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From rustic grunge to coastal chic

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Piece by Melissa Yale. Photo: Bruce Murray/VisionFire

Piece by Melissa Yale. Photo: Bruce Murray/VisionFire

Discover the simple — and economical — joys of upcycling furniture

With a bit of sandpaper, a few coats of paint and some grit, a Kijiji or yard-sale bargain can become a timeless treasure. 

Known as upcycling, the increasingly popular trend can make an interior feel more lived in, personal and special, not to mention eco-friendly. 

“That’s my go-to now — reusing what you have to make it fresh and new,” says Melisa Yale, whose ReFresh Home and Design shop in Wolfville, N.S. specializes in such pieces. 

Melissa Yale. Photo: Bruce Murray/VisionFire
Melisa Yale, owner of ReFresh Home and Design shop in Wolfville, N.S. Photo: Bruce Murray/VisionFire

“A lot of stuff you buy from Wayfair or furniture shops is either from China or Indonesia and it’s full of gases and chemicals,” says Yale. “The East Coast has a tradition of hand-me-downs. Maybe your aunt has an old dresser kind of thing. Let’s keep that tradition up. It’s authentic … We should be doing more thrifting.” 

Coastal chic 

Create a coastal chic look by sanding down an old, orange-tinged pine dresser and bleaching the wood out with a special kit. Then, you marry the piece with a new couch or chairs, which are much more difficult and costly to have reupholstered, says Yale. 

And it’s a trend that more and more people are getting into these days.

Janice Bureau of Halifax has upcycled more than 150 pieces of furniture since she first started dabbling four years ago. 

Her first project was a huge dresser, which she’d never recommend for a beginner. 

“I stripped the top and then I used oil paint and a multitude of colours,” she recalls. “It was an advanced job. It took me three months. I painted the body, and it wasn’t great, but everyone went gaga over it, and it sold in three days.” 

A better starting point would be picking something smaller that’s in decent shape and 100-per-cent wood, says Bureau, who goes by the handle “theColourBureau” on Instagram.  

“Pure wood has its own issues, but the paint will stick to it, and you can sand it. When you get into other things like laminate, that’s a whole different beast. If it starts peeling on you, you’ve got to make the decision to pull it all back, which can take weeks. And it’s not regarded as well as wood. If you say you have 100-per-cent wood, people will be drawn to that.” 

Rustic style

Bureau’s niche is anything rustic. “There’s rustic farmhouse. There’s rustic grunge. The only style I don’t like to do is modern,” she says. “I like to do the pieces that, if you went to Newfoundland and there was an old house and they had a piece of furniture tucked away on the deck and exposed to all the elements, that’s the look I love to achieve. You can’t capture that in a big-box store.” 

Clients have commissioned her to do several pieces in that style, which involves applying layer after layer with various techniques to create a distressed look. 

“After you prep the piece and you’re ready to paint it, you start with a base coat in whatever colour you want,” she says. “Typically, it’s a grey, black or brown, sometimes red. After that, you start layering. You might put another coat on, and you might sand it back, and another and water it down, or another and use a sponge or scraper to make it look as authentic as possible.”  

Working from home, Bureau finds pieces on Facebook Marketplace and Kijiji and gets many of her items for free. “People who buy stuff will contact me and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this old buffet. Would you like to come get it?’” 

After four years in business, she has a good sense of what sells and what doesn’t. “I’m careful about what I buy,” she says. “I say to myself, ‘Would I put that in my home?’ I’ve never had anything not sell.” 

Farmhouse style

In Atlantic Canada, anything slugged “farmhouse” gets attention, says Bureau. Coffee bars, consoles and side tables are popular. Greens and blues are in, especially on the coast, but white might be the most popular.  

“It’s the hardest colour to paint with,” she says. “Typically, your furniture will bleed through. You’ll need a primer and to prep it. Then you’ll need maybe three or four coats. Once you get it painted, you’ll need to make sure your clear coat is impeccable, so it doesn’t stain the white. I love the look, but I don’t like
to paint in it.”  

Pieces typically take anywhere from a day to a week to complete. “It all depends on what you want to do,” she says. “With grunge or rustic, where you have a lot of colours coming through, that takes a few days because you have to let each layer dry, or you get smudging and a swampy look.” 

Anybody can do it

Bureau is self-taught with the help of YouTube videos. “I had no idea how many products there would be, how many applications and embellishments. It’s astronomical. It can be very intimidating,” she says. “For me, I just love taking a piece of furniture and changing it from a regular brown to something that looks artistic. It’s something anybody can do if they love it.” 

Upcycling is not always a financial thing, says Yale, who worked in nursing before shifting gears a few years ago to pursue her love of home décor. “I have people coming to my store with these sentimental items and they’re saying, ‘Can you redo it? I still love it, but I want it to look fresh.’” 

Yale strives to keep her services affordable. “I don’t charge an arm and a leg. It’s a lot of work, what I do. But I love doing it. And if people say, ‘I think I can do it myself,’ I’m like ‘right on.’”  

She plans to add products to her store, such as environmentally friendly wood bleach kits, for DIYers. 

“I think this is the way of the future,” says Yale. “We should all be thinking this way.” 

East Coast Living