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The Comedy of Errors

A Furniture Upcycler in Notts

14 February 19 illustrations: Alex McDougall

"Sometimes I kick pieces over or take a big hammer to them, to add a little more distress. People would think I was crazy if they saw me doing it."

My granny used to say “They don’t make things like they used to” and I guess she was right. Items were built to last back in her day. My parents, as pensioners, still owned stuff they’d received as wedding presents. We’re a throwaway world now. It seems everything is replaceable, and it’s quite horrifying just how much gets cast aside. I like knowing that I’m doing something to counteract this madness.

I was inspired to start upcycling after seeing a piece of painted furniture in a French magazine many years ago. With several pieces of unpainted furniture in my home already, I just fished some half-empty paint cans from the shed and started experimenting. With a young family as my priority rather than the house, it was a great way to refresh my home with little cost. People saw what I did and liked it, and it grew from there. I never thought I’d be upcycling furniture for other people. I guess there was a demand, so I just met it.

There used to be a stigma surrounding second-hand stuff, but that’s certainly diminishing. People have realised they can get gorgeous, unique pieces without having to spend a fraction of what they would on something new.

At an auction years ago, I’d been buying stuff all morning when I saw a stunning walnut dressing table, but I only had £13 left in my pocket. The bid started at 99p and never got higher, so I won it in the bargain of the decade.

Sometimes the pieces have been stored in attics or barns for years and you just don’t know what’s been crawling over them. You always get spiders, dead or alive, on old things. The thing I enjoy the most about the job is taking a piece of furniture that’s been cast to one side and breathing new life into it.

A typical day will start with a browse. I have magazines that go back twenty years and every morning I spend a little time flicking through them at random. I’ve found it trains my eye and helps me to choose the classic pieces. Magazines like Country Living never get it wrong; their timeless pages are a worthwhile lesson in style, and it’s good inspiration for sourcing furniture or accessories. Sometimes the most challenging thing is making decisions. Choosing paint can be a nightmare.

Not all furniture lends itself to being painted though; with some pieces, it would be criminal. I’d rather have cut my throat with a blunt spoon than have taken a brush to that walnut dressing table.

I’ll often make marks on a piece to give the effect of age and wear, also known as “distressing”. I don’t always use sandpaper for this; I have a secret method that takes all the hard work, dust and health hazards away from the process. Sometimes I kick pieces over or take a big hammer to them, to add a little more distress. People would think I was crazy if they saw me doing it.

One time, a woman came into my shop telling me spirits lived in old furniture. She talked about this old guy and his travels, apparently drawing his stories from a vintage bureau I had in stock. I’m not sure I believed her, but it made the hairs on my neck stand up. The vintage and antique trade has a real mixed bag of characters; from recluse to eccentric, there’s a wonderful mix of creative people.

My hopes are that more people will turn to buying upcycled items rather than new. From when I first started doing this, things have changed massively. Hardly anyone was doing it back then; some people were actually shocked to see you’d painted a piece of wooden furniture. Now, everyone’s at it.

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