I tried upcycling thrift store finds. Here’s how it went.


A month or so ago, when brainstorming ideas for my column, my editor approached me with a challenge: spend $10 at the local Goodwill and wow her by upcycling thrift store finds into new treasures.

I am a regular denizen of the thrift store. Many materials for my Sam Tries Things columns have come from thrift stores, from polka dot fabric for beeswax food wraps to cookie cutters for plantable seed paper gift tags. Plus, after learning about the environmental impact of fashion, nearly 90 percent of my current wardrobe is thrifted. 

Still, I balked at the challenge. Despite my current profession, I am not especially crafty, at least not in a Pinterest-worthy way. I was skeptical of my ability to turn trash into treasure — and for $10, no less. The new year seemed like as good a time as any to push the outer limit of my creativity, though, so this week, I decided to give it a shot.

Learning to try

Before I embarked on my thrifting adventure, I reread the tips for a thrift store treasure hunt I wrote last May. Most of the thrifting hacks I wrote about — choosing location carefully and going often, for example — were not going to be useful for my one-shot upcycling challenge. I only had an hour or so to spend searching for supplies, so multiple visits and long travel times to find the perfect Goodwill branch were not in the cards.

Goodwill on Stillwater Avenue in Bangor. | Photo by Linda Coan O’Kresik

Starving for inspiration, I also reviewed some of the upcycling listicles and compendiums I had compiled in the past year for ideas. Upcycling ideas for the home, published on Hello Homestead this past July, struck me as especially relevant. Some of the crafts seemed a little beyond my ability (I was not about to buy a crib to upcycle into a desk, for example) but others, like the colander planter, soda bottle soap dispenser and mason jar terrarium seemed within my reach. 

A trying experience

I took my $10 and went to the Goodwill in Brewer because my usual Goodwill on Stillwater Avenue in Bangor is closed for renovations. I’ll admit, I was thrown by the unfamiliar territory.

When I walked in, I was overwhelmed. Today, I wasn’t perusing knick knacks for the joy of it. I had to find something inexpensive, but useful, that I could easily upcycle into some unspecified treasure of my own devising, all before close-of-business that afternoon. The thrift store, which I normally find fun and welcoming, suddenly felt hostile to me.

I anxiously explored the aisles, picking up random odds and ends, looking to spark inspiration. I spent over an hour digging through shelves, looking for something I could safely upcycle. I am not especially handy, so I didn’t want to use anything with breakable bits. The furniture selection was limited, and I do not have many (if any) refinishing skills. I also didn’t want to desecrate an old hardcover book for the sake of decoration (it didn’t end well for Lauren Conrad in the early aughts, after all). 

I took a step back and decided to choose a project before I picked my items. I thought back to an article I once wrote on container gardening and decided that, as long as I wasn’t growing edible plants, I could make a pretty planter out of almost anything. With my new goal in mind, I chose a $5 basket perfectly sized for my windowsill, a strange $2 hanging tin heart and a bag of stones I could use for drainage for succulents.

It felt cheap to just fill the containers with soil and call it a day, but my limited crafting skills left me with few tools at home. Plus, I needed plants. 

I picked up paint and plants from Lowes. I picked a few dracaenas and succulents from the clearance rack (I always find myself buying Charlie Brown Christmas tree-style plants and trying to nurse them back to health). I also bought two cans of spray paint with primer: rose gold, because I’m a millennial, and royal blue, because it matches my throw pillows. I sprayed the tin and basket and let them dry overnight. My spray painting skills are lacking — the tin was a goopy mess, and I never seemed to be able to add enough color to the basket. I figured it might look better when it dried.

In the morning, I lined the bottom of my blue basket with coffee filters per a number of online recommendations to allow for drainage without letting the soil seep out. Let’s just say the basket still allowed for excellent drainage with the safeguards in place — my workspace was a soppy, soily mess after watering my precious plants into their new home.

Still, the colorful planter looked lovely on the windowsill behind my couch. I placed a dish towel underneath to catch the water for now, but I plan on purchasing (or maybe crafting) some sort of saucer to catch water in the long term. 

I moved on to the tin. Because succulents do not require the same level of drainage as other plants (their roots need to stay fairly dry, so they also require less frequent watering), I simply filled the bottom with the glass pebbles before topping it with soil and succulents. Some of my clearance succulents were falling apart, but all of them made it into my poorly painted tin. In the end, though, I thought it looked pretty good.

The process of upcycling thrift store finds was stressful, but the finished products have found a place among my regular decor. Plus, now I’ll be seeing the potential for container gardens everywhere I go.

My tried-and-true takeaways

Needless to say, I struggled with upcycling thrift store treasures for under $10. Unless you have a full arsenal of arts and crafts materials already waiting for you at home, taking on such a creative upcycling project is going to wind up costing you more than you anticipated. Having an idea of what you want to create — not necessarily what you want to buy but what you generally want to achieve — is a good way to save time and money.

I think my planters turned out cute, but I’d like to try again with a clearer vision of what I want to do going into the challenge. Perhaps in this next year, too, I will gain some of the skills through Sam Tries Things that will take my upcycling game to the next level.

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