The Art of the Find

Upcycling comes with good news and bad news. First the bad news: The upcycled showpiece you’ve been designing in your head consists of multiple elements, some of which you may already have collected with others maybe not quite solidified in your mind but are just waiting to be found.

What do you need to complete your upcycled project? Discarded furniture, retro fabrics, old magazine, costume jewelry, vintage tools, old hardware or plumbing fixtures…. The pursuit of the perfect upcycling materials takes time and money, which leads me to a disclaimer of entitlement. I’m privileged to have the resources to devote to my passion. Courtesy of family, I have space to not only work on projects, but room to warehouse my collection of upcycling materials and equipment.

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My china stash—one of several upcycling collections

Now for the good news: Half the fun of upcycling is in the art of the find—hunting for elements to complete your upcycled game plan. If the essence of upcycling is its impact on the environment, its beauty is with the treasure hunt—discovering hidden gems and creating opportunities to find them.

Lucky for us upcyclers: treasure troves abound. The following is an Art of the Find List of the best places to frequent for upcycling materials. NOTE: Be sure to read my blog post, entitled Upcycling Storage & Workspace. As a professional upcycler, you’re going to need a storage area to house (and display) upcycling materials until you’re ready to get to work.

  • The Collector: Friends and family may not know about upcycling, but dub yourself a collector and people will 1) invite you to “take what you want” when they’re cleaning out the basement or garage, or 2) bring stuff right to your doorstep.
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Photo Credit: Jeffrey Hamilton
  • Dumpster Diving: As the saying goes, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” This doesn’t necessarily mean digging through dumpsters, although there’s no shame in that. When driving through neighborhoods, take note of trash day, keeping an eye out for refuse of distinction. If trash picking gives you the jitters, I promise it gets easier with time.
  • Antique Marts: These shops are not only a great place to treasure hunt but the perfect place to dream. Dealers have a knack for displaying items in the most unusual (upcycled) fashion. Develop a relationship with the owners and/or dealers and let them know your interests (e.g., cracked plates, broken smalls* or damaged furniture); the next time they encounter such items, they may collect just for you.

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  • Thrift Stores (e.g., Salvation Army/Goodwill): An all-around excellent source of upcycling material such as smalls,* vintage linens, lamps, and kitchenware. I like to create pique-assiette mosaics using broken dishes and damaged jewelry.  I feel better when I can buy these materials for pennies on the dollar. In general, thrift stores regularly offer deep discounts on clothing, making these places my go-to spot for velvet and denim.
  • Habitat for Humanity Restore: The Restore can be “hit or miss” so it’s a good idea to frequent this shop on a consistent basis, ’cause the good stuff always goes first. While each Restore is different, depending on the donations, they are always an excellent source for deals on quality used furniture, lighting/ceiling fans and tools. You can also find a plethora of leftover materials from home renovation and construction sites such as cabinetry, doors and windows, sinks…. Pro Tip: Occasionally the larger chain hardware stores donate brand new items such as mismatched paint, special orders, building materials, and closeout items at a fraction of the original price.
  • Garage/Yard Sales: Expect a miscellaneous selection of household goods at bargain prices.
  • Estate Sales: Entire belongings of a family home are on sale for a limited time. The prices are typically higher than a garage or yard sale; nevertheless, one can often find deals up to 50% off on the last day of the sale.
  • Flea Markets: Unlike a brick and mortar thrift store, flea market venues are seasonal and vendors are willing to barter their odd and unusual, often upcycled treasures. Consider this:  Vendors spend a considerable amount of time and effort carting their wares to market. They’d rather wheel and deal than return home with their lot.
  • Store Closings: Not closeouts, but closings. When stores close their doors, they often sell the shelving and display cases which you can reuse in your storage area.
  • Craft Stores: Another great place to be inspired and also an excellent source of ancillary materials such as glues, mastics, and glitter.

A capable upcyler will schedule time throughout each month to visit these spots to search for upcyling materials. Happy hunting!

*Smalls (noun): Small objects displayed for beauty and interest. Also referred to as tchotchkes, bric-a-brac, objet d’art, or keepsakes.

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