I’ve Learned to Learn, Always!

An upcycled table leg becomes a desk top tidy or a bench tool holder.

Perhaps it’s more about learning how to learn

I’ve taken many pieces apart, you know, undone them, unpackaged them and spent time dislodging parts by breaking glue lines, dissolving paints and varnishes, band-sawing open joints through and through and my investigations helped me to grow and understand. It’s not just the finished techniques or the joints but the grain of the woods, the methods of things done. I did that with an IKEA table leg, to see what engineered it. What held it, what wood was in it, what effort it took to develop it. I also wondered what could be retrieved from it in an upcycle attempt. By this I learned. I learned that a 2″ square leg section was only one sixteenth of visual volume and that that one sixteenth of volumetric mass wasn’t wood so much as wood derivative. Only the equivalent of what my be more like the reconstituted potato in a potato chip. Had I not done these things I would have remained ignorant. Had I not done these things I would have thought a hardboard leg could be solid oak and not plastic coated hardboard, hollow inside and just 3mm thick. I do these things to learn about how things have improved and how ‘progress’ is being made and percieved.

I learned more from dismantling this table I bought for under £5 a few years ago. The workmanship in it was some of the loveliest I’ve ever known and so too the inbuilt longevity for something still perfectly functioning 150 years on. I took it apart, restored it and refinished it and in its refreshing found myself being refreshed and renewed by my newfound knowledge and learning. When then I made an identical version for a matched pair of tables I found myself on a path to discovery. Oh, how I learned from this one piece. First, by dissected the piece, I discovered the numerical codings, the carefully chiselled bevels giving each tenon a leading edge, things of importance such as that.

I learned to learn always.

It’s my phrase in the front of my journals now. I added it there but then added, ‘I live to learn.’ 

So, as with most, possibly all things, whether a modern table with hollow fibreboard legs or a vintage work of art coming from the inspired mind and hands of men, I find myself learning to learn, always.

In 2007 I replaced some sliding sash window frames, small ones rotted out but still present in a traditional stone Welsh farm cottage in a village called of all names Garndolbenmaen.Garndolbenmaen lies just below the Snowdonia range of elevation. In this I learned something about flint-hard rock in my adjusting the weight cavity to take the extra weight that counterbalanced the new addition of double glazed panels. My replacing the sliding sashes and the boxed windows I again followed the same traditional patterns. No MDF sills there, wood held out and was still in good and solid shape. While I was there I replaced the dog-leg staircase, rebuilt the handrails and such. Life is a total learning experience even or especially in your latter years but all the way through really.

One time in Texas a neighbour, Mr Munroe, asked if I wanted some old pine boards from former cladding to his reclad barn walls—nailed there by ” My Grandaddy!” They were rough and grey, the boards he handed me, weathered after a hundred years in place beneath the eaves. Nothing textures like deep winter freezes and long summer suns. Just ordinary on the one hand but then extraordinarily lovely with its silvered surfaces. I have that small piece of Texas with me as a marker. It remind me of a different upcycled beauty that takes place inside you as you place medicines inside it for a few years and then change its use to stowing books. Even recycling as a word was either unknown or unused in general wordage, it was just what unwasteful people did to not waste anything they saw as useable again.

Here an odd, old slot-headed screw becomes a marking gauge so the screw becomes upcycled.

Upcycling came in much later than recycling and often its difficult to tell when the two cross from one to the other. Surely anything discarded and then repurposed is recycling and anything elevated to reuse permits yet another cycle of something formerly considered useless. Mostly upcycling is to do with repurposing and creatively changing the use of something destined for the land fill as the latest rubbish. I understand the term came about when someone sending debris for dumping was stopped by another who saw that its use could be changed and given new life as an alternative something else. If or when we reuse something like the barn wood we at that time would have generally referred to it as just, well, recycling. I’m not even sure we would have had that name for it at the time. Someone says, “Can you use this?” and the other says, “Yes.” So pallets become composters and coffee tables and scaffold planks tables in a cafe.

Upcycling as a term had yet to be born. It wasn’t too far away though, just a decade or two. Whereas recycling takes what exists as a material and simply reapplies that material for extended further use, perhaps in a similar way, upcycling generally adds another dimension where its improvement creates added value to the material by taking what’s been abandoned through redundancy to develop something creative from it. Taking twenty vintage neckties, attaching them to a discarded wire frame from a former lampshade, sees the new birth of a restyled lampshade. Five hard-leather suitcases become an armchair and so even before the term was born people were indeed upcycling, repurposing and recycling.

