One Man’s Junk Is Another Man’s Treasure

I have always loved re-purposing or up-cycling stuff. In fact I have been doing it for far longer than those two words have been around to describe getting stuff out of skips, or saying, “Thank you very much,” to peoples’ throw-aways and then making new things with them.

The first thing I can remember up-cycling is a chess set which I bought when I was about 14. Actually, I didn’t so much repurpose it (it was always still going to be a chess set!); I just made the pieces less boring. It was a plain wooden set (it must have had two colours otherwise you couldn’t play the game(!) but I think the whites were just the natural wood) and I decided to paint the pieces green and yellow with a sky blue circle round the bottom of each piece! I used my Airfix paints and painstakingly painted each piece with a fine brush finishing each one with a felt pad on its base. I probably never played with the set again but I was dead chuffed with my effort. The board has long disappeared but I kept the chess pieces in their box all these years.

I found them recently and connected them with my dad’s old chessboard, which he made when he was a schoolboy at Medburn Street school in Euston. You can just about make out the words “A present for father” in pencil and then the date, 22 1 1936. It’s a lovely board with exquisite craftsmanship.  My dad was only 11 years old when he made it and his skills far outweighed mine at the same age, or even now, come to that. The contrast of my coloured chess pieces against the time- worn, somewhat sombre looking board shouldn’t work but, somehow, it does.


These days, with multi channels on Sky, there are lots of TV programmes dedicated to up-cycling, re-purposing or just restoring. My current favourites are Junk and Disorderly with Henry Cole and, especially, the The Repair Shop with Jay Blades fronting it and a team of expert restorers. The setting is a wonderful old barn with a thatched roof, which is part of the Weald and Downland Living Museum in glorious West Sussex countryside.

People bring in battered old items and relics from their childhood, or things they have inherited down the generations, and these amazing experts and craftsmen and craftswomen bring them back to their former glory. They then have the reveal when the owners come back to the barn to collect their prized possession. The items are always covered with a blanket and, as the restorer dramatically reveals the restored item, the shock and delight when the owners see the transformations is both amazing and emotional to see.

I cannot pass a skip or pile of discarded stuff outside a house without have a sly look. If something catches your eye, polite is to ask not to take and, generally, the response is a bemused, “Help yourself.”

But, most of my projects emanate from gifted stuff or something bought very cheaply at a car boot sale. As for the inspiration, some of it comes from imitation – seeing something someone else has done and having a go myself. Pinterest is also a great sources of inspiration.  That’s where I got the idea for jerrycan cabinets.  I’ve made a couple (one was non-functional and given to me and the other I got in a boot sale for £2) and they look cool when you see the before and after photos.  


A lot of other ideas come from that normally vacuous space between my ears. I find I have a talent for vision where A is the idea and Z is the finished piece. I can actually see the finished item in my head (is that a talent, maybe everyone can!!). The fun, though, is in trying to unravel the letters in-between!! If you read my earlier blog on juggling, you’ll know some ideas remain just that for quite a while!

I like conceptual art too. I love the fact that you can have an idea, the A, and turn it into the Z and that it is so subjective. Here’s an example: I used to have a people carrier called a Mitsubishi Delicia, which friends called the Venga Bus after the Venga Boys hit song. After I’d had it a while, I sourced a complete set of new tyres which were delivered to me and I took them to a local tyre fitters.

Part of the arrangement when you do that, is that they dispose of the old tyres. On the way I decided to bring one back home. I cut a square hole (oyxymoron!) out of the bottom, which could also be the top depending on your point of view, cemented an eight-foot fence post into the ground in my garden and plonked the tyre on top.  I then made a sign which said, ‘Is this art? Is this sculpture? Or, is it a tyre stuck on a post’

Is it art? Is it Sculpture? Is it a tyre stuck on a post?

I have other examples of conceptual art in my garden but the response to the tyre was interesting and funny.  One visitor said, “Cliff, this is a pile of sh*t, and it definitely ain’t art!”” Another said, “Cliffy, I totally get what you are trying to say with this piece.  I love it!” What do I think? I think it is a tyre stuck on a post.  Or is it?!!!

I have a dozen or more projects on the go or in fruition, the most pressing of which is to build a door for the recently completed Harley Hut 2. BLD (Boris Lock Down) and the resulting complete cessation of work contracts has enabled me to complete this project way ahead of time. I would say 60-70% of the materials used are from found objects or repurposed. Perhaps I will do a blog on Harley Hut 2. Meanwhile, the next time you see a skip, have a nose. Perhaps you can turn the creative juices on and come up with a great idea. Or you might think the very thought of it a complete crock. Bit like conceptual art…….

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