Mother Earth Living

Salvage Savvy: Use Salvaged Building Materials in Your Home

One person's trash is another's front door—maybe yours.
By Sam Martin
May/June 2004
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A salvaged window serves as a skylight in this bathroom.
Photo By Paul Bardagjy
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One could argue that no single person has done more for the architectural antique business than Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who bought reclaimed old-growth Douglas fir timbers for some of the construction of his mansion near Seattle. All that material was put back into use instead of getting buried in a big hole in the ground, which is what usually happens to the 31.5 million tons of construction waste generated by the home-building industry each year.

People like Gates are preserving the embodied energy that went into making building materials, maintains Matthew Levesque, project manager of Building REsources, a nonprofit salvaged building materials center in San Francisco. “I don’t like to use that word ‘embodied’ too often because people start to zone out,” he says. “Instead I talk about the history of the material, its quality, and the workmanship that went into it. Everything that gets built is a repository of all the energy it took to build it, and we’re trying to keep that energy going. Plus, salvage materials allow for a lot of character, flavor, and individuality in a house.”

You don’t have to be a gazillionaire to enjoy the environmental and aesthetic benefits of salvaged building materials. From structural lumber to bricks, sinks, and tubs, there’s a wealth of cut-rate but quality materials to be found at a growing number of salvage yards around the country. Of course, not all the materials found in resale shops are good quality; it helps to arm yourself with a little knowledge.

There are two different kinds of salvaged materials on the market: architectural antiques like the old lumbar in Gates’s house and used goods like those found in Habitat for Humanity’s Re-stores. Architectural antique stores are great places to find period fixtures or millwork for historic renovations. Prices can be steep, but items such as pressed-tin ceilings, Corinthian columns, and stained-glass windows are one of a kind. Reuse or salvage stores may also carry some of these, but mostly you’ll find everyday building materials at prices up to half of what they’d be brand new.

Be prepared to shop with a tape measure, dig through piles of old doorknobs, and wander through cavernous rooms full of unmarked shelves. Also be willing to get out some sand paper, make a few extra cuts with the circular saw, or simply enjoy that antique look. “Most of the folks who come through these stores are homeowner do-it-yourselfers, but not all of them,” says Kurt Buss, chairman of the Used Building Materials Association and manager of ReSource, a used material program in Boulder, Colorado. “Some are people just looking for that worn, shabby-chic finish.”

Finding salvaged building materials has become much easier over the past decade as builders and homeowners realize the economic benefits of keeping old goods in circulation. If you can’t find a store near you, ask local contractors where they take materials after demolition. Even better, give them the sizes and dimensions of what you’re looking for and offer to buy it from them when they find it. “Most of them will say, ‘Hell yeah,’ because it’s going to save them the time to haul it to the dump and the money to dump it,” says Levesque.

Wood and lumber

Perhaps the most popular reclaimed material on the market is lumber. Many stores carry structural lumber, including two-by-fours, posts and beams, tongue-and-groove flooring, and decorative millwork. While old wood flooring can be more expensive than new, especially if it’s been re-milled from an antique beam—a fairly common practice—used structural wood is often much cheaper.

That said, there are some caveats to buying used structural lumber that might bring the cost up. “If you’re going to use it for floor joists, roof rafters, or anything that’s going to hold up other parts of the structure, you need to get it approved by an engineer,” says Buss. Engineers will check for a grade stamp, a mark put on the wood by a lumber association that reveals the wood’s quality and species. Some salvage yards with a lot of reclaimed wood for sale hire a lumber grader to check their stock. Otherwise, you may have to pay one yourself.

Also keep in mind that wood milled before World War II was cut to exact measurements rather than the nominal measurements you’ll find today. A two-by-four back then really was two inches thick by four inches wide. (Now a two-by-four measures 11/2 by 31/2 inches.) “If you’re replacing some framing on a fifty-plus-year-old house, it’s not a good idea to combine old and new wood because you’ll have two different sizes of lumber,” says Buss.

Old wood has already cured, which means it has far less moisture than new wood. “The downside is it’s much harder to drive nails into, but the upside is it’s incredibly stable,” Buss explains. That means if old wood were going to bow, cup, crack, or warp, it probably already has.

When shopping for old wood, examine it as you would the new. Look down its length to make sure it’s straight. Check that it doesn’t have a lot of checking or cracking, which happens when wood is too dry. Look at the ends to make sure it’s not cupping or bowing. Also, make sure it doesn’t have any major knots.

Salvaged bricks

Salvaged bricks can be used for walkways, patios, fireplaces, and even structural walls. Before you load the pickup, though, it’s important to know what type of brick you’re buying and how you plan to use it. Firebrick, patio pavers, and face brick are just a few options. “Each kind of brick serves a different function,” explains Levesque. “If you’re building an interior brick wall, make sure to get structural face brick that’s strong enough to hold the weight. Firebrick or patio brick won’t work for that. Also, avoid firebrick for high-traffic areas such as walkways and patios. It has a beautiful yellow color, but it’s really soft.”

Old wall and patio or paver brick, which sometimes can be 100 years old, can be inconsistent in look and quality. Before World War II, clay was formed in molds and fired in coal-burning kilns. Because kiln temperatures were often inconsistent, bricks closest to the fire were harder than those farther away. (Today the molds are gone, and the kilns have been replaced by temperature-controlled gas ovens.) Darker bricks were fired at a higher temperature and tend to be stronger; the lighter, salmon-colored bricks may have been farther from the heat and are therefore softer.

Light or yellowish colored fire bricks should not be used for walkways, patios, or walls. Likewise, pavers should be used for patios and driveways and not structural walls.

Windows

Windows, doors and cabinets are readily available because they’re the easiest things to salvage from a condemned house. However, don’t buy windows more than ten years old unless you’re using them purely for interior decoration, cautions Buss. “Many places around the country have building codes that require insulated windows, and when this type of window is ten years old, there’s a good chance its seal has been broken,” he explains.

Look for wood-framed windows. “Metal windows tend to conduct heat out of the house during the winter and into the house during the summer,” says Buss. “Vinyl windows tend to be flimsy.” Look for tight joinery and no gaps. Also, make sure the window opens and closes properly. If you can find all these qualities, chances are you’ll get a solid, insulated replacement window for half or less than half the price of a new one.

Bring measurements when shopping for doors and windows; they come in many sizes. And, don’t forget to check for thickness.

Doors

Finding a door is a lot like shopping for structural lumber because they can bow and cup like two-by-fours, making a good fit impossible. “Hanging a door is hard enough without it being warped,” says Levesque.

Doors can be hollow core, solid core, or frame and panel. All-wood doors consist of a bunch of different parts fit together with a variety of mortise-and-tenon joints. Because of that, it’s important to make sure all the joints fit tightly and that there’s no gapping. Also, look at the door’s edge to make sure it doesn’t bow, cup, or warp.

Cabinets

Cabinets, which are basically just boxes with doors, should be made of solid wood and have good dovetailed joints at the corners. Avoid boxes made of particleboard, plastic corner pieces, and metal staples. “When wood is joined with wood—as opposed to metal fasteners—the joint will be strong,” Buss points out.

Be especially wary of particleboard cabinetry that will be located near a sink. “Particleboard is basically just glue and sawdust,” says Buss. “It soaks up moisture and then starts to loosen up the whole box.”


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