Some design- and recycling-minded people just have the proverbial It—the ability to turn trash into treasure, to breathe new life into pieces that might otherwise languish for years in the dusty corners of thrift shops, under a pile of laundry in the guest room, or under a tarp in the garage. Sarah Trop, owner of FunCycled www.funcycled.com in Troy, New York, is one of those unfairly talented people who can transform the broken into the beautiful, seemingly in less time than it takes most of us to figure out what to eat for breakfast. That’s why she her husband, expert carpenter John Trop, who left his full-time job to join Sarah in FunCycled in 2013, were the well-deserved winners on HGTV’s Flea Market Flip in March 2015.
We sat down with Sarah to get the download on how she works her furniture-refinishing magic.
Fresh American: When did you first discover you had a talent for refinishing furniture?
Sarah Trop: That’s a good question! My parents invested in painting classes for me throughout high school, and I loved it! Although I didn’t paint furniture until I started it as a business. Most people assume I did it as a hobby for years, but I didn’t. We started FunCycled after I read up on it and practiced some, but hadn’t been doing it for long. My husband, John, used to be a carpenter so he knew how to repair and build furniture. We combined both talents for repaired, repurposed, painted furniture. [Ed.’s note: That’s the handsome couple pictured above.]
FA: Can you recall what your first couple of projects were like?
ST: The first big project I remember was painting a huge hutch bright red for my own house, and it ended up being a bear! I don’t know why I thought starting with a big project like a hutch would be a good idea. Grab an end stand or something to start with, crazy lady!
FA: How have your refinishing style and/or your furniture choices evolved over time?
ST: As time goes on, I’ve found that I enjoy modern, cleans lines and raw elements. I didn’t even know that was my style when I started, but I would say it’s my favorite design now. The juxtaposition between clean and a bit fancy against rough, raw textures is something that satisfies my creative eye.
FA: How many projects are you typically working on at one time?
ST: We typically redo about 5 to 10 pieces a week. Our best week was 22 pieces! Sometimes it’s as few as one or two if it’s a custom-built table or a piece that was really ready for the trash that we need to completely rebuild.
FA: What’s your favorite piece that you’ve refinished?
ST: That’s a tough one. Probably the porch swing my husband made me from an old bed.
FA: How did your appearance on HGTV come about? Tell us about the experience.
ST: My friend Marcie and I use to watch Flea Market Flip. She encouraged me to try out to be on the show because I loved it so much. I e-mailed the crew-casting e-mail address from the year before. It took a few months for them to reply. Being on the show was amazing! Getting to imagine designs and have a team of people help me make it happen was the best! I did a blog post all about the experience.
FA: What are your “must” tools for furniture refinishing?
ST: My must have tools would be an orbital sander—a quick scuffing of the furniture is the way to go; if you go too deep into the wood, painting issues come up—and a Mr. Clean sponge. It can fix so many problems, like scuff marks and stains. They have saved me in so many stressful moments.
FA: Chalk paint vs. milk paint—discuss!
ST: Neither, surprisingly. I have used both, but I don’t prefer them, mostly because they require waxing after. Wax is very difficult to paint over if you want to change the paint color in a year or two. Out of the two, I would choose chalk paint over milk paint, and then do a water-based clearcoat over the top instead of wax. Milk paint chips wherever it wants, which is part of the look people want. I must be too controlling, because I like to decide exactly where a piece gets distressed. We use enamel latex paints through an air sprayer to avoid brush marks. If you’re a DIYer and want to hand paint it, I love RePurpose RePaint Chroma colors! They go on like chalk paint but you don’t need to wax at the end. We sell it at our store, too!
FA: What are the most common mistakes you see when people try to refinish their own furniture?
ST: Not taking the time to prep a piece of furniture is the biggest mistake I see. Sand down into the wood just enough so you don’t see scratch marks and dents. Then you can paint and get a great finish.
FA: Let’s talk about those “oops” moments. Is it easy to fix refinishing mistakes?
ST: We’ve had plenty of “oops” moments. We’ve had an orbital sander set down on a finished piece of furniture just before we were going to photograph and deliver it—no easy fix; we had to redo it. We’ve had someone touch a clearcoat on a tabletop to be funny . . . Not funny. We had to sand it and redo the top. One funny “oops”: we were moving an antique china cabinet into our store, and the door flew open, then snapped right off. We ended up keeping the door off and framing the door as a piece of art for the wall. Then we made the china cabinet an open cabinet with no door. It looked awesome, and we made two sales out of one piece—win-win!
FA: Do you recommend refinishing antiques, or is that a big no?
ST: Painting antiques is what I do every day, so I may not be the best person to ask that. [Laughs] I have talked to many antique dealers that will agree with me that unless it’s pristine, hard-to-find furniture, the value is currently higher when it’s painted. I can oftentimes sell a painted antique much more easily than an antique dealer can. Repurposing goes in waves with trends and style. The thing that kills me is when a nice old piece is painted by someone who doesn’t have the best design eye or experience with painting furniture. It devalues the piece and fills my soul with sadness. [Laughs]
FA: What kinds of refinishing projects do you recommend for absolute beginners or for someone who wants to share a project with their kids?
ST: I always say start small with projects. It could be as small as a picture frame. Then move to an end table or small dresser. Looking for a piece that is curbside on trash night is always a nice place to start, too. Then there is no risk, and you’re hopefully giving it a new shot at being used and not discarded.
Learn more about Sarah’s work and purchase FunCycled furniture right here.