Upcycling: Beauty in someone else’s trash

Kelly Millspaugh Thompson has two trucks, shelves full of paint cans in more than 30 colors, a political science degree she never uses and a passion for refurbishing furniture.

For that, the Falls Church-based designer blames her parents. After all, they were the ones who were constantly renovating their home while she was growing up, who took her with them to antiques shops and put her to work painting.

“All this is in my DNA,” she says, gesturing around her store, Stylish Patina. Here she sells her own work — vintage pieces she’s repainted and repaired — alongside the work of other local crafters and all the necessary materials for aspiring DIY-ers to do projects of their own. The store is full of exactly the kind of kitschy nostalgia you’d expect from someone who refurbishes old furniture for a living: candle holders made of old wine bottles, posters featuring motivational sayings hung in weathered-looking frames. Frank Sinatra croons from a speaker in one corner, and the air is a nose-tickling mixture of paint fumes and flowery body lotion.

This space is also where Thompson does most of her work. Today she’s repainting a rather gloomy-looking wood coffee table with intricately carved legs.


Kelly Millspaugh Thompson working on the coffee table. (Sarah Kaplan for the Washington Post)

Choosing furniture to refurbish, or “upcycle,” as it’s known in the DIY world, is an imprecise science. Typically, she’ll know right away whether an item is right for her, and she has enough experience to see potential in the most intimidating pieces. Laughing, she recalls the time she passed a pair of discarded church pews on the side of the road. Unable to carry them alone, she called her mother to help. (Her mother, though skeptical, was game.) The two of them lifted the pews into the bed of Thompson’s truck, and within weeks the pews had been reinvented as seating for a customer’s wrap-around porch.

“There’s satisfaction in the fact that you’re making something out of a piece someone else threw away,” she says.

That, after all, is the key to upcycling: finding a way to bring out the beauty of a piece others might consider trash.

Thompson doesn’t usually find her pieces so serendipitously. She often spends weekends scouring East Coast auction houses and estate sales, aiming to buy several items at one event. For refurbishers looking to start with just one piece, she recommends visiting thrift stores or Goodwill.

The important thing, she says, “is to buy a good, solid piece of furniture. That way, at the end of the day, no matter what you do to it, you still have a piece you can use.”

That means checking for wobbly legs and drawers that don’t roll smoothly. Peeling veneer can also be a sign that a piece is on its last legs.

Once the piece has been selected, Thompson chooses how to refurbish it based on where she imagines it fitting into a room and the piece’s aesthetic. If an item is intended as an attention-drawing accent piece, she’ll use bold colors rather than neutrals. Simpler, sleeker items with straight lines also lend themselves to bright, solid colors.

Today’s coffee table, on the other hand, is dominated by carvings and curved lines, so she’s going for something more rustic and “European.”

She achieves this with a technique called “two-color tech,” which involves layering two colors of paint and then rubbing the top coat with a sanding sponge to let the bottom color show through. The result is an artfully weathered look.

Thompson starts by applying the bottom coat — a warm, dark gray Chalk Paint called French Linen — with a large, natural-bristled brush. She dips the dry brush lightly into the paint before sweeping it casually across the table’s surface. Because she’s aiming for an aged appearance, she doesn’t worry too much about getting paint in every nook and cranny, and her brush strokes go in several directions. If she were trying to achieve a more modern look, she would use a synthetic brush (which creates less visible strokes) and would be careful to apply the paint evenly.

Once the bottom layer has dried — this happens quickly, because the coat is so thin — Thompson begins applying the top one. For this, it’s important to choose a lighter color; she’s selected Old White. She paints it in a similarly haphazard fashion, sweeping the brush over the table’s carved sections, pausing to examine her work, then touching up certain sections to suit her.


Thompson uses Chalk Paint on the coffee table. (Sarah Kaplan for the Washington Post)

Thompson uses two different layers of colors on the coffee table. (Sarah Kaplan for the Washington Post)

Next, Thompson uses a fine-grain sanding sponge, the kind that can be found at any hardware store, to gently rub off some of the top coat. She avoids the table’s top and focuses on darkening its edges and the corners of the carvings, which she says helps acccentuate the piece’s lines and character, but there’s no absolute methodology for where paint should be removed. That’s the magic of this kind of DIY project, Thompson says: The outcome is largely dependent on individual taste.

“The trick is to just keep working with it, trying different things,” she says. “The beauty of upcycling is that you don’t pay a lot for the pieces, so you can keep playing with it until you find your niche.”

And because Chalk Paint, a matte-finish product by Annie Sloan, doesn’t require sanding or primer, fixing a paint job gone awry is as simple as starting the whole thing over again.

When she’s satisfied with her sanding, Thompson wipes down the table with a lint-free cloth and prepares to seal her paint job. She has two options for sealing: polyurethane, a glossy synthetic varnish which she prefers for her “modern” pieces, and furniture wax, which she’ll be using today. She applies the wax with a broad, round wax brush (though beginners can use a regular paint brush), rubbing it into the paint with small, circular strokes. After waxing each side, she rubs off the excess with her lint-free cloth, checking with her hands that the table isn’t tacky or waxy to the touch.

She could finish her project here, but Thompson has a few add-on products, “just to gussy it up a bit more.” She uses a finger to apply first a layer of dark wax, then a layer of gilding wax, to the table’s carved sides and legs. Combined, they add depth to the paint and achieve a pleasant “glinting” effect.

“This is where that creative touch comes back in,” Thompson says. “It’s very personal and individual, just doing what looks good.”


The finished project. (Sarah Kaplan for the Washington Post)

With the wax applied and rubbed down with the cloth, she goes over the table’s top once more with the sanding sponge, then steps back to admire her work. She doesn’t say anything but smiles at the table before replacing its glass top.

This piece, like most of the projects Thompson works on, goes straight into her store. Within minutes, she’s placed it in front of two armchairs and arranged some books on top of it. A newly arrived shopper would never guess that the table had been unpainted dark wood just an hour and a half earlier.

‘Two-color tech’

To do your own two-color tech upcycling project, you’ll need the following:

● Any piece of old or vintage furniture, preferably one with carvings and curved lines

● A large, natural bristled paint brush

● Two cans of Annie Sloan Chalk Paint in compatible colors

● A sanding sponge, 220-grit or higher

● A lint-free cloth

● A can of clear soft wax

● A large wax brush (optional, a regular paint brush can also be used)

● A small can of dark soft wax (optional)

● A small can of gilding wax (optional)

1. Coat the entire piece of furniture in the first (darker) layer of paint, applying paint thinly. Don’t worry too much about covering every nook and cranny of the piece.

2. When the first layer has dried, paint over it in the second (lighter) color, again feeling free to leave uncovered sections of the piece.

3. Allow both paint layers to dry, then gently rub edges, corners and other exposed sections of the piece (knobs, carvings, etc.) with a sanding sponge to remove some of the paint. The amount of paint removed is up to individual taste.

4. Wipe down the piece with a lint-free cloth to remove grit from sanding.

5. Using the wax brush (or a regular paint brush), forcefully rub the wax into the paint in small circles, then wipe off excess with the lint-free cloth. Apply the wax in sections — for example, wax and wipe one side of a coffee table before moving on to the next one. This way, the wax does not have time to harden before the excess is wiped off.

6. Gently sand down the piece’s flat surfaces, then wipe again with lint-free cloth.

7. If using, artfully apply dark wax and gilding wax with a fingertip as desired.

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