Easy tips for upcycling MDF furniture

Want to breathe new life into those dated bookshelves, drawers or cabinets? We ask the experts about getting started.

Press Association
Last updated: 28 May 2018 - 12.53pm

Picking up second-hand furniture from charity shops and car-boot sales can be a purse and planet-friendly way of kitting out your home. But often, this means dated MDF, which can look a bit blah.

[11 amazing upcycling projects to ignite your creativity]

There’s always the option of upcycling, of course – a fun and relatively thrifty way of giving furniture a refresh and unleashing those creative juices. This applies to giving old MDF furniture you’ve had in your home for years – and are now bored of – a bit of a style update too.

“In the past, MDF furniture has been a popular option for people wanting to furnish their homes on a budget, however, it can easily become tired-looking and outdated – but people shouldn’t get rid of it and replace it with something new, instead, they can upcycle and give their furniture a new lease of life,” says Cato Cooper, co-owner of The Emporium Somerset in Wellington, who began restoring furniture as a hobby before turning her craft into a profession. “Upcycling is a great way of saving money – and it’s good for the environment too, as it minimises the amount of discarded materials and waste being sent to landfill each year.”

Where do you start with upcycling MDF though? Surely working with those glossy coatings is going to be a mammoth job? “One of the biggest challenges I face when advising people on reusing old furniture is that they think it’s huge task, and things can get over-complicated. This mindset can easily put people off and good furniture is thrown away that could have otherwise been used for something else,” says Andy Baxter, home and garden furniture expert and MD of Internet Gardener.

Getting started

Let the work begin (Thinkstock/PA)

If you’re new to upcycling, make sure you’ve planned out the whole process before you start. This isn’t just a question of deciding on the methods and colours you’ll be using – but making sure you have all the appropriate tools for every stage, and enough time and space to complete the job. Think about how you’re going to protect any surrounding items, and your clothing, from getting splashed or dusty while you work, and ensure you’ve got a well-ventilated suitable area sorted out before cracking open those paint and varnish cans.

Do your prep

There are some paint products that promise to cut the groundwork, but if you’re going the traditional route or want more control over your finish, then you’ll need to do some prep. This usually means some thorough sanding (you want to create a rough surface to ‘grip’ the paint so it holds), plus using a suitable primer before you get going with the painting.

Drawers painted with ‘Dip in the Pool’, ‘Aqua Mosaic’ and ‘Baby Blues’ from the Valspar range (Valspar/PA)

“A coat of undercoat or primer will need to be applied to the piece of furniture first, and once dried, you’re ready to go with your new colour of paint. If painted on plain MDF, you will need to give the furniture a gentle sand after the coat of primer/undercoat, and before applying the paint,” says Cooper.  “The majority of my restoration projects are done using Autentico Chalk Paint which allows me to rejuvenate an old piece and give it a fun and bright coat of paint. It can be used on MDF too, as long as a primer is used first and the Autentico paint is sealed after application. Alternatively, you can use the Autentico Chalk Paint ‘Eggshell’ range without a sealer.”

Baxter adds: “You may find that some paints won’t always stick to surfaces very well, even when the surface been sanded down and primed. As a quick tip, acrylic paint is best in these scenarios. As it’s made of acrylic, this paint sticks far better to a whole host of materials, including plastic, glossy and shiny MDF surfaces. A quick varnish after painting will also stop any paint coming off afterwards.”

Create a ‘distressed’  or textured look

“To get that aged, distressed look to furniture, it’s best to use a slightly darker shade as your undercoat, and your main colour as a second layer,” says Kasia Wiktorowicz, marketing communications manager at Valspar. “Then you can use sandpaper to lightly scuff certain areas, such as corners, to reveal the colour underneath and bring the texture of your furniture to life.

“Try out different brush strokes to create a texture you love,” Wiktorowicz adds. “Once the paint has dried, you can rub gently with sandpaper over the areas you want to expose. Valspar’s Premium Blend v700 Wood & Metal will give even the thinnest piece of MDF a beautiful finish, that’s long-lasting and withstands those everyday knocks.”

Valspar’s ‘Eraser Pink’ breathes new life into a child’s desk (Valspar/PA)

Think about your finishing touches

The best thing about going to all this effort is you have free reign to create whatever you fancy. “Upcycling gives you the chance to create one-of-a-kind furniture that’s completely your own, adding a real personal touch to your home. In recent years, we’ve experienced the ‘flat pack culture’, which people are currently turning away from. It’s now more important to have an element of craft and storytelling within the home, and this is exactly what upcycling offers,” says Wiktorowicz.

So, be creative with colours – this might mean colour-blocking with drawers in different colours, for instance, and think about adding extra finishing touches, such as stencilling or replacing knobs for extra style. Of course, you can always go for classic and understated, too.

Check out a cheat’s option

Ronseal’s Chalky Paints give a soft finish (Ronseal/PA)

And if you don’t have the space, time or tools to go full-on restoration mode, you can always try some of the paint products that promise to do the job in one or two simple steps.

Ronseal Chalky Furniture Paint comes in eight pastel shades and just two applications on un-primed MDF will give you a chalky, matt finish. Rust-Oleum also has a paint range that can be used directly onto un-primed wood, including MDF. If you’re after a gloss finish, try the Rust-Oleum Gloss Finish Furniture Paint (£19.99 for 750ml, Homebase).

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