upcycled coffee can with chalkboard label, white mug, oranges, similarupcycled cans in background

How To Upcycle Coffee Cans Into Organizational Bliss

Upcycling is a great way to reduce household waste (and even the recycling pile), but it can be tricky to do elegantly. For example, one of the things we have here at home is Illy coffee, which comes in these fantastic, smooth canisters that stack really well and have a tight-fitting lid. The empties are clearly begging to be upcycled instead of being thrown into the recycling bin. The trouble is that I don’t want to turn my house into a giant Illy ad, which means paint or some other type of resurfacing, and that’s where things can get ugly.

I have been saving the empty cans for a while and now have enough stockpiled that I thought I’d start testing different finishes to see if I could come up with something I would want in my home. Along these lines, I thought it would be good if the cans could be labeled, and if the labels could be changed in case I wanted to change what was inside. Chalkboard paint sprang to mind.

Additionally, if I was going to reuse them for dry goods, like flour or sugar, which seemed an obvious possibility given that they used to contain coffee, they would need to be washable. I figured I would test this on one of the cans first, before I started working on finish options, just in case.

Oh wow, am I glad I started here because these babies are nowhere near easily washable, and that was a real surprise. First, it was highly treacherous to wash the test can due to the razor-sharp edge along the rim that remains after removing the metal factory seal. coffee can with the factory lid half-offSecond, it wasn’t very easy to get all of the coffee out of the crack at the bottom where the base meets the sides. So clearly these cans wouldn’t be good for anything that was likely to get stuck in that crack, like flour or sugar. Lastly, even alone in the dish rack with plenty of space for air to circulate, the test can actually rusted (just a bit). I couldn’t believe it! Ok, yes, it was never intended to be washed and reused, so this isn’t really a design flaw of the can, and it is made of steel, which rusts, but it did mean that there was no way I could reuse these cans for anything that would expose them to water on a regular basis. So no using them outdoors then either. Good to know.

Not yet ready to give up, the next step was clearly to try to do something about the razor-sharp edge at the top of the can. I realized that any reuse involving reaching into the can, to get a cookie (or three) for example, would be just as scary as trying to wash them was. It also meant that unless I could do something to cover or remove the sharp edge, the upcycled cans would also be inappropriate for use by children or anyone with diminished motor skills who might injure themselves reaching in. So also not the place to store Legos or Matchbox cars.

I tried sanding the metal edge to smooth it out, but it’s too thin and remained very sharp. I also tried covering it with tape, but that just looked terrible and interfered with the lid. Considering caulk, I thought it would be difficult to get an even bead around the sharp edge, plus caulk can be difficult to clean and isn’t necessarily rated to be in contact with food. Another no-go there, leaving me to concede that the sharp edge would have to remain.

Hum…reusing these cans was looking like a more difficult task than originally thought.

Before abandoning this project entirely, I thought I would move on to the task of resurfacing to remove the advertising, just to see if there was any promise on that front. Could they be painted, distressed, or covered in something to disguise their appearance? Could I just sand them until all of the red paint was gone? Time for more tests.

First the sanding test. Well, it took a long time, made a lot of dust that probably isn’t great either to breath or for the environment, didn’t easily remove the paint, especially from the grooves, and left a sort of ‘distressed’ surface that wasn’t really what I wanted. scratches on the surface of coffee can where paint was sanded offNot a good direction to pursue further so I went back to thinking about paint.

Paint is great, but it tends to scratch, and in order to get a good, smooth finish on a cylindrical metal can I would definitely need to use spray paint. There are a lot of environmental drawbacks to using latex paint in general, but spray paint in particular, so I thought I would see what else was out there.

I find that whenever I’m a little unsure about a project, or just need to ruminate a bit on it, a trip to the local hardware store is just the thing. I started my trip by wandering through the paint aisle looking for anything that would produce a write-on/wipe-off surface. While I did find chalkboard paint in a spray can, I was still trying to avoid aerosols if possible, so I moved on to other aisles. In the adhesives aisle (one of my all-time favorite places in the hardware store) I looked at various tapes, including all the new, fun, printed duct tapes, but didn’t find anything that would allow me to wipe-off and change the label. Still, not a bad idea if it came to that, though.

A little more wandering and I stumbled upon a large selection of contact paper, that mainstay of 1950’s housewifery that has largely been forgotten by today’s modern family. Could this be the answer? While there were many, many patterns that would have been right at home in my grandmother’s kitchen cabinets (ie: not the look I was going for), I did find a role of black contact paper that promised it was washable. Perfect! Well, still not great for the environment because it’s vinyl, but it’s a bit better than aerosol paint in terms of air contaminants, so I thought I’d take a chance with it. Plus it looked much easier to apply, and wouldn’t scratch like paint does.

So now I had the perfect material to cover the cans, but still wasn’t sure what to do with them. Since I had eliminated any kind of use that involved reaching far into the cans, they would need to hold things that were either tall enough to be grabbed from the top, or things that could be poured out. It would also help if any food items were packaged so the cans wouldn’t need to be washed as often. Surely such things must exist.

