18 Ways to Make Old Things Seem New

by Andrea Karim on 10 April 2012 9 comments
Photo: lilszeto

We're pretty accustomed to an economy that encourages us to buy, use, and dispose of things. Furniture, clothing, electronics — nothing really seems to LAST anymore, does it?

Well, let's say that you have something you really like — maybe an heirloom armoire or a pair of shoes or an old Datsun, and you WANT that thing to last. There's nothing wrong with that. You just need to be schooled in the art of repair. Here are 18 ways to make old stuff feel like new. (See also: 21 Disposable Products You Can Reuse)

1. Clean It

Well, this one seems perfectly obvious, doesn't it? From patios to cars to clothing, a good deep cleaning can make almost any old thing seem new again. Have you ever power-washed a driveway? There is nothing more Zen that that. Oh, sure, it's kind of a waste of water, but seeing that perfectly new, shiny concrete staring back at you? Bliss.

I recently dropped my wedding ring into a little jar of jewelry cleaner, waited the required 30 seconds, then cleaned it with a little brush and let it dry. I was absolutely amazed at how beautiful it looked. Before the cleaning, my ring was looking dull, and I was even struggling to remember why I wanted it in the first place. Now, it's brilliantly shiny and looks as good as new.

A good deep-cleaning of your car can probably make it feel less junky, too — if you need the carpets cleaned, you can outsource that, but do the other detailing yourself. It's not hard to get those vents clean with some Q-Tips and a little Windex.

2. Polish It

Polishing is such a great way to make old things look new — probably the easiest, actually. Some Murphy's oil soap will make an old oak table gleam like new. Have a pair of lace-up Oxfords that have seen better days? Learn how to polish your shoes, a long-lost art that even my dad finally stopped doing sometime in 2002.

Waxing and polishing a car, even one whose paint job has seen better days, can make you feel better about driving that old Mazda to work every day. My mom seems to enjoy polishing silver, which I guess can be a form of meditation.

Not everything that acquires a patina of age has to be polished — maybe you LIKE your silver to look tarnished, and that's perfectly fine.

3. Paint It

A fresh coat of paint can make almost anything seem new and exciting. Whether you're sprucing up old furniture, redecorating a room, trying to brighten a hallway, or improving the appearance of a stained concrete floor, paint is your friend. Although this isn't something I would recommend as a DIY, sometimes paying to have your car repainted can make an old clunker feel like something a bit more special.

4. Oil It

You know how the little annoyances in life can really add up and make you hate stuff? One of the things that drives me bonkers is a squeaky door. It's nothing a little WD-40 can't handle, but since everyone keeps their WD-40 in the garage, how often do we get around to oiling squeaky hinges, cleaning garden tools and bicycle parts, or removing rust from metal stuff like cars and gates? I've started keeping a can of WD-40 on every floor of my house (there are three stupid floors in my townhouse), so I never have an excuse not to oil things that need it.

5. Re-cover It

Sometimes you don't really need a new couch, you just need a new cover for the couch. While removable covers are easy to wash, they don't always fit well and tend to wrinkle. Maybe you have a love seat that you adore, but it's old and faded. If the bones are still good, why not just give it a facelift with some new fabric?

Reupholstering performed by a professional isn't cheap, but if you have a piece of heirloom furniture that you don't want to part with, it's an excellent option. Or maybe you found some antique stools on Craigslist that have seen better days — you can probably do a little DIY reupholstering and not only save money, but have also gain bragging rights.

6. Sand It

Sometimes, before you even get to the painting or the re-staining, old wooden stuff just needs a good sanding. Whether it's a door that you're turning into a table, or a wooden deck that puts splinters into bare feet, or an original wood floor that you found under all your old carpets, a good power sander can take old wood from craggy to perfect.

If you've never sanded anything before (and don't have a sander), you can rent all the tools that you will need from your local hardware store. Be sure to ask for lots of advice and be very specific about your project. Sanding is somewhere between art and science, but if you have the patience for it, it will make every wood-based project work out better in the end.

7. Mend It

How many of you even know how to sew a basting stitch? Raise your hand if you do. I don't. Well, OK, I have a general idea, because I used to know how to sew, but my technique has faltered over the years, and now I'm lucky if I don't end up stabbing myself in the cheek with a needle whenever I break out the ol' sewing kit. But mending small tears in fabric can keep your favorite t-shirt from hitting the rag pile. The sooner you attend to rips and snags, the better your chance of keeping a garment in wearable condition.

8. Repair It

When your favorite watch stops working, do you throw it away? Of course not. You change the battery and/or get it fixed. Most people aren't schooled in the art of watch repair, but there are other less-technical fixes that you can perform yourself. Whether you are repairing household items, working on your car or your bike, or redesigning your website, there are a plethora of ways to keep old stuff functioning.

9. Patch It

Sometimes it can be nearly impossible to part with a beloved item of clothing. "But I've had this since college!" you howl to your wife as she attempts to throw away your acid-washed, high-waisted, pleated, tapered jeans that don't fit you anymore anyway. "There's a hole in the butt!" counters your wife, who is a reasonable woman with good taste in clothes and just wants you to look like you didn't step out of a John Hughes film. "I can patch that!" you counter, delighted with your ability to apply a stick-on denim patch.

