If you are thinking about which tools you might find useful to have to hand to make your Upcycling projects a bit easier then this guide to the top ten tools I use the most when working on vintage furniture can help!
It needn't break the bank to start Upcycling – it is after all meant to be about making the most of what you’ve already got! Apart from the two electrical tools, most of mine are £5 or under!
I think I probably started with a couple of screwdrivers we had knocking about the house and some old scruffy bits of sandpaper. Before you know it though I was making at least weekly trips to my beloved Wilko to buy myself more tools!
I read an article about getting started Upcycling a little while ago which had as one of their top five tips, or however many, was to get a shed and fully equip it with tools, full sets of every kind of thing.
I think that’s completely bonkers advice! An unnecessary expense to surround yourself with so much you may never need to use and also quite overwhelming, don’t you think?
Don’t let equipping yourself or finding the perfect facilities stop you from getting started and having a go. Most professional Upcyclers I know, including me, made a mess, made do with kitchen implements (and made lots and lots of mistakes) in our living room or spare rooms for quite a while before finding a little bit of dedicated space with the tools we need to hand. (And I bet if you ask there are still tools we are drooling over too!)
Most of us too, I should think, have bought what we needed as and when the need arose and – more importantly perhaps - learned how to use those tools as we've gone along.
For my list I’ve only incorporated the general tools you will find useful for working to repair and restore vintage furniture for Upcycling and left out the things specific to what I do, like craft knives and paint brushes, which can actually be quite a personal choice amongst anyone who paints regularly.
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So here they are...
Pliers like this are invaluable for pulling out stubborn things, squeezing things, undoing drawer nuts (many vintage drawer handles have square nuts to hold them in place which can be fiddly...and sharp!). The rubber handles to help grip are so useful. I have an adjustable set of pliers called a Monkey Wrench (or so my Dad told me ... I better go check that as he had a habit of making things up!) but they are metal and can slip a bit too much. I also have a set of smaller jewellery pliers that come in handy too. But if you're just buying one set this is the type to go for! They also have a wire cutter underneath that can come in rather useful too.
Oh how I love my hacksaw! (Yes I am geek) I will actually use this more often than picking up my jigsaw as it's so much easier to control and it goes through small pieces of wood, plastic and metal easy peasy - even cutting down too-long bolts on handles! I bought a replacement set of blades and think I have probably only used one, maybe 2 of them in 2 years. Cracking bit of kit!
3. Screw puller
A screw puller is such a useful tool for well, pulling up nails and screws of course (a bit like the back of a claw hammer but easier to use) but also popping open cans and prising things open. I also find this so much easier to use to remove staples than the traditional staple removing tools. Push one toe into the staple, lift it a little and then roll it over sideways in the direction of the toe outside the staple and voila!
4. Cork sanding block
Ok yes an electric sander - and also a plane - are also pretty useful tools as you start to do more with you furniture, but if you were packing for upcycling on a desert island (I can just see that as the new new reality show, can't you?!) the one thing that would take the place of all those things for me would be the simple cork sanding block and hand sanding.
This is the best thing for level hand-sanding on flat surfaces. It's soft surface and rounded edges (make sure you use that side face down and the squarer corners nestled in your hand) mean you will get a good, even contact with the surface which should avoid deeper scratches in places. By all means try the rubber versions and the big versions with handles but I have found this the easiest to use (you don't have to 'install' your sandpaper for one!) and least wasteful too!
Also, if I’m sanding vintage furniture I tend to steer clear of the electric sander a lot of the time as much of it is veneer which needs a little bit more care.
A bradawl is a funny rather old fashioned sounding tool but so useful for making little pilot hole to get your screw or nail embedded a bit before you start driving them in! I also find it handy for popping open drawers and doors that I've put back on that haven't got handles on yet.
It came very close between this and my plane which I sometimes use for slimming down door and drawer edges!
6. Mini clamp
For me these are essential for repairs holding together while gluing parts of vintage furniture that have come a bit loose over time. These mini clamps were only a £5 for two but are the first thing I reach for to hold surfaces together while the glue dries.
