The Upcyclers at Todd Farm

Three professional furniture restorers take us treasure-hunting at Todd Farm, showing us how to turn one man’s trash into flea-market gold. [slideshow post_id=”563558″] On a damp and chilly October morning, in the still-dusky dawn, more than 200 vendors set up their booths at Todd Farm Antiques & Flea Market in Rowley, Massachusetts. They return Sunday […]

By Lindsay Tucker

Oct 16 2014


After: With whitewash, a dozen card-catalogue pulls, and some snazzy new casters, Claire Ferrante, turned this old chest into a storage system for her lighting supplies.

Photo Credit : Kindra Clineff

Three professional furniture restorers take us treasure-hunting at Todd Farm, showing us how to turn one man’s trash into flea-market gold.
[slideshow post_id=”563558″]

On a damp and chilly October morning, in the still-dusky dawn, more than 200 vendors set up their booths at Todd Farm Antiques & Flea Market in Rowley, Massachusetts. They return Sunday after Sunday with everything from vintage dining chairs to antique toys and bird cages. Then, at 5:00 a.m., a steady stream of pickers come rummaging up and down rows littered with old record albums, salvaged jewelry, and rustic furnishings.

Some of these early-morning shoppers are merely browsing, but others are on a mission. They’re looking for old, beat-up furniture—something that promises a second life with new upholstery or a fresh coat of paint. This is their hobby and their passion. Some have even made a career of it, marketing their wares in blogs and on Etsy and Pinterest. They call themselves “upcyclers.” Of course, their hobby is as old as the history of people and things. That old Yankee motto—“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”—speaks to the timeless values that inform upcycling. Our grandparents did it, too, just without all the découpage and chalkboard paint.

On one particularly dewy daybreak, we enlisted three talented New England upcyclers to join us at Todd Farm. They pulled back the curtain to give us a behind-the-scenes look at their trade.

The Restorationist
Lydia Langston’s four kids are grown and gone, but she’s the anti-empty-nester. She keeps busy on her 10-acre property in Cushing, Maine, with four rambunctious black Labs, a furniture-restoration business, and a popular blog, “Maine Country Home” (mainecountryhome.com)—motto: “Relove, Repaint, Repurpose”—full of decorating ideas and DIY projects. Despite a degree in coastal geology, she has spent most of her life restoring old homes.

On the day of our visit to Todd Farm, Lydia, above, was searching for parts to make a sink for her “dog room”—a mudroom of sorts for her Labs. Then she spotted an old grain bin. “The minute I heard the word grain, I thought ‘kibble,’” she said. “It was stream-of-consciousness.” Since the interior of the bin was divided, Lydia hypothesized that she could install a sink in the right half and use the other side to store dog food. She purchased the bin for $35 and brought it home.

Perusing some online retailers, she found a cast-iron-and-porcelain farmhouse sink at Signature Hardware, but it was heavy—possibly too much for the deteriorating chest: “When it arrived, my husband said, ‘Well, it’s a pretty sink, Lydia, but what are you gonna put it on? That box is falling apart.’ And I said, ‘Yes, but we can put it back together!’”

The tin along the bin’s bottom was completely rotted, so after she cut out the space for the sink, Lydia carefully stripped it off using a screwdriver and a crowbar. Then she reinforced the structure with wood glue and a few screws and installed a couple of two-by-fours for the sink to rest on. She painted it with one coat of Miss Mustard Seed’s milk paint in “Tricycle.” (Lydia is such a fan that she sells the paints online.) Then she finished it with tung oil, a water-resistant finish often used for outdoor decks.

“I kept looking at this box,” she ex­plains, “and it didn’t want to be solidly painted. In the end, my husband said, ‘Well, you’ve actually managed to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.’ But truthfully, there’s nothing about this project you couldn’t do with the simplest of shop tools and a straightedge.”

The Vintage Vendor
In the summer of 2012, Google graphics designer Claire Ferrante ditched the 9-to-5 grind to focus on her growing Etsy shop, “Little Dog Vintage” (etsy.com/shop/littledogvintage), where she frequently puts thrift-shop and flea-market finds up for sale after giving them a little TLC. She’d always been addicted to secondhand goods. “I got all my clothes at thrift stores,” she says. And she had a knack for turning household items such as funky pillowcases into trendy tops.

These days Claire scours antiques shops, flea markets, and yard sales around Boston, then creates photos for her online shop and her blog (littledogvintage.blogspot.com). “I don’t usually try to make things pristine,” she says. “I like things that have old character and the scratches and dings of their past lives.”

