Guilt Free Shopping Spree – Salvaged Building Materials

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I experience a lot of internal conflict when shopping for building materials. I like to buy from the local lumber yard, but the home center is cheaper. I want to buy American, but all the fixtures are made in China. I want to buy “Greener,” but I’m almost always disappointed in the quality of the products. What’s an old carpenter to do? One thing I have learned over the years is that you don’t have to worry about any of this if you use salvaged building materials.

Granted, salvaged materials are not right for every job, but as an old-house specialist, it often works out well for me to search out the oldies but goodies. If you look around, you can find a lot of what you need through local sources. From dimensional lumber to historic trim and woodwork, a clawfoot bathtub, a pallet of shingles or a chandelier, you would be amazed at what you can find when you scrounge just a bit.

Shop the Salvaged Building Materials Super-Store

Look for a ReStore near you.
Look for a ReStore near you.

Salvage does not necessarily mean dumpster diving (although I have found a lot of great stuff in dumpsters…) In many cases, hunting for salvaged materials is as easy as going to the local big box store. Habitat for Humanities runs a chain of non-profit salvage shops called ReStores that “…sell new and gently used furniture, home accessories, building materials, and appliances to the public at a fraction of the retail price.” In my experience, the organization can vary greatly from town to town, but I have two within easy driving distance of my shop that consistently have a pretty good selection of stuff. There are always a lot of new-ish doors… sometimes some nice old ones, but always a lot slab interior doors, metal exterior doors, interesting plumbing fixtures, cabinets ,and, if your timing is right, some real finds in the tool department. Depending on the level of participation of local business, I have often seen whole pallets of paint, shingles, and other stuff that may have been discontinued, or were special orders that never got picked up.

A pretty cool Jetsons vanity at the local!
A pretty cool Jetsons vanity at the local ReStore…cheap!

Historical Salvage

Typically, ReStore has good, inexpensive materials, but in general, not a lot of precious gems. For the historical stuff, you really need to look around, and sometimes it can get pretty pricey. I am awestruck at what some folks are asking for architectural salvage at swap meets or flea markets. Of course, they are usually selling things like corbels and brackets as “objets d’art” rather than salvage. Damn you, Martha Stewart!

Claw feet and other goodies.
Claw feet and other goodies.

Historical salvage is getting more mainstream, though, and a lot of towns now have salvage shops. A simple locally-focused web search should help you find your nearby salvage outfit, but a good idea is to check in with your local historical society. Often, they keep track of old buildings that are being demolished, and they make arrangements for volunteers, Americorps members or independent contractors to go in and remove the primo stuff, like woodwork, hardwood flooring, antique fixtures, handrails and spindles. In some areas, this dovetails with the work of the local ReStore, but in a lot of cases, they may run their own historical salvage operation. For instance, here in Iowa City, “The Salvage Barn” is run by volunteers from “Friends of Historic Preservation,” and is located conveniently next door to the ReStore.

"The Salvage Barn" is our local non-profit historical salvage biz.
“The Salvage Barn” is our local non-profit historical salvage biz.

Salvage Is Good Business AND Good For The Planet

If no one in your area is doing recovery work, it may be something you want to get into yourself. With a truck and trailer, some demo tools and a little patience, a lot of people are finding salvage to be a good business, or at least a fun hobby. For instance, some local guys in a small town in my area salvage old barns, and they have built quite a business. They have purchased a defunct small town lumber yard and stocked it completely full of barn wood. I used a good bit of their materials on my recycled tiny house trailer project.

The bunkhouse Trailer
The bunkhouse Trailer

If you are like me, though, you can just grab the good stuff when you see it, and build some racks to store it out of the weather until you find a use for it. This is an excellent way to justify your packrat habits, and occasionally, you might even sell some of it as “objets d’art” on eBay or at a flea market. Bless you, Martha Stewart!

In addition to being a growing business sector that is also a lot of fun, salvage does a lot of good for the environment. Millions of tons of construction waste go into landfills every day, and if you are like me, you have been on jobsites where you have seen loads of perfectly good stuff dumpster-ized just because it simply isn’t cost effective for contractors to recycle it. In addition, milling new timber and manufacturing new materials can be energy intensive, adding to air pollution, water pollution and resource depletion. To get an idea of the positive impact salvage can have, check out the nice little calculator that the Seattle area salvage operation “Second Use” has on their website.

Photo of author

About Rich

Rich Dana loves to build things, to tinker on things, and to grow things. After more than a decade as a historic building remodeler in Brooklyn, New York, he and his wife Ericka moved to their back-to-the-land dream home (and fixer-uper nightmare), an 1870s farmhouse on 15 acres in eastern Iowa that they call “Catnip Farm.” For the last 18 years, Rich has specialized in super-efficient historical renovations and solar PV installation. He is working to convert much of the farm into perennial food crops like nut trees and berries, and he helps Ericka out with her heirloom seed project. His latest passion is learning to sew.

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4 thoughts on “Guilt Free Shopping Spree – Salvaged Building Materials”

  1. The best find from my dumpster diving days was a great collection of oak. were salvaged from a winch-on dumpster at a local hotel where the management was rebuilding the breakfast area. I had a good friend and neighbor dumpster diver with a truck who was happy to share in the spoils of this find. We divided our find and I ended up with seven 10′ x 2″ x 6″, eight 10 10’x2″x1″ mostly usable strips and six 10’x1″x4″ planks. These boards were quite clean, planed to the dimensions above, not the dried dimensions you find in the local builder supply store.

    I used many of the good strips, but resorted to ripping many strips from the 2×6 planks to construct face-frames for a built in wall-size sewing cabinet for my spouse. I used an old Sears radial arm saw – yes the old, dangerous models without a guard. I had some entertaining and scary times ripping those planks, but I survived unscathed. And, my spouse was very happy with her cabinet. The best feature by far was the fold-down cutting surface on which she cut fabric for many quilts. My biggest mistake was attaching it to the walls and floor in such a way that it had to remain in the house… image:

    A couple of years later my spouse wanted a built-in corner, floor-to-ceiling bookshelf and I again turned to this collection of oak. (no image at this time). I echoed the lines and frame construction of the sewing cabinet and used 12″ lined the edge of spruce shelving boards to make adjustable shelves. Again, another piece I regret not built as a stand-alone piece.
    I’ve still many of the planks stashed in my shop, but got too busy with other interests to put them to work. Maybe I’ll have to get busy again as much of what I’ve seen on this site inspires me.

    And a final note to any future builders: If you put your heart into a piece, make sure you can take it with you – your family will appreciate the effort more than you know.

  2. I’m a semi regular at the city’s Habitat for Humanity stores. They are always a shot in the dark. Some days you find gold, other days it’s just old crap. The best part of the stores are when then get a bunch of product from closing stores. My best find was Ace brand high quality paint brushes. Ace price tag was like $15 and up, I got them for $1 under 2 1/2″ and $2 for 2 1/2″ and larger. Needless to say I bought all of them! 30 brushes for under $40!

    My investment property needed a new sink. Watched the store for a couple weeks and found a pretty nice cast iron sink for $20. Little Comet and looks just fine.

    Ours also often has old granite counter tops. Bought a few large broken pieces and cut them up to use as trivets in the kitchen. Easily find big enough pieces for little vanities or tables tops.


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