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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.