Getting into DIY can be expensive. Between the cost of tools, materials, and inevitable do-overs, the cost can be twofold (or more) what it would cost to just buy the darn thing new. That’s part of why Bronwyn Tarboton, the creative behind NYC Trash to Treasures, shied away from projects for so long. “I thought I didn’t like DIY projects because it always involved buying so many supplies,” she says.
Turns out buying was the only barrier to unleashing her creative side. When the pandemic shut down New York City in 2020, Tarborton, an actress and singer, found herself out of work, and eager to fix up the apartment she shares with her boyfriend. She had lots of time on her hands, but minimal budget. At the same time, there was an exodus of NYC residents, many leaving their apartments. The quick move-outs and forgotten leases led to entire apartments dumped on the sidewalks.
Those sidewalks were a goldmine for a wannabe DIYer with lots of time to patrol the streets looking for the best finds. “I have always been into grabbing furniture off the street,” she says. “Everyone loves something free! If there’s something you want for your apartment sitting on the curb, why not grab it?”
Tarboton’s first big find was a set of four dining chairs. She schlepped them back to her apartment, only to find they weren’t a great fit for the space. Tarboton didn’t want to throw them back on the curb, so she listed them on Facebook Marketplace; they sold in a New York minute. That’s when it hit her: She could grab beautiful finds that were otherwise headed for the dump and give them a new home, while also making income for herself.
In the early days, Tarboton was simply listing items as-is. But a touch-up here or a replaced knob there paved the way for total transformations. Now, she sells both lightly refurbished items and complete DIYs in her shop. Never one to stray from a buy-nothing approach, Tarboton tries to keep as much of her project completely free as possible. “I kept a lookout for items where I could repurpose the legs or the knobs from a dresser, or reuse wallpaper or tile,” she says. “I looked at items and thought, ‘What could I combine so I don’t have to buy anything new?’”
A broken Tiffany-style lampshade from her doorman inspired Tarboton’s first mosaic. Discarded wallpaper lined dresser drawers. Old bamboo fencing became hanging art. The result of Tarboton’s work isn’t just a jumble of discarded objects — it’s a unique display of the power of secondhand, and a look into the incredible items that are tossed aside. One man’s trash really is another man’s treasure, and since 2020 Tarboton has built up a social media following of more than 25,000 fans on Instagram and TikTok who follow her for her finds, flips, and sales.
Now that she’s gotten familiar with the gamut of recycled trash, Tarboton says her favorite projects are the mosaics. “I have a friend whose grandfather is a famous artist — he has a piece in the Met right now! — and she has the coolest mosaic on her wall,” Tarboton says. “I knew I couldn’t get something from him, but I realized I could make something with all the broken things I find around the city, like glass and pottery. There is so much beauty in these broken items!”
As for how Tarboton chooses her items, it’s a little bit of experience mixed with a gut check. “I’ve honed a spidey sense,” she says. “I’ll either get excited about an item and have to take it home — or I won’t. I have to go with my gut. If I’m not excited about it, it won’t sell.”
But she also brings a few tricks to the table when it comes to finding, transporting, and making over her finds. Here, Tarboton’s best tips.
“I get comfortable with certain spots that I revisit again and again,” Tarboton says. You never know when you’ll find something great, so the best strategy is to keep your eyes peeled. Once you identify areas in your neighborhood that have had furniture or other home goods set out on the curb, visit those regularly. It’s also helpful to know when trash days and times are so that you can go before pickup.
It’s important to factor in the trip home, too. “The best spots are convenient, I know I can walk, and I know I can carry an item home,” Tarboton says.
The hardest thing to change about an item is its shape and structure. That’s why Tarboton advises newbies to examine those first. “If something has a great or unique shape and is structurally sound, it’s easy to change the way it looks with paint, fabric, tiles, and other materials,” she says.
For items that are less structurally sound, think about what it would take to get them in working order. “Can I tighten some screws? Can I replace a lampshade? Hardware? If I don’t have an easy fix on the horizon, I leave it so it doesn’t turn into a never-done project,” Tarboton says.
That said, some pieces warrant an exception. “Sometimes I look at the quality of the item by looking up the brand or using Google Lens to look up a photo of the item,” Tarboton says. “If it’s a $5,000 dollar lamp, it might be worth a bit more of a strenuous redo!”
If you’re based in a walkable city, like Tarboton is, it’s worth bringing a wagon or cart with you. For the most part, Tarboton says, she sticks to items she can carry herself or pull in a cart. But she’s also called Uber XLs for larger items she couldn’t say no to. For items so large she can’t pick them up, she disassembles it before loading in. “Usually items can be separated into small enough pieces that one person can lift the separate parts,” she says. “I try to always have a small screwdriver in my purse or backpack.”
Hunting through garbage can be… messy. And since Tarboton’s already putting work into bringing items home, fixing them up, and even DIYing them into something new, she doesn’t want to invest a ton of time in scrubbing. “I mostly stick to materials that can just be simply wiped down,” she says, including wood, ceramic, and glass. “If I grab fabric, I make sure it’s clean already.”
And of course, check items thoroughly before bringing them inside so you don’t accidentally welcome pests into your home. The biggest concern for furniture is bed bugs; use a flashlight to carefully look at joints and seams for live bugs or signs that they were there, like excrement. (Sorry, it’s gross, but it must be said!)
“If someone is just starting out and doesn’t have any supplies or tools, that’s okay!” Tarboton says. “I also started with nothing. Start simple and buy what you need for one project, then you will have leftovers for the next. I’m also a big believer in making it work with whatever you have — my most used tools are my fingers and an old butter knife.”
Tarboton tries to use things she has before buying, which helps make her DIY decisions easier. But if she doesn’t have anything that will work — tools or materials — she tries to find secondhand. “You can often find better quality, well-priced items in thrift shops, on Facebook Marketplace, eBay, and more,” she says.
Still intimidated? Start basic. A great beginner project, Tarboton says, is DIY art. “You don’t need to buy a new canvas, just find one that’s been discarded and paint over it,” she says. Paint makes for a great first project since it’s cheap, easy to do in a small space, and easy to re-do if you don’t like the results.