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Jay Blades talks upcycling versus restoring

WHEN TV’s Jay Blades took up restoration eight years ago, it wasn’t just about bringing furniture back to life, but about giving disadvantaged youngsters a chance, too.

‘I ran a charity doing community work but by 2010 funding was drying up,’ he explains.

‘I was looking at ways of raising revenue so we could continue working with young people — doing up old furniture was one of those ways.’

After receiving training from master craftsmen, Jay set up a social enterprise, restoring unloved items with young people. These days the 48-year-old one-time builder has a nice sideline in TV, including The Repair Shop and Money For Nothing. But for him, it’s all about the youngsters.

‘Young people are being sold the message they need to get on social media, get on Love Island and become famous,’ he says. ‘I teach them how to make money from nothing — how they can fix up a broken-down chair and if they sell it to the right people they can make £150.

‘And it’s all above board and they haven’t had to look over their shoulder or worry about the police catching them. Some of the young people I work with can’t read or write, but are good with their hands — restoring furniture is perfect for that.

‘We started in 2010 and we’ve sold our stuff in Heal’s and John Lewis.’

Jay and his young team enjoyed almost immediate success.

‘I thought I’d have to do 50 chairs the same, but the customers were happy we were doing one-offs.

If they liked them, they would have to buy them then and there.’

Jay fondly remembers his very first lesson from master craftsmen — how to clean his brushes and sharpen tools.

‘A lot of the people who taught me were old-school and when they started as apprentices they weren’t allowed to touch anything for six months,’ he says.

‘One of the first things I was taught was painting, by a French polisher. He knew the sort of work I was planning to do with young people and said I wouldn’t need to know how to do French polishing to begin with, but he showed me how to paint really smoothly without leaving brush strokes. Then I learned tapestry, upholstery, how to restore different types of wood and I’m still learning.’

It is this dedication to learning traditional skills that Jay believes is the fundamental difference between an ‘upcycler’ and a restorer.

‘Some people describe themselves as a professional upcycler, but I don’t think there is such a thing,’ he says.

‘I can give my daughter a toilet roll; she can draw a face on it and put feathers in the back and she’s turned it into an owl. She’s just upcycled that toilet roll. I call myself a modern restorer and people understand that term. You get trained to be a restorer, a French polisher, an upholsterer — but there isn’t a qualification to be an upcycler.’

You can watch the two series of The Repair Shop on BBC iPlayer;