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Upcycling the secret bookcase

Hidden behind a wall for a hundred years

Upcycling saves old furniture from landfill and that’s something the planet welcomes. Your key creative input is in that initial idea of how to revive it. Sometimes all the charm rests in radically transforming how an object is used . Here I’m taking a quieter path where the strength comes from echoes of the past.

Upcycling: the moment you find something

For several years now I’ve been deep in the process of renovating a 200 year old cottage in the north of Scotland. A whole family used to live in the room pictured below. I knew there had been a fireplace but it came as a surprise to chip away the plasterboard and find a recess.

I broke off a little more and I couldn’t believe there were still shelves in there. At first, I presumed the shelves were built-in but the more I tore away the more I could see that this was a detached piece of furniture. I say ‘detached’ but it was firmly nailed in place and took brute force to dislodge just a fraction.

There were signs of hinges and door-stoppers still in place – in the mists of time someone had decided to upcycle this cupboard into a shelving unit and nailed it into the recess.

As I struggled with ‘the bookcase’, I saw that the bottom ledge extended out about 10 cm on each side, as shown in the picture below. At one time the cupboard would have sat on this wider base. I wanted to turn this heavy object designed to sit on a solid surface into a wall-mounted display cabinet so I had to cut off these edges. It was a simple task but it felt like performing an amputation.

When a hunded years of dust settles on wood it’s hard to assess the condition. Warm water and a sponge is all I needed to reveal some wood-worm damage. The infestation was no longer active but I treated the wood for future protection. At this stage I added a tiny dab of filler to woodworm holes in preparation for painting.

Upcycling: the first coat of paint

The first wipe had revealed touches of burgundy red paint on the bare wood of the outer edges. This was perfect. I like the contrast of the natural distressed look alongside newly painted areas so this was something to retain. I used these wax sticks to fill the holes on areas to be left unpainted. There’s enough wax here to fill a crater on the moon but the wide choice makes for accurate colour-matching.

Colour to enhance the red

The options for furniture paint extend from specialist furniture coatings to DIY recipes using leftovers of latex paint. My choice was a quick-drying satin paint suitable for wood. Semi-gloss would be a more robust finish for furniture that gets knocked about but satin is fine for a display cabinet. The colour to enhance the red was a green-blue.

This cream colour for the shelves was a mistake… It made the bookcase look too summery and shabby chic, which may be perfectly fine but it’s not what I wanted for something heavy and historic. I needed a colour with gravitas 🙂

Most importantly I wanted to create a maritime feel (can you tell from my objets d’art that I hail from a fishing background?). Not New England coastal but deep sea that people make a living on. Olive green is one of my favourite colours (see here, for example) and as it happens I had just uncovered a whole ceiling of it upstairs so I knew it would look good.


You’d think it would be easy to find olive green satin paint… eventually I did find this heavy-duty paint intended for heat-resistant industrical use. So not quite the niche I was looking for but suitable for wood. Please take my strong advice, restrict yourself to what’s available on the manufacturer’s colour card – I would not recommend thinking of a colour then searching for it all over the place…

Good Luck Mo!

When I came back to my home village and bought this cottage I had no idea who had lived here in years gone by. I later found out that my great Auntie Jean and her husband lived in this very room early last century. So these shelves were used by my ancestors, no doubt as storage for the necessities of life.

This illustrates a key feature of upcycling any piece of furniture: the historic use pulses through its new life. That lends an altogether stronger presence to my assortment of vintage odds and ends, don’t you think?

Was it worth saving? You should share your thoughts in the Comments. Please do.

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