Upcycling is all about the process of turning low-value items into high-value items: AKA trash into treasure. Essentially, it involves taking an unwanted object and repurposing it to create a product of higher quality or value than the original. A furniture upcycling business is one that sources or purchases old or abandoned furniture and lavishes it with TLC – whether that's by reupholstering, refinishing or repairing it – before reselling it at a higher price. That last bit is key.
Upcycling taps into the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle. Old furniture that would otherwise be thrown away is salvaged and finds a new use. In the US alone, more than 12 million tons of furniture and furnishings are discarded every year. As these objects typically contain a diverse mix of materials, recycling can be particularly difficult, meaning a lot of it ends up in landfill.
Furniture flipping has become a major trend, with hobbyists and side hustlers trawling charity stores and flea markets for pre-owned furniture and sprucing it up for resale. That's been further boosted by the ease of selling on social media and online marketplaces like Vinterior. On a larger scale, vintage and secondhand furniture stores are growing in popularity, too – appealing to eco-minded or budget-conscious people seeking to decorate their spaces. Even furniture behemoth IKEA is getting in on the action, with a pop-up store in Sweden selling repaired and restored secondhand products.
Lizi Jalil is the co-founder of The Upcycle Furniture Co, based in Kuala Lumpur. Prior to the pandemic, the brand had a store in the township of Mont Kiara; today, it chiefly operates via social media, selling pieces and offering refurbishment services. Here, Lizi tells us about the requirements for starting a furniture upcycling business.
‘When we started out, my business partners and I didn't have any basic knowledge of upcycling furniture, but we had an eye for old items that could be refurbished and saved,’ says Lizi.
She adds: ‘You'll need the basic tools of a restorer or a craftsman.’ Carpentry essentials include a hammer, a screwdriver and pliers. Other handy tools include a paint stripper, a power sander and high-quality paint and brushes (cheap ones don't give good coverage and shed bristles).
The sum you'll need depends on storage, shop premises and the scale of your business. ‘We had $10,000, which was used to acquire inventory, pay our craftsman and [for] a deposit for our pop-up lot,’ shares Lizi. ‘Promotional activities need to be factored in. For instance, regular social media posts are key.’
Where will you source your furniture?
Resale sites like Facebook Marketplace and Etsy are great places to start, as are flea markets and garage sales. You can also consider contacting hotels and restaurants that are closing down or undergoing refurbishment – these venues will likely have old furniture up for grabs. Once you're established, there's another option, too: ‘People often get in touch asking us to take their old furniture off their hands,’ says Lizi.
What types of furniture are you going to upcycle?
‘The best items to upcycle are solid-wood furniture – be it coffee tables, shelves and even small planter stands. We don't accept furniture made from laminated wood or particle boards,’ says Lizi. To avoid spending too much money and time on restoration works, consider focusing on furniture with flaws that are relatively easy to fix – such as peeling paint or missing feet.
What premises will you need?
Furniture is bulky, so you'll need a fairly large space to store your handiwork. Additionally, the upcycling process typically involves sanding and using high-solvent paint, so be sure to look for a workshop with good ventilation. A physical retail space isn't necessary if you're operating online-only or using an online marketplace.
Where will you ship your products to, and how will you deliver them?
Some furniture upcycling businesses deliver their products only to local addresses, as shipping bulky items overseas can be quite complicated – not to mention expensive.
What about staff?
‘At The Upcycle Furniture Co, my partners and I do some of the basic tasks like repainting. However, unless you're really into the hard work of sanding and fixing, you'll need to engage a craftsman. I'd suggest leaving the restoration process to an expert, so you can concentrate on sourcing and marketing,’ says Lizi.
How will you market your products?
Underscore the environmental benefits of upcycling furniture to chime with sustainability-minded customers. It also helps to spotlight the backstories of the pieces you're selling. ‘Customers loved our [physical] shop because we had provenance stories for some of the items we sold,’ says Lizi.