18 Awesome, Practically Free Upcycled Craft Projects


I like to make stuff.

I sew or knit a lot of my own clothes. I cook from scratch. I try to only give handmade gifts. But, because I am on an itty bitty budget, I am constantly on the hunt for ways to reduce the cost of my crafting habit. Seriously, if you look at my checkbook it looks like I have a drug habit. All my money goes to La Knitterie Parisienne. I spend more money for yarn than I pay for gas every year. And I live in Los Angeles. Making stuff by hand can be wildly expensive. (See also: 25 Gifts You Can Make Today)

One of the easiest ways to cut craft costs is to source inexpensive supplies. My favorite source of free supplies happens to be the recycling bin in my house. In addition to providing me with free supplies, by upcycling craft materials from the waste stream, I’m doing the environment a favor.

Well, okay, I’m doing the environment a favor if my finished craft is actually a beautiful and functional item. As my friend Katy, who blogs regularly about treasures (and trash) she finds at Goodwill says, "Just because you can glue glass floral pebbles on something, doesn’t mean you should." Garbage with some glitter glued on it is still garbage.

When I’m trying to decide whether or not an upcycled craft project is worth my time, I ask myself three questions:

  1. Would I love getting this item as a gift?
  2. Is it something I would definitely use?
  3. Can it replace something I would pay money for?

If the answer to all three of these questions is yes, then I know that the project is worth my time. However, since any type of crafting involves some level of hoarding — I mean collecting — I also ask myself a fourth question:

  1. Will I generate more trash in the process of upcycling this item than if I just threw it away or donated it?

What follows are 21 upcycling projects that recently made it through my selection process.

1. Upcycled Egg Carton Wreath

I made a similar egg carton wreath with my mother when I was in pre-school. Instead of tempura paint we used the cheap watercolor paints that come in the plastic palette box. If you don’t have a glue gun, regular old Elmer’s glue works just fine. You can get remarkably sophisticated results from the humblest supplies.

2. Coasters From Woven Magazine Pages

When I travel, I collect foreign language magazines, maps, and cardboard packaging.

Newspapers and maps get recycled into wrapping paper, cardboard packaging gets cut into postcards, and ephemera like museum tickets get laminated and turned into luggage tags, bookmarks, and placemats. I like these woven coasters because they are a good way to use up magazine pages that aren’t visually that interesting, are a good travel craft that can be assembled while waiting at the airport or train station (just fold and tear the pages instead of using scissors), and are cheap to ship home.

3. Corrugated Cardboard Lamp

Instructables.com is a great resource for upcycled projects. I am going to use their instructions for this cardboard lamp to make a nightlight scratching post for my cats. (I’m replacing the bulb with LED tea lights for fire safety).

4. Plastic Toys Transformed

You don’t even need to know German to understand these instructions on how to turn a small plastic toy into a chic pendant or watch fob. This is a good way to use that lone army man or plastic circus animal you found hiding behind the sofa.

And this $1 plastic dinosaur toy plus succulents becomes Upcyclasaurus Rex.

5. Eccentric English Grandma To-Do List

Yes. I know this tea bag shopping list looks vaguely hoardy bag lady, but as a heavy duty tea drinker, I’m so happy to have found a way to reuse tea bag wrappers before I recycle them.

6. Cavity-Free Christmas Light Shades

I started buying Tom’s of Main toothpaste because it was the only toothpaste that was still sold in metal, recyclable tubes. So I was really disappointed when Tom’s switched to plastic tubes a few years ago. Luckily, the recycling geniuses over at Terracycle have figured out a way to turn plastic toothpaste tubes into cute, flower-shaped shades for holiday lights.

7. Upcycled Travel Art Kit

I usually recycle DVD cases by bringing them to my local video store for reuse, but this upcycled mobile sketch pad and pencil case is pretty slick.

8. Custom Jigsaw Puzzles

Are you tired of your old puzzles?

Spray paint over the design and then redraw your own. Or make a two-sided puzzle by creating a new design on the back of a puzzle.

I've been pricing custom photo puzzles as a gift idea for my mother-in-law. Instead of paying $75, I am going to enlist the youngest grandkid to help me convert an old 2000 piece puzzle that I already own into a truly brag-worthy piece of kid art.

9. Secret Book Safe

Where do you stash your secret book safe? On your book bookshelf, of course.

10. Citrus Peel Starter Pots

Before you compost your citrus peels, put them to work nurturing seedlings.

11. Old Slide Glass Windows

Transform old slides into a modern "stained glass" window treatment. I don’t know if this will keep out nosey neighbors or create them.

12. CD Spindle Bagel or Cable Holder

Keep your sandwich from getting squished in your bag. Turn a CD spindle into a sandwich keeper.

Or use one to store and organize cables. (The CD spindle. Not the sandwich).

13. Suitcase Toolbox

No garage? Organize your tools in vintage suitcases as a cute storage alternative. No one knows that my grandmother’s old train case is really my sewing kit.

14. Plastic Spoon Mirror Frame

Martha Stewart Living has nothing on Marie Claire Idées, the French DIY decorating magazine. This mirror’s mid-century mod frame is made from spray painted plastic spoons that are affixed to the inexpensive mirror with epoxy glue specifically designed for glass.

15. Friendship Rug

Did you ever make friendship bracelets at summer camp? Well, you can make a giant rug or table runner version out of old bed sheets.

16. Party Favor Gift Tubes

My goddaughter is hosting a tea party to celebrate her confirmation in May. I’m saving up toilet paper tubes to reuse as little gift boxes for party favors. I’m overly pleased that this project will help me use up all my leftover doilies and paper flowers from Valentine’s Day, too.

17. Fabric Covered Hangers

No more wire hangers! Even Mommy Dearest would love these fabric covered wire hangers, but don't mention that the fabric is upcycled old t-shirts.

18. Weensy Photo Fridge Magnets

I’ve always loved miniatures, so these tiny "Polaroid" magnets are right up my alley. This tutorial includes a downloadable Photoshop template for the Polaroid frames, but these could easily be replicated with just a ruler and matte knife.

What’s so great about this project is that you can customize this idea for gifts that are personal and easy to ship. I’m going to make a set of these for my mom and my mother-in-law for Mother’s Day. These would also make a super cute wedding gift.

OK, I will admit that this is one of those times that my insane hoarding of craft supplies pays off. Instead of buying adhesive backed magnet tape at the craft store, I am going to use the business card magnets I keep getting in the mail from various local businesses and real estate agents for this project.

Do you think upcycled crafts are worth the time and effort? What upcycled craft project would you recommend to others? What's your biggest upcycling fail? Share your genius in the comments section.

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Guest's picture

Wow! What a great article. The tea bag shopping list is adorable. I've never been too creative when it comes to upcycling but this list is impressive and I definitely will have to reference it for things to do. I love crafting but you are right, it does get rather expensive. Who would have known there were so many fun things to do with stuff I already had. Thanks for sharing!

Guest's picture

Great ideas! I am a huge crafter and these ideas look amazing and cheap, my favorite is the magazine coasters, definitely making these in the near future!

Guest's picture

I am into making pom pom adorned hats. To get the pom pom yarn, and yes, even the hat yarn, I have been known to tear apart hats and sweaters.

Max Wong's picture

I am the queen of "harvesting" sweaters. Almost everything I make has stripes as a result--because I rarely have enough harvested yarn from one sweater to make a complete garment for myself.

Making pom poms is weirdly relaxing....

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