Several minutes of me running around the house, tearing opening cabinets, rifling through boxes and closets to find things that fit any of these criteria ensued. Fortunately I found lots of things that would actually work well (granola bars! sea shells! buttons! fruit snacks!). More things than I currently had cans to hold, actually, (great excuse to drink more coffee!) so I got started transforming the cans into canisters. Yes, they are essentially the same thing, but canisters just sounds so much more elegant.

This part ended up being even easier than I had thought it would be. My only previous experience with contact paper was seeing it in drawers and cabinets of ancient relatives where it was really badly fitted, usually crooked (although with some of the patterns this might have been a mercy), and typically peeling at the edges. That gave me the idea that this stuff was impossible to work with, and maybe it used to be, but contact paper now is a dream.

All you have to do is measure how high you want the contact paper to go on the canister, cut it, and stick it. It is literally that easy, but here are a few tips and tricks, just in case:

First thing, make sure all of your canisters will look the same once covered. I had two different types of canister, which I didn’t realize at first: one with red at the top and one with silver at the top. I decided to separate them and use the red ones for craft supplies and the silver ones in the kitchen. For the silver ones I covered the entire flat part of the canister (before the can bends in at the top and bottom) to make as much black surface as possible. For the red ones I wanted to show the red a bit more so I measured from the very bottom edge of the red stripe at the top to the very bottom of the lowest part of the writing at the bottom so that everything that wasn’t red would be covered, but as much red as possible would remain. The only real trick is to make sure that the contact paper stops at or before the grooves at the top and bottom. This will keep the finished product looking clean and neat because the top and bottom edges will be firmly attached to the can and not folded over or hanging out in space.

Next, cut a strip of contact paper at the height you want all the way across the 18″ roll. My strips were 18″ x 4 1/2″ for the silver cans and 18″ x 4 3/8″ for the red cans. This will leave the perfectly straight (from the factory) sides of the contact paper as the sides of the strip, allowing a great way to get the paper on straight. Before you cut your contact paper, though, measure the circumference of the can, either with string or with a fabric tape measure, to check that your contact paper roll is wide enough.

Now peel the backing off just a little bit and align the side edge with the seam in the canister, which will also be perfectly straight:vinyl contact paper aligned with seam in coffee can

The contact paper should be at least a little bit re-positionable, so if you don’t get it aligned right at first, take a deep breath (or a snack break), and keep trying. You’ll get it after a few tries. Once you have it lined up straight, press it into place, smoothing the contact paper towards the unattached part (away from the seam). Remove a little more of the backing and smooth away from the seam again. Keep repeating this, slowly, as you work your way around the can. vinyl contact paper being adhered to coffee canWhen you get all the way around, overlap just enough to the next cut-line at the back of the contact paper. Cut along that line for a nice, straight seam, and press the end of the contact paper into place. The slightly overlapped seam will be nearly invisible, but if something went awry and you need to try again, you should be able to remove the whole thing starting from the seam. Just peel it off, throw it out and start again if this happens because the vinyl will be slightly stretched, not to mention very sticky without the backing.

Last, take your erasable marker (you might need to shake it first) and label your new canister:coffee can covered in black vinyl contact paper and chalkboard marker

What you will need:

  • Coffee can with lid
  • Contact paper in the color of your choice
  • Scissors
  • Ruler or measuring tape
  • Chalkboard marker in the color of your choice

Tips and tricks:

  • If you end up with any bubbles that you can’t smooth out, prick them with a pin and then smooth the air out.
  • Play around with different writing styles, and even the direction of the text (vertical vs. horizontal). If you don’t like how it looks, just wipe it off and try something different. I have terrible handwriting and had to do each can several times before I was happy with the result, but that’s the great part about using washable markers.
  • Try not to squeeze the cans too hard when you’re working with them because they may dent. I somehow managed to death-grip one of them before I realized this and the dent it left is pretty obvious. Fortunately I can put the dent at the back, but it was a good reminder to take deep breaths and actually relax while crafting.
  • Your contact paper is probably easily removable so if you change the label on your canister a few times during its life and are starting to get a lot of shadow marks, you can always peel the whole thing off and re-cover it.three coffee cans covered in black contact paper, labeled with chalk, on a bookshelf

I hope you enjoyed this project and have fun adding to your sleek and beautiful canister storage system. Happy making, and thanks for reading!


2 Replies to “How To Upcycle Coffee Cans Into Organizational Bliss”

  1. The sharp edges are a real problem for me (I’ve cut myself even just getting coffee out!) found that crimping down the sharp part with needlenose pliers helped a lot. It was a little cumbersome and slow – possibly there us a better tool out there? Even with the crimping, still probably not going to give them to my toddler, but definitely much better for reaching in for me!

    1. Hi Rachel,
      As you read in the post, there isn’t anything that will make those edges less sharp. That’s why I don’t recommend use by children or anyone with mobility or coordination difficulties. It really isn’t safe to use them for anything that requires reaching in, including for the coffee they once contained.
      For upcycling, I found many things in my house, like buttons and seashells, that can be stored in them and then poured-out for sorting through when needed. That way no one has to reach into them.
      Good luck with your project, and thanks for sharing the tip about crimping the edges.

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