’s pretty fun.

This DIY trend is steadily on the rise right now, and it’s not hard to see why. Creative and cost-effective, upcycling allows you to easily do your part for the planet, foster your imagination, sharpen your crafting skills, create one-of-a-kind gifts, and fill your home with unique furniture.

Frankly, there’s never a bad time to start investing in a more sustainable lifestyle. Luckily, this is one of the easiest places to start. So for those considering it, we’re here with some pro tips to get the most out of your upcycling experience.

What Is Upcycling?

Sometimes called “creative reuse,” upcycling uniquely merges the worlds of sustainability and stylishness. It’s the crafty process of taking an object that’s been discarded, improving or completely changing it to make it useful once again. It’s also about adding your own special touches.

In other words, upcycling takes the expression “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure” to the next level in the most eco-friendly of ways.

a sewing box and upcycling kit that says "repair mend create"

The true fun of upcycling is this: You take an unwanted, useless, or broken product, come up with a new purpose for it, and craft a beautiful and one-of-a-kind result.

The goal is also to wind up with something of greater quality in its own right when you’re done.

Upcycling Vs. Recycling

Ultimately, upcycling is a form of recycling. After all, you’re still reducing waste. You’re just going about it in a more inventive way.

The key difference with upcycling is that you’re not turning waste into new materials. With upcycling, you turn the “unusable” or waste byproduct into something useful rather than throwing it out. The idea is to work with what’s already there as much as possible.

So instead of saying “out with the old” and tossing it into the recycle bin, you should ask yourself “how can I renew it?” Examining the potential of various objects is an important part of the process. Once you start thinking about everything around you in this way, you’ll need to get your ducks in a row.

Here are five of the most helpful tips to get your upcycling project underway with ease.

Preparation Is Key

Above all else, plan ahead.

In the first stage of your planning, you may want to do some online browsing for DIY inspiration. It will be especially helpful if you aren’t sure what you want to do just yet. Seeing what others have done will get your creative gears turning. But don’t discount your surroundings.

Before you start sourcing, go ahead and look around your house for broken or no longer used items to see what ideas they might spark. Once you have the general outline of what you want to make, make a list of everything you’ll need to get the job done. This list will soon become your new best friend.

And so will the space that you work.

someone cleaning an old milk churn with a lavender pattern to up-cycle it

Finding your “workshop” space is an important part of the planning that’s all too often overlooked. You’ll want somewhere you can safely keep your upcycling project and your tools as you continue working on it. After all, you never know how long it might take. And you need a space that you’re free to work in, even if it’s just a corner you’ve staked out in the kitchen. But be sure to pick somewhere that others won’t accidentally brush up against it or interrupt what you’re doing.

From there, round up all the tools and equipment required. Check your list. Once you have everything you’ll need, factor in extra time for any mistakes, corrections, or unforeseen obstacles. Be sure to keep a few backup tools on hand. The last thing you should be doing with your special project is a rush job or worrying about running short on supplies. You want to take your time and allow yourself just as much of it.

In the end, having everything you need in advance will help you stay fully focused on the project at hand. Nothing is worse than really getting into upcycling and having to break stride to buy more nails.

Don’t forget to look around your home for tools as well. There are probably plenty of things that could be useful that are currently not being used. For instance, old clothes may come in handy when applying wax, wiping surfaces, or cleaning off cobwebs.

Source Your Items

After figuring out what you want to create (or even while you’re still brainstorming), you’ll need to get out and start to find the items you’ll upcycle. If you already have some (or all) of them at home, that’s great! If not, start perusing flea markets, charity shops, yard sales, estate sales, and thrift stores whenever possible. You never know what hidden gem you might find or what possibilities they may hold.

And remember, you’re looking for pieces with potential. So stay open-minded. With upcycling, it’s completely okay to change your mind along the way. You may have one idea brewing in your head and find yourself suddenly presented with a better one. Go with your own flow. There’s no deadline with upcycling–and if you enjoy it, your first project never has to be your last.

So if something speaks to you, snag it and see what it can become.

aerial view of various items on tables in a flea market

When sourcing, one way to get the most out of upcycling is by remaining frugal. You want to hunt for the perfect bargain, not just the perfect object. Otherwise, you’d buy new, right? You’ll likely stumble upon fancy repurposed ideas online that cost a fortune. But don’t buy into that hype.

No matter what catches your eye, try not to spend the big bucks when you don’t have to. Buying a bunch of specialized tools and gadgets is the opposite of what we’re trying to do here. Sourcing may take a little time to get the hang of. But if you get out and look around, you’re bound to find more than you bargained for.

The sourcing rule of thumb is this: If you can find what you’re after for a high price, you can find it for a low one. You just have to keep looking.

Take Risks

With upcycling, there are no rules when it comes down to it. So be bold, friend.

Also, do yourself a favor and get on Pinterest immediately. You’ll see some of the most inspiring and innovative upcycling projects ever. Most notably, you’ll get a crash course in how taking some very creative risks can often result in something that’s not only resourceful but remarkable.

repurposed yellow teapot and coffee pot for house succulents

The good news is, pretty much anything can be upcycled. So don’t hesitate to give a risky idea a try, even if you’re not sure how it will turn out.

With that said, there’s one risk not worth taking.

Invest in a Quality Paint Brush

While part of repurposing anything is about saving money and creating less waste, you should splurge on a quality paintbrush. The few extra bucks will likely pay off big time in the end. Many expert upcyclers say that using a cheap paintbrush is usually too great a risk. Here’s why.

Cheap brushes often leave bristles behind, messing up your hard work. Not to mention, they don’t give the greatest coverage. Nor do they last very long. And so this is one place worth a splurge. It could very well make all the difference in the final product’s quality.

close up of woman using paint brush on upcycled furniture

If you’re not sure which brush is right for you, don’t worry. Almost every good paint brand has a paintbrush designed to work wonderfully with it. So do a little research in the early planning stage. I promise it will be worth it.

To make sure you continuously get your money’s worth as you’re painting, consider wrapping your brushes and rollers in tinfoil or clingwrap between each coat. It’ll help keep those quality brushes from drying out. And be sure to clean them as soon as you’re done painting or waxing with them.

Have Fun!

Upcycling is not just about doing your part to preserve the planet, it’s about having fun while you do it. The process should always feel more like a fun DIY project, not a tedious hassle.

Look at creative reuse as a way to open your imagination, create something unique, and pick up a lifelong and eco-friendly hobby. But don’t rush just to get it done. Invest in the experience.

zero waste household where socks with no match are being reused as cup holders, etc with a chalkboard sign that says "lost socks, waste not!"

The true beauty of upcycling is that there are no mistakes. This is your creation from start to finish. So don’t stress yourself out to produce something “perfect.” Instead, give yourself the freedom to learn as you go, “mistakes” and all.

No matter how it turns out, you’re doing a great thing by upcycling. Besides, you can always make something a little more finely crafted the next time. Last but never least, no matter what you make or how you make it, always remember to put safety first!

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