Upcycling 101: A Beginner's Guide to Buying

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When wandering a flea market, do you ever stop and consider the potential of a piece that just needs a little TLC? While some find and refurbish as a fun way to spend an afternoon, more and more people are upcycling as a means of business. With the activity gaining attention thanks to shows on many popular DIY networks, legions of people are inspired to attempt the craft for themselves. Unfortunately for many, getting started can be at bit daunting.

Lucky for you, this article can serve as your beginner's guide to upcycling so that you can find, flip, and sell almost anything!

Research Where to Buy

yard sale

The first step in becoming a proper upcycler finding flea markets, thrift shops, and garage sales that feature lightly used goods that you can buy, refurbish, and flip. This used to be as easy as scouring newspapers for local advertisements, but with so many technological and web-based innovations, newspapers are only one of many options.

For the newbie bargain hunter, the Internet is a great tool for finding a sale. Sites like Craigslist, My Flea Market Guide, and Garage Sale Finder are great starting points when researching. Most modern sites now have “near me” options, which actually allow users to see maps detailing yard sales and flea markets near their current locations. This can comes in handy when a person is traveling.

If you're prone to using your smart phone or mobile device, be sure to check out the app store for Flea Market Finder, Garage Sales by Map, and Yard Sale Treasure Map. These are all free downloads that offer great places for shoppers to find items for upcycling projects.

For a different shopping experience, many upcyclers exclusively use EBay and Etsy to pick up items for DIY projects. Although shipping fees are incurred, the seller typically has low overhead and is able charge less per item. Additionally, as these online garage sales truly have no borders; the customer gains greater access to a wider array of products around the world instead of being confined to the commodities of his or her local areas.

Prepare for Shopping Trips

measuring tape and money

If you're going to a market to search for items to upcycle, there are a number of things you should be sure to bring with you.


Most flea market or garage sale sellers don't have access to credit or a debit card scanners when selling their old goods, so it's advisable for a shopper to always have cash on hand when closing deals. Furthermore, you should not rely on the seller to have exact change. Though garage and rummage sale vendors usually simplify a transaction with rounded numbers, having smaller bills at the ready can sometimes tip the sale in your favor for getting a better deal.

Measuring Tape

This is important for two reasons. First, if you have an exact place in mind for a product to be placed within your home, you need to know the exact dimensions before making a purchase. This will save you a lot of time, money, and aggravation in the long run.

Second, if you're in the market for large product to upcycle, such as a piano or a bedroom dresser, you have to be sure you can get the item home after purchasing. Therefore, taking proper measurements before attempting to shove an item into your backseat is a must.


The best thing you can do for a successful shopping trip is go with a purpose in mind. At many rummage sales and flea markets it's hard to differentiate wants from needs when your in the midst of so many used temptations. Knowing what you are there for can keep you on budget and can keep you from ending up with an excess of merchandise that may or may not be flippable.

Know What to Look For

antique furniture at flea market

Once you've found places to look for items, you need to know what kind of items to buy. As mentioned above, going to a sale with a purpose is key to early upcycling success; many new flippers simply have a hard time finding quality things to rummage.

When most think of upcycling, they think of the fancy chairs and refurnished boudoirs seen on DIY shows, but in my opinion those things should be left to the seasoned professionals. When just beginning in the craft of flipping, accessories are our very best friends. In other words, mirrors, vases, old benches, and picture frames are ideal starting points. Think smaller items that are relatively easy to get creative with.

Such pieces are typically the less expensive items at the markets, and as beginners are still figuring out what can and cannot be done during an upcycling project, one should show caution before investing large sums upfront. For more guidance, check out this upcycling shopping guide for the do's and don'ts of what items to look for at flea markets and garage sales.


In woodwork, light scratches are fine and can be worked out by a handy DIYer. However, if deeper grooves are present, the piece could be a risky purchase depending on your skill level.


Did you know that the hinges of a wood piece an give you clues about its age? When searching for products to upcycle, it is imperative to estimate how old an item is to determine if it is priced appropriately. If the joints or spine are perfectly straight, the object is most likely machine-made and not worth all that much.

On the other hand, if they are jagged, uneven, or few in number, they were most likely made by hand, possibly before the American Civil War when the process was most prevalent. These items can be considered antiques and are worth more money.

People who are new to upcycling should avoid antiques as they are more expensive and tend to require more care and skill to refurbish.


Some DIYers will tell you that you can ignore the condition of upholstry completely, as it can easily be replaced. However, paying close attention to the fabric and its condition is a wonderful way to get more information of a product’s history.

Before buying, examine the fabric, note the era of fashion and its current condition. Though you will refurbish it as a part of your creative process, if it is in compete disarray, it may lead you to take a better look at the rest of the piece and determine if it is too far gone for your skill level to take on.