furniture upcycling
What started it all.....


I have a new passion – restoring furniture. It started when I was captivated by a small table in the charity shop.

The shape enticed me and, being so small (H70cm x W58cm x D33cm), I thought it ideal for a beginner’s upcycling project.

Upcycling furniture is very popular and gives a new life to pieces that would be discarded but are instead turned into something beautiful. Many homeowners favour the simple lines of modern furniture, however, even in the most modern houses, one upcycled furniture piece, such as an old dresser or ornate sideboard, can look fantastic with bright paint and decoupage flowers and it can become the room’s focal point.

Did you know that upcycling creates something of greater value, while downcycling reprocesses materials which lose their quality and are, therefore, converted into something of less value, e.g., old clothes converted to cleaning rags.

Recycling, such as glass and metal, converts materials into something with the same life cycle and value. Profitable businesses use all three methods to prolong the life of raw materials which could have otherwise ended up in a landfill.

My little table had old paint and I was conscientious enough to first buy a lead paint testing kit from Amazon … just in case. The test actually cost more than the table!

Working on my wardrobe doors

Testing negatively, I excitedly began my project, stripping off the paint with a hot air gun. I enjoyed the process, but it was smelly work that required a lot of time and patience and I struggled to work for long periods wearing safety glasses and my ‘hazmat’ mask.

In the meantime, I could not believe it when I spotted a dressing table, an exact copy of my little one, but with a beautiful mirror and matching chair that I could not resist buying.

Bored with stripping the small table’s difficult round grooved legs, I decided to make a start on the chair, but this time dispensing the ‘nuclear mask’ and using instead a medical covid one!

Two hours later, I started to get a headache and to feel nauseous. Surprised, I tested the chair’s paint for lead and was horrified to see the queue tip instantly turn pink, confirming its presence, even though it looked the same paint as the table. I was terrified as I had been inhaling all the fumes!

I packed up and proceeded to consult ‘doctor google’ who confirmed the dangers of lead poisoning, so I rang my national health doctor, told him the story and asked if I could be tested. Once he had stopped laughing, thinking that, as usual, I was being a dramatic hypochondriac, he confirmed I could test within 48 hours of exposure, but I would have to pay privately.

The laboratory assistant also thought my request strange but, within 24 hours, I had my results, which, thankfully, were negative! I was surprised that so many people I told my story to were unaware of the dangers of lead paint especially with so many old houses and furniture in Portugal available for restoration.

Sadly, those pieces of furniture remain untouched as I am scared to go near them now. There is no safe way to strip lead paint and hot air stripping is probably the most dangerous due to the fumes.

Sand blasting and ordinary sanding dispels too many fine lead particles into the air, so my next attempt will be with chemical stripping, wearing full hazmat safety gear in a very secure area so that I do not contaminate anything.

My transformation

I next bought two wooden bedside cabinets to paint and decoupage.

Decoupage is the gluing onto furniture or object images cut out of paper. Printed paper napkins are the most popular and beautiful ones are available specifically for decoupage crafts. Special decoupage glue is used to seal the images making them look like they are inlaid or painted on.

The word decoupage comes from the French “découper”, meaning to cut out, and the art possibly originated from East Siberian nomadic tribes who used cut-out felts to decorate tombs.

In the 12th century, China used paper to decorate objects, and, by the 17th century, Italy was using decoupage and gold leaf to decorate picture frames and furniture with religious images.

In my usual, over-enthusiastic fashion with new projects, I stocked up on paints, papers and napkins. This time I used a sanding machine, which was easier and quicker than a hot air gun, and it was exciting to see the natural wood emerge from under the dark varnish. By the time I had completely stripped one cupboard, I loved the natural wood look, and it was very hard for me to paint it. However, I had a project to follow.

I used chalk paint on the cupboards, but acrylic metallic paint on the drawer fronts, finger blending the blue, green and gold to achieve the peacock effect. Wrapping paper decorates the drawer sides and insides and as our bedroom is themed with blue butterflies, I used butterfly stickers for the decoupage. I was totally amazed and thrilled at the transformation of these dark cupboards and my husband and I were in awe and initially afraid to use them.

Now with new bedside cabinets, we want the rest of the bedroom furniture to match and so I am currently working on a wardrobe.

I also bought from a charity auction a black display cabinet and found under the varnish a beautiful wood grain top that I had to keep. I painted the doors and sides, but my first attempt at decoupage with napkins was a disaster, so I need to redo this one. It is a learning process!

As I look around our house filled with wooden furniture, some that belonged to my grandmother, I think about how they would look upcycled and I have to restrain myself from sanding everything down.

Also, only having a Smart car is so frustrating as I find old pieces of furniture, for sale online, that I want but cannot physically collect, which is a relief to my family who keep begging me to not buy anymore until I finish those I have cluttering the house.

I do not consider myself to be particularly creative, but I feel so inspired and love doing the upcycling as it is relatively easy, although time consuming, and because to create something beautiful is so rewarding. However, I think I may need to buy a bigger car and, at this rate, I will need a bigger house too!

So now you know!

By Isobel Costa
|| [email protected]

Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.