They are adjustable and easily tightened up by squeezing the handles together. I've got two large version of these that will reach around bigger items too. I'm also on the look out for more!
If you've ever seen the inside of a cabinetmakers workshop they will have rows and rows of them to clamp all angles of a repair at once but for minor furniture repairs two mini ones will do you well initially.
7. Electric drill
This is one of only two items over £10 on the list and if I had to choose just one then I'd pick an electric drill like this.
Make sure it has a screwdriver setting on it and then all you then need is a magnetic screwdriver bit for your drill and different screwdriver heads that can convert your drill into an electric screwdriver!
It won't fit into every spot but the fact you can dial down the speed to slow to tackle those reluctant old screws is a real bonus over a stand alone electric screwdriver. Also essential for inserting new screws into wood (some harder woods might require a little pilot hole to be drilled first) which would be no fun trying to do with a regular screwdriver!
You usually have to buy the drill bits separately (the things that drill the holes!) so I'd recommend getting a mixed box with those screwdriver accessories in to go with your drill.
This is the one I have, but if I was buying now I'd buy this one - with just the smaller drill bits for wood mostly and it looks a lot easier to keep tidy than mine, which has ended up in a bit of a jumble have to say!
Essential really for banging all sorts of things basically! I often use a straight pein pin hammer for smaller jobs like tapping in panel pins but if you are getting just one to get started with then a good sturdy claw hammer is probably the one you will already have or find most useful for other household jobs! The claw is useful for pulling out naughty nails too.
Make sure it's not too heavy for you - I seem to have acquired this one in this small compact version and a longer, heavier one that is a bit harder to control so that mostly lives in the toolbox!
It's a good idea to place a scrap piece of wood between the hammer and your furniture if you are trying to bang something back into place to avoid marking the piece itself.
9. 5-in-1 Multi-tool
I have to confess although this is 5-in-1 Multi-tool indeed it's probably only for one, maybe two, of the purposes it was intended for! I'm actually not sure I could name all five, could you? Anyway, the most obvious one is for scraping - I use mine for scraping the goo after paint / varnish stripping.
The other thing I find it invaluable for is poking into things to make a gap to help open them. The one I can think of is those little round covers (which are actually called 'Domes of Silence' fact fans!) that you find inside drawers and cabinets covering the back of where the handles are and also appear on the bottom of the legs of pieces too.
They often look completely embedded but this thing being so thin can usually find a way to get under the edge to lift it a little. I'll then prise with the screw puller so as not to bend the Multi-tool as I need it nice and flat so it doesn't scratch when I'm using it to scrape later!
10. Electric screwdriver
I managed with my drill as my electric screwdriver for a long time until I got this electric screwdriver from my Mum & Dad for Christmas. I actually still didn't think I really needed it but it has ended up being probably my MOST used tool of all!
So useful when stripping off the fittings from a piece at the beginning and absolutely essential when there are hinges on a piece of furniture! It's nice and light and can get into pretty much every space. It's also great to have if you are using your drill at the same time otherwise you will be constantly changing bits over.
My process of working with furniture often means prepping an item by taking off the doors, stripping them, putting them back on to do the design, then removing them again to paint before finally putting them back on at the end. Phew!
Imagine doing that with a minimum of 48 screws for a pair of doors with two set of hinges and a manual screwdriver?!
By the way, vintage screws are often flathead which does mean you need to go carefully with an electric screwdriver because the speed can grind out the head. Sometimes a good old fashioned regular screwdriver is needed to coax them out carefully!
I always switch the flatheads for nice little brass or yellow oxide Philips screws once first removed which are so easier to pop in and out! (Although do make sure the heads of your screws don’t prevent the hinges folding flat)
So that's it! Though honourable mentions need to go to my Makita electric 1/4 sheet sander, electric jigsaw, plane, chisel and large clamps which I wouldn't be without too! They just don't get used as much as that little lot above :)
I hope you found this useful - I'd love to hear from you about what you think, what you find essential in your tool kit, plus anything else you'd like me to write about.
If you are looking to learn more about Furniture Upcycling & Tape Design check out my Design School for all my videos downloads and courses.
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