But by adding value I do not necessarily mean that the value is evaluated in financial terms even though that could well be an aspect of it or even the case. No it’s often much more than that in its improving life quality in some way as a whole. So if then our wellbeing is improved the added value far supersedes monetary gain and we should not lose sight of the fact that we can gain greatly from something we keep or give away or sell without selling being the way by which we validate ourselves. Our comfort by its use improves and this then adds great value. The value it brings in our teaching others or training others and/or ourselves adds value. Our not being wasteful by its reusability adds value and all of these uses become of greater value than the money element by which all things seem evermore to be valued by. You see for me, when we apply ourselves to reworking a material, a new cycle of life begins for that material. Taking this to its pinnacle, the lives of others may often well be an upcycling of redundancy to give added value to a lived life. That’s why when we turn over the compost in the bin walls made from old pallets we just feel good about it and ourselves. My own life was upcycled when I realised I had added worth in being with and teaching others about my craft; be that one on one in my workshop, in a woodworking class or online. Life is made up of cycles and then recycles when something seems to fall away and something new comes to life. In some ways it’s not unlike a flower head producing loveliness and at its epicentre seeds form that ultimately fall into the earth and die. One flowerhead loses its beauty but a hundred new plants spring up one cotyledon at a time to form plants and then many more flowerheads that do the same in a cycle of their own but amongst others of different types.

The desk tidy I made from a table leg seemed to me of greater value than the table and the leg, but then I needed a desk tidy and not a  table at that time. In my case the table had exhausted its use to me and the quality was such I would not want to give it away. I decided to upcycle and in a few minutes I had my tidies. They worked perfectly. I have two more legs to do the same with and the tabletop too to think through a future use for. Not quite thinking inside the box, or is it?


  1. Hi Paul,
    Funny you should choose this subject- I’m the same age as you and also chose to be an apprentice but in a different discipline. The one thing that was a common thread throughout my training was the teaching to learn, we were encouraged to take thing apart and put them back
    together fully adjusted and working. I just kept the habit up (the family laugh when I get something new as I often dismantle it to find out how it works) but it keeps the mind keen.
    best wishes for the new year

  2. Paul,

    Your Occasional Table series on Woodworking Masterclass is brilliant. I personally would love to see more of your investigative and reproduction work.

    Also, society needs to encourage and embrace upcycling, and it’s nice to see your creativity on this.



  3. And now everyone rushes to IKEA looking for hollow table legs in the Bargain corner!

    I know I do – have had some lovely recycled wood free from them and solid wood worktop ideal for the workshop.

  4. Paul,
    I have also taken two old rocking chairs apart (80 or more years old) and removed the hide glue. That was a very tackling job, but fun and a chore and a half. I to have learned to learn. The bigger rocking chair was mostly maple and the smaller was all oak. The chair has a round seat that was a circular single one piece of oak. Both chairs were painted. That’s what they did way back then. Thanks for listening and Take Care. In the Realm of possibility anything is possible.

  5. Hi Paul, I am 69 years old and still learning, and teaching two of my grandsons a little of what I have learned during my lifetime. I also have been an Upcycling for many , many years, just didn’t know what it was called. I have also had a couple old hollow core doors stored in my barn for years. This summer I made my wife a simple storage table for her sewing studio with 9 cuby holes made to just accommodate plastic totes to store her material in. Rather than buy an expensive sheet of 3/4 inch plywood, I used one of the hollow core doors for the top. I kept the width the same, just squaring up the latch edge, made a round wood plug and glued into the doorknob hole to fill it. Then I cut the one end to length of the table being built, used a wood chisel to remove the cardboard honey comb about two inches deep, planed a filler strip to fit and glued it into position. It was flat, relatively light weight, and about 1-1/2 inches thick. A couple coats of left over paint and it looks great. A cutting mat was tacked to the top to keep it from sliding. I even made a track to accommodate an old drywall square, cut the long leg of the square off to the new top width, where she cuts her material with those rotary cutters square with little effort. Happy Wife:)

  6. Copying from the masters is a long established tradition in the art world too. It is not unusual in a museum to see a painter with an easel standing in front of a painting from the past and trying to technically figure out how the painter accomplished the complete work and if it could be applied to their current repertoire.
    Obviously it works for furniture too. Great article Paul. Thank you.
    For me the design work is beyond just the technical aspects of any piece and is what makes a work intrinsically representative of the individual. It is abstract and what makes our own work unique to us even when it is derived from something we have seen.

  7. Nice article, Keep up the good work. And I would like to be here again to find another masterpiece article. Thanks for sharing.

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