Five for Friday: The Five Best Things to ‘Upcycle’

Every Friday, I’m compiling a list of five things that meet one criterion. “What is that criterion,” you ask? Well, it’s going to change every week and you’re just going to have to try and keep up.

This week…

The Five Best Things to ‘Upcycle'

It must be made clear, right away: upcycling is not recycling.

To recycle is to take an obsolete product, break it down into its most basic form, and reconfigure it into a form that is as-useful as its original form (example: newspaper being turned into newspaper) usually in an effort to save materials.

To upcycle is to take a product and reconfigure it into something different yet somehow more useful – generally by hand. Basically, it's “Frankenstein-ing” seemingly useless stuff into things that are awesome.

Upcycling is considered an art as much as it is a form of conservation (or whatever “green” term you would like to assign to it). It generally is motivated more by nostalgia, needs, and creativity than it is some desire to merely save money. That being said, upcycling does really deliver, in terms of cost feasibility; the stuff you're going to be improving generally will be either something you already own (and were about to get rid of) or something you bought for cheap at a thrift store or swap meet, intending to rebuild it like Steve Austin.

What follows are the five items most ripe for rebirth in your hands…

Photo by Maggie Vink
Photo by Maggie Vink

5. Cereal box magazine holder

This one is criminally easy and applicable to most everyone. Magazines don't always stack too well (glossy paper is deceptively slippery) and putting issues directly on bookshelves can lead to warping and a lot of wear as you pull them out by their corners.

And everyone eats some form of cereal. Or, at least, they should. And cereal produces nice cardboard trash.

Thus, let's solve both problems, shall we? Here's how you do it: cut from one top corner of the cereal box to the center of the opposite side, at about a 45-degree angle. Done. Here's a nice visual tutorial. You can cover the outside in fabric or paper to fancy it up a little but there's really nothing else that must happen in order for you to more effectively store your magazines (or comic books or screenplays).

4. T-shirt messenger bag

Disclaimer: you must know how to sew or have very good access to someone who will sew for you, in order for this project to pan out in any memorable way.

I hate giving away t-shirts that I love. Even if they no longer fit me or have glaring aesthetic issues (holes, stains, etc.), I struggle to just throw them to a thrift store or the trash can.

Thus, I've searched high and low for good suggestions on extending the legacy of these retired t-shirts and aside from the obvious (like framing them), the best way I've discovered to deal with this materialistic dilemma of loyalty is to turn them into a messenger bag/satchel of some sort.

This tutorial gives the simple, under-20-minute process of how to turn that awesome Star Wars shirt into a soft, cool bag for your books or camera or whatever. I will add to it, however, by saying: the extra fabric/images from the shirt that are not in the main body of the bag can be added to the bag for aesthetic (put the logo on the front) or performance (extra layers on the bottom for strength) purposes. You are welcome.

Photo by NineInchNachosII
Photo by NineInchNachosII

3. Globes

Nobody throws out a globe every week nor are they as rampant in secondhand stores as, say, t-shirts. However, their upcycling possibilities are vast and each one cooler than the next.

A spherical chalkboard, a shade for a hanging light, a punch bowl, a clock, a conversation piece… the list goes on and on. If there's a school in your city that's closing or moving or upgrading (a lot of schools are moving on from globes and physical maps as computers now replace the need), jump on the phone and see if you can have a globe or two. Ask friends to keep their eyes open at the Salvation Army for a globe. Here's a good link encapsulating some of the most impressive ideas.

Other cartography-related upcycling idea: old classroom scroll maps can be curtains.

2. Suitcases

A little more common than a globe (people do throw out suitcases at an alarming rate due to minor things like broken zippers, etc.) but still rather unique and effective in letting people know you're awesome.

They're generally easy to clean, should you land a suitcase that is… ahem, experienced, they're sturdy and well put-together so they can be modified without fear of deconstructing it with one misaligned screw and best of all, they come bearing a lot of space (storage in upcycling is always ideal).

Suitcases can be turned into tables, chairs, stools, filing cabinets, medicine cabinets (!), travel cases for cameras or laptops – an astonishing amount of cool ideas are out there, in the Internet ether.

1. Vinyl records

I've written before about how awesome vinyl record bowls can be and I stand by that assessment. However, the portfolio of LP upcycling potential is buxom with new and interesting ideas.

In addition to a bowl, records lend themselves to coasters, book ends, shelves, lamp shades, a medium for all sorts of visual art, and much more. They're the most readily available and affordable items in most thrift stores and to upcycle them requires only an oven and some imagination.

If you're looking for some fun and interesting challenges for yourself, take upcycling out for a test drive. You can stimulate your creativity, improve your hands-on skill in many areas, and shake up the look and efficiency of your life. Cheap stuff that becomes one of a kind handmade décor or useful everyday accessories… how can you go wrong?

Justin Brown

Justin Brown is an artist and writer living in Virginia. He channels most of his enthusiasm into making things for his online art shop, Artness! by Justin Brown. You can keep up to date with him, his worldly adventures, and his dogs by following him on Instagram and on Facebook