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10. Hem It

Hemlines seem to go up and down at random, and while I would never advocate blindly following trends, hemming a pair of pants can be a good way to get more mileage out of clothing that might have seen better days. A few years ago, really long hems were in style, so that women walked around with no visible feet. After a while, such pants lose their bloom, because the long length means that the pant legs become scuffed and dirty from brushing against the ground so often. Such a pair of pants would benefit from a professional or DIY hemming — have them taken up to a couple of inches above the ankle. It's a good summery look that will be fashionable for at least a few more years to come.

11. Bleach It/Dye It

Have a white shirt that really flatters your waist but is hopelessly marred by a tomato stain? If bleaching a stained shirt doesn't do the trick, try dying your shirt the color of the stain. Tie-dying is a fun way to update old t-shirts, if you enjoy looking like a Grateful Dead fan (or ARE a Grateful Dead fan). You can also use dip-dye methods if you like today's ombre styles.

12. Embellish It

You can turn an old headband into a fancy-schmancy fascinator using a sequin applique and some hot glue. And bedazzling isn't just for your ladybits anymore — you can create snazzy-looking heels or dazzling sneakers with some powerful epoxy and fake jewels. If you have a pair of jeans that you want to take from dull to punk, let me introduce you to studs.

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13. Repurpose/Upcycle It

"Upcycling" is a term that gets a fair amount of mockery these days — it basically involves taking something old, like a sweater, and creating something new out of it, like a teddy bear or a pair of leg warmers. If you spend time on Etsy (or Regretsy), you'll know that there is almost no stopping the "upcyling" trend, sometimes for the worse. However, repurposing old goods can result in some stunning (and useful!) projects. Take this workspace created from old coffee tables. If you do have a knack for sewing, then you might find your calling in repurposed kids' clothing or accessories for the home.

The original repurposed project, the homemade t-shirt quilt, can be outsourced now, so even if you can't sew worth a darn (heh), you can still find a comfy use for your old alma mater sweatshirts.

14. Stain It

My dad is a bit obsessive when it comes to decks. He always builds them himself, and keeps them swept, washed, and perfectly stained. It's an annual event at our household — the 24 hours or so when we all have to use the front door instead of the back. I'll say this, though — our deck is well over 25 years old, but still looks great.

In a similar spirit, my mom seems to have a gift for renewing old furniture. First, she strips the old varnish off using Jasco or something equally toxic. Next, she fixes any dings or dents with filler. Lastly, she carefully applies one to three new coats of stain, and then a final coat of varnish. Refinishing old furniture is quite a bit of work, and you need a good, well-ventilated space to do it in, but it can really improve the overall look of your vintage pieces.

15. Accept It

Hey, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, right? Sometimes, it's easier to accept that you don't have the skills or the time to actually return your stuff to a minty-new condition, so you either accept that it's old, or you....

16. Sell It/Donate It

After all, someone, somewhere, will have the time and the energy to turn your old apple crates into an awesome set of media shelves. There's not always virtue in holding on to stuff you don't need or aren't using or are simply tired of. Get rid of your junk, and keep the things that really matter.

17. Put a Bird On It

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18. Stick a Plant In It

There are very few objects that you CAN'T use as a planter, it turns out. Old tea kettle? Old tin? Pink toilet? Cowboy boots? Wine crate? You can plant anything in these and get away with it.

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Guest's picture

Thanks for the tips! Sometimes it can be hard to remember that the "new" thing we are just dying to have was right under our nose the whole time. I recently got a dress (originally $100) at Goodwill for $12. I hated it at first, but I shortened it a little and adjusted the straps to fit me better and there you go - a brand-new dress!

Andrea Karim's picture

Did you perform the alterations yourself? I'm not terribly handy with a sewing machine anymore, and so sometimes I pay for alterations, but it's always so expensive! I generally don't do much more than have my jeans taken up anymore, because it's so pricey.

Guest's picture
Rachel

Put a bird on it!! :) LOVE the skit!

Guest's picture
Lizz

Agree strongly! Thanks for the laugh!

Kentin Waits's picture

Great article -- as an avid thrift store shopper, I think I've done most of these!

Andrea Karim's picture

I don't currently have a good workspace to refinish furniture, and it's one of my biggest joys. I cannot WAIT to have a garage some day.

Guest's picture
Sean H

We all know that a fresh start on cleaning things and making things look new really brings a lot of short term happiness to our lives!!

Guest's picture
Silence

Since it is spring, my obsession right now is gardening. I have found a million things in the house to use as planters (dishes, ceramics from high school, boxes from clementines, kids old easter baskets). Its been fun trying to find new things. Pinterest is a great way to find inspiration....even old rain boots and shoes can be used as planters. Love it.

Julie Rains's picture

I'm proof that you don't have to be an expert in staining or painting to renew old furniture. I had an old microwave cart that was not looking too good because of years of use and irregular cleaning. I can't remember exactly what I used but I applied some type of white washing finish -- basically, it was cheap, easy, and gave the cart a pickled (and expensive) looking finish.

For those who are scared to try something new, well, if you are ready to scrap something unless you can improve its appearance, then experiment with staining, painting, etc. on that item -- if you mess it up, there's really no harm. But if you really improve its look, then you've salvaged the item for possibly years of more use.