Ellen Hanley's garage is full of old furniture. Bureaus, desks, bookshelves, hutches, tables, they're all there. It's not that she hasn't gotten rid of them yet: It's that she hasn't finished working on them yet.
Hanley refinishes antique furniture, makes pillows, blankets, tablecloths, curtains, pin boards, photo frames and coat hooks, all from material she finds at yard sales, Salvation Army and Goodwill stores and estate sales.
She recently turned her love of DIY crafts into a small business called Monet's Attic. She opened her online store in June after her two children got out of school and since then has maintained the website, the Facebook page and a growing presence on Etsy.com.
Hanley started revamping old furniture as a young adult living in New York City. In a small city apartment, she did whatever she could to make her home space livable—even painting her refrigerator pink.
"Being a writer in Manhattan, you don't get paid anything. I was broke. But I always liked having nice antiques, so it was just an easy way to make your apartment look nice. So I just taught myself," Hanley said.
She adds cushioning and new upholstery to furniture she finds at estate sales and garage sales. The collection in her garage includes several pieces from the Parrot Mill Inn, which she will work on before she sells them, gives them away as gifts or adds them to the furniture in her own home.
Some of them she has definite ideas about what to do with them—"See that chair? I'm going to reupholster it with pinstripe suit material on it and sell it as a gentleman's chair."—and others are taking up space until she has time to decide what to do.
"It doesn't look very good when I get it, but when I'm done, it looks great," she said.
Hanley also does custom orders with furniture clients may want to have redone. Sometimes this is as simple as a paint job, which she does using her own paints. "I have a secret recipe which I'm not telling anybody, because if you look at something that's finished, you won't see any brush strokes," Hanley said.
She has entire cupboards and chests of numerous fabrics to use for upholstering or for anything else she puts her mind to. One item she finished recently, a sofa, she upholstered in a dark blue velvet with brass buttons, which will add a dramatic flair to any living room.
Another item is a cedar chest. "The top was old and really couldn't be fixed," Hanley said, "so I turned it into a bench." She added cushioning and upholstered the top in an antique-looking fabric to make the top into a comfortable bench. The interior is empty for storage.
She has different contact paper for lining drawers, and cupboards of door knobs and drawer handles to add a new look to old furniture.
Hanley does more than just large pieces of furniture. She also makes coat hooks out of board game boxes and pillows out of old curtains. Her latest craft is turning old vinyl record covers into place mats. She cuts the covers into two, adds a decorative border and laminates them. She sells them four per set, and the themes include Christmas, Hannukah, Saturday Night Fever, Frank Sinatra, even Jane Fonda.
"These records bring up emotions for people. They're very sentimental about music," Hanley said. "And these are gifts that people are really going to use, they're not going to just put them in a corner, wait a year until they don't feel guilty anymore and then give them away."
"The thing about this is, it's not permanent. My brother's a heart surgeon. When he messes up at work, there's a definite cause-and-effect. If I make a mistake, I just resand it or do it again. I'm a perfectionist: It's not the money, it just has to be right," she said.
The shabby-chic look she perfects with most pieces are in vogue right now, she finds, especially with expecting mothers. "What I've found is that women who live in these tiny Manhattan apartments, they can't have a dresser and a changing table, so they make the dresser into the changing table. And they want it white and they want it shabby-chic and they don't want to spend thousands of dollars," Hanley said.
Depending on what she pays for the pieces and how much work goes into them, Hanley has started to sell such dresser-changing table pieces for between $300 and $500.
One such woman had a custom order for her nursery furniture. "She showed me the bedding she chose, which was a pink damask. And I found craft paper at Michael's that matched the bedding, and as a surprise I lined the drawers with that craft paper. She's so surprised, she can't stand it," Hanley said.