Wood Finishes for Upcycled and Recycled Projects


Wood Finishes for Upcycled and Recycled Projects:
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue…

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue…

The notion of saving and reusing things goes back to the dawn of time, but more recently human beings have become much more wasteful and created (if that’s the right word) the ‘throwaway culture’ because
we have too much of everything. The funny thing is, we often hark back to an earlier time, to the things we really value. This urge for the vintage or antique, the collectable and desirable, can only partly be met by what we find or are given, possibly as keepsakes or heirloom items. We can bolster these ambitions of a comforting past, by creating our own ‘history’ by the upcycling and recycling of things, but it is the finishing touches that make anything look ‘right’ or ‘real’. Here are some examples of how different finishes can create loveliness from sometimes lacklustre, unfashionable worn-out objects.

Abrasive ‘renewal’

Often just working over a surface can give it new life and a new appearance. Dirty, dusty pallet wood, used to create all kinds of upcycled projects, can be made to look clean and fresh just by using coarse abrasive fitted on a sander. This can give a nice effect on its own or it may benefit from a clear coat of varnish to improve the colour and protect the surface. Always use a good quality dust mask and goggles when doing this work

Colour sanded back 

This shows the very same pallet wood sanded, coated with a paint colour and then partially sanded back again, leaving the colour in the grain for a stylish effect


If you like the natural driftwood colour, leave your pallet wood outdoors for several months to make it turn a silvery grey when exposed to the elements – great if you aren’t in a hurry

Clear finishes

Oil, wax oil, French polish and lacquers are generally reserved for good quality cabinetwork and joinery, not upcycled or recycled projects. However, if you have a nicely finished surface then it deserves the best treatment

It’s much more likely that you will want to use a sealer coat between paint layers or a final top coat to finish a job off. For this, you can’t beat quick drying, non-yellowing aqueous (water-based) varnish. It comes in matte, satin or gloss, is easy to apply and clean up afterwards and isn’t expensive


Wood dye is supposed to penetrate enough to give a colour layer while still allowing the wood grain to be visible. Spirit dye penetrates better than water-based dye and doesn’t raise the grain, but isn’t as lightfast

Water-based wood dyes do raise the grain once the wood is wet and needs flattening with finishing paper abrasive between coats, before applying a finish coat


Whereas dyes are soluble in the correct medium (spirit or water depending on type), pigments won’t dissolve. They are good for adding to other materials like wax or woodfillers and obscure the wood more than dye does

Grain fillers

Liming, the application of wax with white pigment added, is a traditional method of emphasising the grain in wood for effect. Oak (Quercus robur) is the most obvious candidate for this because it has such open grain pores, but there are other timbers such as ash (Fraxinus excelsior), that can be used too

If white doesn’t suit the job, then you can add a dye or a pigment to colour it to the right degree. Rub it into the wood on mutton cloth until the pores are full and then rub off the surplus completely

As a complete contrast, you can spray aerosol paint on the wood to get a dark glossy finish. In this case black has been used and then a gilt cream rubbed into the pores for a striking effect. You can buy different shades of gold or silver creams

Various and quite subtle colour shades are possible, as you can see from this sample board

Paint effects

The most dramatic differences can be created using standard or specialist paint finishes. Here, a strong colour is being overpainted with a cream paint, adding a sealer coat of aqueous varnish in between

Rubbing back with abrasive by hand creates a deliberate worn effect that is more pleasing than just plain colour
alone. Both of these colours are from the Milk Paint range by General Finishes

Paint technique

An even more extreme example, from the dreaded ‘black ash era’. Now completely out of fashion, this type of finish does present quite a challenge

The finished job couldn’t look more different and here’s how it was done…

First, sanding back with an orbital sander and then applying a coat of varnish gives the initial finishing option – a ‘tiger’ effect

The next possibility is to break the very harsh straight lines by applying glued-on mouldings, easily obtained from a DIY store. Compare the photos above to see how this can change the ‘look’

In this case, the client provided a vase from which to create a colour sample board for them to choose a wood finish from. That way, they could be sure the pair of units they were decorating would fit in with their room décor

After applying paint and the sealing coat, a dark gel stain was wiped on and then heavily rubbed out using a piece of abrasive web, rather like a household scourer. Only a limited amount of the brown stain was left behind


Furniture wouldn’t be complete without hardware – knobs, hinges, etc. Brass can be cleaned and then darkened with a patinating fluid

It is then rubbed back with fine wirewool for an ‘authentic’ aged look, so it blends nicely

By contrast, you can buy all manner of ceramic, glass and wood handles or knobs. These crystal knobs reflect rainbow colours for a striking effect

Makeover examples

Surely this has got to be a really desperate example of a table only fit for a bonfire…

… and yet, after a complete re-gluing, sanding and staining, it’s almost unrecognisable!

You can either buy or make stencils to paint through, or make lino cuts. Adding shapes or letters by stencilling breaks up plain surfaces and adds an individual ‘signature’ to the appearance of a piece of furniture

There are times when the genuinely old can be mixed with new. These old pine doors were cleaned; the top is a very worn scaffold board re-jointed with ‘breadboard ends’ and the carcass is painted using a Rust-Oleum chalk effect paint


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