At Todd Farm, it was love at first sight between Claire and this little chest of 12 drawers, as she immediately saw its potential for storing and organizing the tools and lamp-wiring supplies she uses to rehab antique lighting. To make it worthy of display in her Downtown Crossing loft, she first removed the drawers, then cleaned and lightly sanded the plywood exterior. Next, she whitewashed it with a pickling stain from Minwax. “It wasn’t a beautiful wood, so it wasn’t worth refinishing it,” she says. “The whitewash lets it show some of the grain while making it appear more polished.”

Next, she replaced the boring wood knobs with old card-catalogue pulls that she found at one of her favorite salvage spots, Pete Vella & Sons, in Perkinsville, Vermont. They appeared to be in rough shape, but they were the right size—and they’d let Claire label each drawer. “He sold them to me for a buck apiece,” she says. “I shined them up with a sanding block and vinegar, and they were perfect.”

The next challenge was attaching wheels to the bottom of the chest for easy maneuverability. She wanted vintage industrial wheels, but the $20-apiece price tag convinced her otherwise. Her solution? “I just got some metal caster wheels at Home Depot and spray-painted them black,” she says. “They were only $5 each!”

Tucked under a set of shelves in her main living area, the chest is now home to bits of hardware, screwdrivers, wire cutters, and electrical cords, just as Claire had envisioned at Todd Farm. As expected, she notes, “all of the separate sections make it easy to keep everything organized.”

The Makeover Maven
In 2004 Michelle Graham was a new mom with degrees in biology and public health—and an 1849 farmhouse that was “three-fourths empty.” She’d left her job in social policy, and although she’d once been a medical correspondent for Reuters, she didn’t consider herself creative. But her home needed furniture, so she began picking up pieces at yard sales and refurbishing them herself.

The reaction from family and friends surprised her. “People were saying I should get some space at an antiques shop,” she says. “That started me down this path.”

These days, Michelle scouts yard sales and flea markets for items she restores and resells at area shows. (Vintage Bazaar at Pettengill Farm in Salisbury, Massachusetts, and Sage Farm Antiques Market in North Hampton, New Hampshire, are two favorites.) She chronicles her adventures on her blog, “Birch Paper and Home” (birchpaperandhome.blogspot.com).

“When I see a piece I want, I know exactly what I’m going to do with it right away,” she says. Our Sunday at Todd Farm was no exception. While scanning the back of the field, Michelle locked eyes on what looked like a broken desk in a heap of old furniture parts. She was drawn to its delicately carved stretcher and lyre-style legs, and on closer inspection saw that it was sturdy and built out of beautiful mahogany and rosewood. “We later discovered it was originally an 1860s melodeon—a small reed organ used by traveling preachers,” she says. It was hollow; the keyboard and pedals were nowhere to be found, but it was striking nonetheless.

“I loved the details,” Michelle says. “The top had a deep apron with plenty of room to add a shelf, and there was a groove at the back—which I now know was for the post that ran down to the foot pedals—that was just the right size for an electrical cord. So its characteristics said, ‘I want to be front and center,’ and ‘I can hide your not-so-pretty electronics.’”

In her workshop in Manchester, New Hampshire, Michelle got busy, scrubbing and sanding the piece and gluing a few of the joints that “needed extra love.” Then she cut and installed the bottom shelf out of half-inch plywood and added a power strip in the back for easy charging. “I wanted a warm but sophisticated gray,” she says of the color. “Something that would really pop.” The winner was Martha Stewart’s “Zinc,” which she mixed with eight tablespoons of Webster’s Chalk Paint Powder (diluted in warm water to the consistency of thick pancake batter). “Chalk paint sticks to pretty much anything, eliminating the prep work because you don’t need to sand and prime,” Michelle explains. “It cuts the refinishing time in half.”

Unfortunately, the existing rosewood tabletop was warped and had to be replaced. But Michelle found a few pine-board scraps, stained them a dark walnut, and added two hinges from Home Depot; the front third now lifts up for effortless access. Finally, she distressed the console with medium-grit sand­paper. “I focused on areas that would normally wear with time,” she notes, “like edges, corners, and moving parts.”

Although Michelle hopes to eventually sell the piece, she says she’s holding on to it for the time being: “I’m kind of in love with it!”

Todd Farm283 Main St., Rowley, MA. 978-948-3300; toddfarm.com

Expert Advice: Making the Most of a Flea Market

Hit the perimeter first: “I find the best and most consistent merchandise from dealers on the edges of a field.” —Michelle Graham

Bundle, bundle, bundle: “The more items you buy from a vendor, the deeper the discount.” —Claire Ferrante

Keep an open mind: “If you hit the flea looking for a specific item, you could miss a true gem!” —Michelle Graham

Keep an eye out for vendors who clean out houses and liquidate merchandise fast: “Some of the best deals can be found at booths where items are strewn about and great pieces are buried at the bottoms of dusty crates and boxes.”  —Claire Ferrante