Something from Nothing: Upcycling and Salvage Crafts

by Emily Z.

Using salvaged materials means rescuing something old and giving it new purpose. Close cousin to salvage, upcycling is the art of reinventing something you have (or have found) and turning it into something you love/need/want via modification or re-purposing. It’s upgrading and recycling smashed lovingly together and it can be a rewarding practice when it results in something truly useful if not also beautiful.

Some examples:

  • A lonely candle holder and some plates combine, much like Voltron, into a cake stand (source: Trash to Treasure p. 72)
  • A super simple can planter (source: my house)
  • A worn but foxy sweater turned cozy throw pillow (source: my house)
  • An industrial-style shoe rack: rummage sale pipe pieces+shelves from a broken bookcase
    (source: also my house)


As upcycling is such a broad and open-ended endeavor, it is tricky to entirely encapsulate in books. Realistically, these titles and their projects aim to offer ideas and advice. The success of a re-purposing project will usually come down to the materials and tools you actually have on hand and your own ingenuity.

At its heart, upcycling is all about inspiration, discovery, and experimentation, but if you’re feeling paralyzed by all that freedom, remember that your salvage-upcycling-found-object-reinvention adventure can start with something small like turning a t-shirt into a tote bag or finally doing something with your hoard of bottle caps.
You can work your way up to remodeling an entire room later.

Starting Small:
If there’s only time for a crafty afternoon

Beer Crafts by Shawn Gascoyne-Bowman
This is the premier craft book for the brew-enthusiast who finds simply recycling bottles and cans too ho-hum. From the practical (wallets and fishing tackles) to the flat-out fantastical (bottle cap curtains and beer can tiaras), you will be amazed by Mr. Gascoyne-Bowman’s ingenuity.





Wise Craft by Blair Stocker
If you’re not looking to make something entirely from scratch, this book is ideal. Stocker has a crush on embellishment in a big way. Patches, embroidery, decals, painting, printing and accessorizing are the name of game. She also has seasonal suggestions, some spooky and some sparkly, for those special times of year.






Paper Made! By Kayte Terry
Green Crafts for Children by Emma Hardy
Trash to Treasure by Pam Scheunemann

More Serious Salvaging:
“I woke up this morning and I just hated everything”—”Lara Croft”
[from the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider]

Salvage Secrets by Joanna Palmisano
This book is serious business. Palmisano is all about seamlessly incorporating vintage, recycled, and otherwise previously used materials into real, elegant homes where adults live. Arranging the book into chapters based on a basic building component—wood, glass, metal, stone, etc—she makes the process of seeking out and reclaiming materials to make a home truly unique less daunting and more fascinating. She also works to address some of the challenges that can come from using non-new materials, like changes in building codes. Her follow up book, Salvage Secrets Design & Decor, offers a look at even more salvage-based residences as well as commercial properties like salons, hotels, restaurants, and retail spaces.


Upcycling by Max McMurdo
Featuring a rustic, industrial aesthetic, McMurdo’s projects are made of any wood or metal he can find. Tin jelly moulds are now lampshades. A skateboard becomes a shelf. Pallet wood is everything else. He also discusses essential hand tools, useful power tools, hardware, sources for supplies, and some fixatives and finishes.




Salvage-Style Projects by Amy R. Hughes
These projects are largely of the stand-alone variety, but still fairly ambitious and intended to last: pot racks, planters, a fountain, shelves, headboards, and some storage ideas. In other words, most are renter-friendly salvage rather than full-on home-renovation.  Though a few components are a tad exotic (I never realized how much I wanted a Victorian chimney pot until now), keeping an eye peeled for a good deal on something unusual is part of the adventure.




1000 Ideas for Creative Reuse
by Garth Johnson
DIY Rustic Modern Metal Crafts by Laura Putnam
Salvage Secrets Design & Decor by Joann Palmisano


Do you have any upcycling or salvage achievements you’re particularly proud of? Any dream projects you’re dying to try?



2 responses to “Something from Nothing: Upcycling and Salvage Crafts”

  1. I…shouldn’t have read this… I don’t have time to make all the things this post made me want. (Loved the Voltron reference)

  2. Emily Z says:

    It’s and off and on hobby for me. I still haven’t done anything with the Really Cool Vintage Double-Hung Windows that were replaced by new vinyl windows in my apartment. The maintenance guy kind of gave me the side-eye when I asked what he was going to do with them (he was going to throw them away *gasp*. They are sitting in my craft room just waiting to be transformed into picture frames or a headboard or the top of a mini-greenhouse or something.

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