5 expert upcycling tips you should read before you start a project

Not sure where to start when it comes to upcycling? We asked expert Max McMurdo for his best advice to help us all out...

Max McMurdo
(Image credit: Max McMurdo)

Hands up if during the depths of lockdown you upcycled (or attempted to upcycle) a piece of furniture? Well, all our hands are up and judging by Instagram a lot of yours are too. With so much time spent at home staring at all the projects we said we would do or started and didn't finish, those months inside were actually a bit of an opportunity to get crafty. And we want to continue with our new found love of upcycling even as things start to return to 'normal'. 

So rather than us muddle through offering you our pretty novice advice on upcycling, we asked the pro upcycling expert Max McMurdo (you might know him from The Weekend Workshop and George Clarke's Amazing Spaces) his top tips for making all your upcycling projects a success. So keep scrolling for plenty of advice and ideas, and make sure you check out our guide to the best furniture paint as a good place to start building your upcycling kit. 

Where are the best places you would recommend we look for furniture or knick knacks to upcycle? 

'I personally love rummaging around charity shops, not only are there some fantastic bargains but you’re also helping a charity raise funds to help others, Emmaus and the British heart foundation are two of my favourites.

I do also love skip diving but always ask permission first!'

Are there any pieces in particular to look out for that make for great DIY projects? Any you would maybe recommend to be avoided?

'I’m a big fan of pallets as they are cheap and a great source of real timber, I try to avoid working with chipboard furniture as it’s just not very easy or nice to work with.' 

Genuinely pretty chuffed with this design last night on THE WEEKEND WORKSHOP! Max McMurdo

A photo posted by @maxreestore on Aug 4, 2020 at 12:01am PDT

What are your best tips for upcycling on a budget?

'One of the main reasons I got into upcycling was that it was budget friendly! I think investing in a small selection of the basic tools is wise as it makes life easier and more enjoyable. Secondly I would say put the word out that you’re looking for junk, call tradespeople, scour industrial estates and check the web for some unbelievable bargains.'

What is your number one upcycling tip for anyone starting from scratch?

'I think what holds people back the most is fear. They don’t want to get it wrong, Upcycling however is a very forgiving hobby! Be brave, roll up your sleeves and have a go, I guarantee you are more creative and capable than you think!

I think good product design combines a mix of materials – that’s what I love about the Handmade with Heinz campaign, my marquee light design allowed me to mix rustic timber with industrial metal cans plus the added warmth of the lights in my giant letter M.

I really believe that waste can be beautifully upcycled. Just because an item can no longer fulfill its original purpose doesn’t mean it can’t work amazingly as something else. Bear this in mind next time you want to throw something out, like a used Heinz can or an old book, you’ll be amazed at how many things you might be planning to throw away that you can reuse in a really cool way!'

You can watch Max's fab Handmade with Heinz campaign below, and give the project a go yourself. It's a super cute DIY that would be perfect for weddings and garden parties.

Quick weekend upcycling project? Something you could do in a day with stuff you probably already have or can get hold of easily? Go...

'I love a single dining chair, as a first upcycling project they are perfect and incredibly cheap when not in a set of four. Strip off the fabric, quick sand, lick of paint, replace the fabric with something more suitable which is fire retardant using a simple staple gun and hey presto, you’re well on your way to becoming an upcycling master!'

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Hebe Hatton

Hebe joined the Real Homes team in early 2018 as Staff Writer before moving to the Livingetc team in 2021 where she took on a role as Digital Editor. She loves boho and 70's style and is a big fan of Instagram as a source of interiors inspiration. When she isn't writing about interiors, she is renovating her own spaces – be it wallpapering a hallway, painting kitchen cupboards or converting a van.