You’ve seen the commercial ñ the forlorn lamp sits sadly by the curb in the rain. A man says, “Many of you feel bad for this lamp. That is because you’re crazy. It has no feelings and the new one is much better.”
But to many, the old lamp is a treasure waiting to be upcycled into something special. Ditto for the old furniture and other discarded items in the trash, or at the local thrift shop. One man’s trash and all that.
Treasures-to-be can also be found in your own home. “Learn to look at things differently before going out and buying something new” or throwing something away, says Adam Fullerton, Toronto fabricator and upcycler extraordinaire.
Think outside the box. Can it be reused for another purpose? If it’s broken, can it be fixed or configured into something spectacular?
“Reusing is better than recycling,” he says. “It can also save you pennies along the way.”
Upcycling is a fun way to freshen up your space, create a conversation piece, exercise your creativity and help the environment at the same time. (Just be careful not to hoard, Fullerton says.)
It’s also a great way to spend time with the kids, with a variety of projects from beginner to pro.
Fullerton’s upcycling career started with lighting. He would rescue lamps from the side of the road, flea markets or charity shops and reconfigure them, sometimes adding scraps to turn them into unique light fixtures or other decorative pieces.
One of his early lighting projects was a wall sconce, made from chandelier parts, the base of a table lamp and interestingly shaped old jam jars.
He bought a glass bottle cutter and began to upcycle colourful bottles into planters, glasses, bowls and dishes. “It’s a great project for beginners,” he says. He collected corks and turned them into cork boards.
He used his welding skills to create more elaborate pieces, and also began crafting furniture with found materials. When he lived in England, solid wood doors, discards of renovations of old houses, were scavenged and transformed into frames for mirrors. “I collected as many as I could carry to repurpose. The middle panels were removed and replaced with mirrors and sometimes lighting was added around the door,” he says.
“I started upcycling in 2012, making stuff to sell but I’ve always been making something, taking things apart, and fixing them or taking the parts out to make something else.”
He says various past jobs, from car painting and restoration to construction, gave him experience working with different materials.
Fullerton grew up in a small village in the south of England and sold his light fixtures in London. In 2015 he moved across the pond. “I met a Canadian, now my wife,” he says. At first he worked in the garage, but most recently he moved up to a 1,200-square-foot studio of his own.
He creates products for use in residential and commercial settings. One shelf design, which can be used in either setting, has radiators as the ends with shelves made from found hemlock lumber.
His favourite go-to upcycling parts are from second-hand bicycles, where everything from gears to chains to handlebars are given new life. One of his first commercial projects was a bike rack made with racing handle bars to hold bike frames. “Inspiration comes from the piece that I find,” he says.
His “bike and fall light” includes bicycle parts and replicates the classic “rise and fall light” popular in the U.K. He says his great grandmother had the light in her house and he was always fascinated by the fixture, which could be raised or lowered using pulleys.
The “bike and fall light” can be raised and lowered by pulleys.
Upcycling has also turned into a full-time business for Denis and Martine Chercuitte of My Old Cher on Wolfe Island, Ont.
After 36 years in the military, Denis retired and went back to school to learn the basics of building furniture. “Denis and I learned together refinishing (oil, paint and wax techniques) and upholstery (modern techniques),” Martine says.
Five years ago, they displayed their wares at the Wolfe Island Christmas sale. As soon as people realized they could have their furniture repaired and redone, demand began to grow. Two people at one sale wanted the same chair, upholstered in a whimsical fabric pattern with faces (one bearing a mustache and looking a lot like Denis, Martine says). Neither ended up buying it.
Martine and Denis Chercuittte
The couple now gives a second life to other people’s cast offs and brings new life to pieces people want to keep. Many summer homes on the island are filled with furniture bought generations ago and now the owners want to upgrade the pieces.
Although it may seem more expensive to reupholster than buy new, compared to a modern chair of the same quality, it is still less to have a piece redone, they say. “If the frame is good, it can be rebuilt and look good for a long time.”
An upcycled chair by Denis and Martine Chercuitte
Some people on the island donate items to the couple rather than paying to put them in the dump. One day after returning from grocery shopping, they found a cabinet sitting in front of a garage. Another time a man dropped off a chair he no longer had use for. After it was repaired and refinished, he was a little sorry he had given it up.
In the summer, the Chercuittes sell from their small boutique. They have also sold pieces in nearby Kingston.
For those contemplating an upcycling project, the Chercuittes suggest starting with a table or a chair that has an upholstered seat. As long as they are strong and steady, they’re a good place to start. Denis suggests taking a half-day or day-long upholstery course.
Never assume something is too old to be upcycled, Martine says. Ask before you scrap or dump it into a fire pit.