Salvage Secrets: Designing and Building with Reclaimed Materials

Affordable, unique and full of character, reclaimed materials make smart and stylish additions to home design.

| November/December 2011

I felt like Nancy Drew when I began searching for vintage salvaged wood for the kitchen island top in our home. I had some specific guidelines: The wood had to be at least 2½ inches thick, the boards had to be antique with some character, and the pieces had to be long, as the sides of our L-shaped island measured 11 feet and 6 feet, respectively. I began my detective work by calling a local architectural salvage shop owner. The shop didn’t have exactly what I was looking for, but the owner gave me the number of someone who might. A farmer, also a collector of reclaimed wood, thought he had just what we were looking for. He was about an hour’s drive from our home, so my husband, our 4-year-old daughter and I went for a Sunday trip up to the farm. In the middle of a field, knee-high in snow, we uncovered a single, seemingly unremarkable piece from a haphazard pile of boards that once served as floor joists in an 1880s railroad building and brought it back to the barn. Never in a million years would I have expected anyone to look at that pile of old wood and say, “Wow, I just have to have that in my home!” But when the farmer ground away the dirt and grime with a belt sander, he revealed the true character of the wood—rich, reddish, fine-grained, and full of character and textures. We took the whole pile. That was the beginning of a fascinating search for salvaged materials that were not only unique and beautiful, but also affordable for our family.

Designing with Salvage Today 

Using salvaged material is more an art than a science due to the unique ages, structures, sizes and shapes of the materials. Because no two boards, bricks or metal pieces are ever identical, there are no standard practices when it comes to using salvaged materials, which is what makes working with them so exciting—as well as challenging. Using salvage requires planning, especially if the material will be used structurally and has to meet building code specifications. Professional architects, contractors or salvage specialists should be consulted for expert guidance on all technical matters. Some builders, designers and architects specialize in the use of salvage and even stockpile it for future use. The Building Materials Reuse Association offers a searchable list of salvage stores on its website. When you’re searching for salvage, keep in mind that inventory is constantly changing and no two shops are ever the same, so it’s wise to visit more than one and to go on a regular basis.

Let’s Talk Cost 

Does using salvaged materials cost more than buying new materials? This frequently asked question doesn’t have a simple yes or no answer. Although it is true that salvaged material is often less expensive than buying new, the labor costs associated with installation can be higher. This isn’t always the case, however—for example, installing wide planks of vintage wood flooring requires less time and money than new, narrower flooring. For some especially ornate or desirable antique pieces, the cost of the salvaged piece itself may be higher, but its architectural significance will add overall value to the home. Likewise, a salvaged piece can sometimes add so much character to a room that a more modest, less expensive design is best to complement the salvaged showpiece.

Advanced planning also will help reduce costs. Say, for example, that your builder has put in the doorjambs and you show up with antique salvaged doors. He is going to have to pull out those jambs and rebuild them to fit the older doors. Likewise, a vintage sink may not fit in the hole the builder left for a standard, double-bowl sink. If you’re working with builders, the earlier you talk to them about the salvaged materials you plan to use, the more responsive they will be to using them and the less additional costs you will incur.

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