Upcycling design expert and regular on Channel 4’s Fill Your House for Free, Max McMurdo, shares his design ideas for the festive season
Max designing in his caravan office
Upcycling is a fancy new word for something that lots of us, including our parents and grandparents, have been doing for years. It is basically the art of taking a scrap item and adding value through design.
Annie, the Shopping Trolley Chair by Max
When I started upcycling, I naively thought it might help to save the planet. However, I realised recently that it’s more about making people aware of the issues, and so now my focus is on designing and creating beautiful thought-provoking pieces.
I’ve been involved in upcycling for about a decade and it’s never been as topical and relevant thanks to the current economic crisis. In times of hardship people often become more creative, and I have noticed a huge increase in interest of late, particularly on social media and through my website .
The basic skills you need for upcycling are creative thinking and bravery; the rest of the physical talents can be learned. In reality, anyone can use a sander after a bit of training and experience, but it’s the ability to look at an object and imagine it fulfilling a new role that’s the key to good upcycling.
The other important factor is to use the waste material in a sensible and practical way. If an object is naturally substantial and strong, use these properties to your advantage – don’t try to fight them. Likewise, if you have a lovely flexible, soft material, work with that and don’t try to make it something it’s not.
Upcycling for Christmas
Here are a few Christmas-friendly ideas to get you started on your upcycling journey. Some require a few basic tools – these are generally available from your local DIY store. The main thing to remember with all of these is that there is no right or wrong. These are your designs and mistakes will naturally be made – go with them and keep it fun!
Max’s pallet stool
1. Re-upholster a chair in a Christmassy fabric
This sounds pretty advanced, but most dining chairs have a pretty simple drop-in seat fob.
i) Using a screwdriver, undo the screws which hold the fob in place – these are usually found underneath.
ii) Once you have removed the fob, you will likely find it is simply fabric stretched over a piece of foam and stapled onto a plywood base. Using a flat-head screwdriver, remove these staples and release the old, worn or boring fabric.
iii) Now select a festive fabric of your choice, but try to make sure it’s fire retardant or you may need to add a fire-retardant lining or spray.
iv) Place the fabric face down with the foam and wood on top, then pull the fabric tight and using a standard staple gun, staple the four middle points along each face.
v) Flip it over and check that the pattern etc looks ok. Continue to staple each side, working from the centre out.
vi) Fold a nice little box pleat in the corners and, hey presto, you’ve reupholstered your first chair. Naturally you’ll get the odd little crease, but you’ll get better with experience. If you’re feeling adventurous, why not re-upholster all the chairs in time for Christmas dinner!
Max’s Pallet Chair
2. Upcycle pallet wood
A material I’ve been working with a lot recently (as you may have seen on Kirstie Allsopp’s recent show Fill Your House For Free) is pallet wood.
Pallet wood is perfect for creating everything from planters, shelves, shoe racks and cute little vintage crates all the way up to furniture items such as tables and chairs.
i) Where to find it: when you see a dirty old pallet sitting around outside a warehouse it looks very uninspiring. You can usually get these pallets for free and businesses are often glad to get rid of them.
ii) Taking them apart (or not): the hardest thing about working with pallets is that they are well made and as a result hard to take apart – they tend to be held together by ring nails, which are hard to remove. The easiest way I’ve found to get around this is to design your item to fit within the fixings so you can simply cut the pallets at either end, inside the fixed corners.
iii) Once you have cut the pallet up and have some nice lengths of timber (you can do this with a simple hand-saw), you can assemble it by drilling small pilot holes and using countersunk screws. Pallet wood is generally soft, meaning it’s easy to work with and allows the screws to go in flush.
iv) The wood is also good for whitewashing or waxing to create a vintage look. How pleased would mum be with a handmade gardening tool tray made from old pallets!
3. Make some toys from Christmas packaging
This is one for the children. No doubt they will have put some expensive, fancy-pants gaming system on their list for Santa. You know that it will come in heaps of packaging and they will be bored of it within minutes. Here’s some fun things to do with the packaging:
i) Purchase a selection of blank stickers, some marker pens, scissors and pipe cleaners.
ii) Sit down on Boxing Day, full of turkey, and as a family create some cool upcycled toys from all of the packaging. Take a look below at some of the things I’ve made:
Max’s Talking Bird
Max’s Milk Bottle Fish
Max’s Jumping Frog
If you do create any of the ideas above, I’d love to see some pics. Please send them to me on Twitter: @maxreestore. (and us too please! @Nigelsecostore)
Max runs Reestore, which takes everyday waste objects and upcycles them into beautiful accessories and functional pieces of furniture. He is also a TV presenter, with credits including Channel 4’s Fill Your House for Free. Find out more about Max, here.