Give your home a new lease on life and try your hand at upcycling. What’s old is new again.

Upcycling is about giving an item a new purpose (and sometimes a better one).

It is different to recycling as recycling breaks down the materials to their base form (plastic, paper, metal and glass) so they can be remade into a new product. Upcycling doesn’t break down the materials, instead it is about refashioning and repurposing and doesn’t degrade the quality of the final product.

Your upcycling choices can be large or small ranging from entire homes made from recycled materials to candle holders and photoframes.

This isn’t a new concept though. In fact in the 1930s-40s, a time where almost everyone was suffering from economic hardship, people became adept at utilising everything they had. Which meant sometimes turning items into something else, reusing and repurposing things over and over again.

There are a few reasons why people upcycle – being economical, wanting to minimise their impact on the earth, for creative and aesthetic enjoyment and for a sense of individuality. Upcycling is eco-friendly, requires no energy to break down materials like recycling does, and instead relies solely on your imagination and personal exertion.

To have a balance between the old and the new and to match modern style with recycled materials, it’s important to pick your pieces and have a clear idea of what look in your home you want to create.

Aaron Barton is an expert in the art of upcycling and his company Backwoods Originals specialises in creating beautiful pieces from anything you can imagine. He explains his view on upcycling, “For me, upcycling is about taking something out of context, looking past a given object’s intended use and identifying it’s potential for a new application.”

Why do people upcycle? Mostly because it is fun, and an excellent way to tap into your creative and artistic side. For others, it’s the satisfaction of reusing something and minimising wastage. From a design perspective, you can incorporate elements into your home that have character and substance (qualities that upcycled objects inherently possess). For Barton, “it’s a great exercise in problem solving and I get great satisfaction in helping old materials become useful again.”

You can upcycle almost anything and Aaron’s top picks include using signage as wall art, machinist chairs for the office, vintage flour sacks for pillow cases, oil cans, tennis court lights, concrete mixer barrels for plant pots, cockatoo cages for light shades, enamel everything, old spittoons for vases, old magazine advertisements, industrial shelving and shoe lasts as door stops.

He adds, “The beauty of the whole concept is that you can up-cycle or increase the value of almost anything. You’re only limited by the lens you apply to the project. For me, I look for old artefacts designed for industrial or rural application but it depends on your flavour.”

Even though the potential to upcycle anything is almost limitless, Barton points out a few things to be wary of as some things can actually be hazardous to your health. “Old stoves like the Crown and Kookaburra brands are quite beautifully designed and I’ve wanted to use them a few times for cabinets or cupboards, but to insulate them they packed them with asbestos, so best to just avoid them.

For the same reason, be careful around the old industrial lighting as the cable insulation can have asbestos too. Also be aware old paints were made with lead so avoid sanding them and go for paint stripper instead.”

This is one interior design trend that anyone can embrace as it’s about taking control of your most intimate space – your home – and crafting that how you want, with the materials you want.

However Barton adds this piece of advice, “When you upcycle, you often bring some strong textures and tones into a space and it’s easy to step into the junkyard zone (just ask my long suffering partner Gen). So it is best to complement an upcycled style with some contemporary minimal pieces to keep things classy.”

Tips for upcycling

  1. Keep some rigger gloves and basic tools in the car, you never know when you’ll have the opportunity to scavenge.
  2. Keep an open mind and envision the end result when you find items to make sure you’ll use them.
  3. Have a clear vision for your home and don’t become overly enthusiastic and attempt to make everything upcycled.
  4. Investigate before you start work on an item that it doesn’t contain any hazardous materials.
  5. Integrate modern elements into your upcycled piece for a beautiful balance between modern and vintage (ie stainless steel or chrome finishings, leather straps, new handles on doors and drawers).

When something is only limited by what you can imagine, the sky is really the limit with integrating upcycling into your home.

Barton has had a few very unusual upcycling projects that his company have worked on.

“At Backwoods Original we mostly salvage demolition waste and turn it into new furniture so the story is often based around the building it came from,” he said. “The coolest timber we’ve had so far came from when they pulled down old show bag alley at the RNA Showgrounds.”

“We got a whole truck load of the rafters from the ceiling and we made them into table tops.”

It’s a pretty cool thing really to eat off such an iconic piece of Brisbane history.