Finding Those Reclaimed Materials
by Daric Gill
As a person who works with reclaimed materials, I get asked where I find my materials a lot. In fact, I was asked this twice today. Here’s how this question usually goes:
This is a very flattering question and I’m more than happy to share in the ‘reclaimed materials’ movement.
Having said that, I’ve found that there’s actually quite an array of motives and goals behind that question. This post will cover the right questions to ask yourself so that you can be on your way to finding newly reclaimed materials.
First thing’s first. Let’s define what your real expectations are.
Location — What can your location provide naturally? The city and countryside have a uniquely different set of materials likely in that area.
Skills & Space — Do you have the tools, space, and knowhow to take something from raw to refined? Or is this DIY project going to be done on a coffee table in a studio apartment?
Raw Finds Vs. Shopping Around — Are you willing to work with what you find or are you actually ‘shopping around’ for specific materials?
That’s the baseline. Now you know what you’re really asking.
Process Gallery Below
Location: The Hard Truth
Barns (and therefore their wood) almost always exist in rural landscapes.
Industry (and therefore their discarded surplus) almost always exists in city landscapes.
Don’t expect to easily or cheaply acquire barn wood if you live in the city.
- antique farming equipment, old barn wood, treadle sewing machines, odd victorian homemade contraptions, and well cared for vintage items. Families exist in the same areas for long stretches of time… and so does their stuff.
- In the city, you have access to more transient people. This means you’ll have access to their regularly discarded furniture, warehouses/industrial surplus, antique stores which provide a consignment of pre-selected merchandise to purchase, and all the wood pallets from all the imported goods.
Skills & Space
Work within your means. If you thrive off of new challenges, then reclaiming materials should be a blast. If you think reclaimed = free, you’re misleading yourself a little. To fully refurbish something you need tools to do it and a space to do it in. Tools cost money. Space costs money. Look for materials that you can actually work with, given your space and skill level.
Raw Finds Vs. Shopping Around
Some people prefer to select materials first and see what project ideas they can come up with. They enjoy the raw-to-refurbished process. Other people have a more specific idea that they might be trying to replicate and therefore need harder to stumble on materials or they simply don’t have the capacity to start from the raw find. Both are legitimate ways to re-use materials for a second life.
Here’s the honest truth: I happen to enjoy the raw-to-refurbished process, but I also understand that it’s not for everyone. Buying new, slightly used, or pre-refurbished materials are WAY easier than refurbishing old ones from their totally raw state. There, I said it. Whew! Had to get that off my chest. If you don’t have space, tools, expertise, or simply the desire… shop away.
“Shopping around” is also significantly safer for you and your equipment. You’ll marginalize any exposure to old and foreign metal shards, unidentified oils, toxic paints, or any of the other mysteries that come with the raw-to-refurbished process. Sure, you’re going to pay more. But that’s understandable, right? They put in the effort to find and refurbish these rare items. It’s only fair.
Where To Get Stuff
- can be bought or found next to industrial complexes and make great beginner’s materials. The simple act of prying off the planks is enough to teach many lessons for later use. Just don’t take them without asking permission (unless they are clearly being discarded). That’s actually really illegal. Truck drivers and/or those companies have to pay good money for those things. My favorite pallets are from stone moving companies. The wood is generally really compacted and is wider than most other pallets. Call around to see who has some first.
Warning: Running pallet wood through saws or planers can be very dangerous and can ruin your equipment.
- can be like a candy store for someone who likes to build things. I love the one near me, Research Alloy. Each scrap yard has its own unique set of materials. Some specialize in old cars; some in industrial equipment. Some sell/buy by weight while others buy/sell by part. Look up the ones in your area.
Pro Tip: Wear heavy close/shoes, bring cash, and call ahead to ask what is the procedure for people who want to just look around. Sometimes they don’t like individuals walking around without proper warning and attire.
Warning: Always remember “H-H-F”. Watch out for dangers to the Head, Hands, and Feet. Scrapyards aren’t playgrounds.
Warehouse Auctions / Architectural Salvage Stores
- can be a great place to look for amazing industrial equipment and unique building materials. These places are unexploited venues for finding choice large-scale items, office equipment, old technology, and random bulk items through the liquidation of warehouses and/or companies. Warehouses are often bought out and there’s literally tons of stuff in them that need to be sold. You can register to browse many of these locations and their inventory online. Just Google terms like “industrial surplus sales” or “architectural salvage store” or “(your state) surplus auction”.
Pro Tip: Cash is king. Cards not always excepted. Must take all purchased items immediately.
- makes for great reclaimed materials. Salvaged hardware, large surfaced table tops, unique or hard to find wood species… all can be harvested from old furniture. Thrift stores, garage sales, Craigslist, and trash days; those are my secret places. During the peak moving seasons, you can find me driving around on scheduled trash days, looking for nice furniture to tear apart. Many times I dress nicely and take inventory on what is available for pick up in the nicer areas of town before picking up items. Be choosy. You don’t have to take the dumpster diver approach and haul off random nonsense. It’s generally a good rule to avoid sketchy areas of town. The cheapest furniture is made from cheap composite materials that actually can’t be reused.
Warning: Bedbugs are real. Choose locations and pickups/purchases wisely. Also, Craigslist is creepy. Bring a friend.
Schools & University Surplus
- are absolutely teaming with weird specialized equipment, bulk repeated items, and industrial-grade equipment. Have a need for 1000 very used hammers, 90 broken violins, a table of 1970s scientific electronic devices, 40 upright pianos, and all the overhead projectors you want? I know just the place. No lie, I’ve seen those very things at public school and university auctions. If you want bulk amounts of something, this is the place for you! As used items near their expiration date in the school system, they get replaced with newer versions. The old versions make their rounds to lesser funded schools and eventually get thrown away or sold through surplus sales. Universities have similar systems in place to capitalize on outdated, outmoded, or otherwise unwanted equipment bought on the industrial level. Again, Google will be your friend here: “(your public school) auctions” or “(Nearest university) surplus sale”.
Pro Tip: Cash is king. Cards not usually excepted. Must take all purchased items immediately.
You can find more free articles like this on my Artist Resource page. My mission is to provide free and accessible tools for artists, educators, and enthusiasts. I encourage you to share and refer people here as often as you wish. Naturally, these articles take many hours to thoroughly research and write. If you’d like to support me as an artist and advocate, please consider donating whatever you can. Thank you!
Process Gallery Below