Salvaging materials is a great way to not only reduce costs on your project, but also lower the environmental impact. Up to 45% of waste that goes in landfills is construction debris, some of which is perfectly re-usable material. Many materials you’ll need to build a tiny home or trailer can be picked up for cheap or free, from plywood to drawer pulls. Here, I’ll share some of my favorite sources of salvageable, reclaimed, recycled, and scrap material, and give some tips on safety and general salvaging guidelines. The beauty of building tiny is that you can use many pieces that would be considered too small/scrap in another application.
- Habitat For Humanity ReStore
These stores sell leftover, scrap and salvaged construction materials, furniture, fixtures, paint, finishes, fasteners, tools, and just about everything you can imagine, at a reduced price vs. what they would costs new. Just a warning: some stores are more furniture-specific than construction-specific, so call or check the website before you drive 2 hours out of your way. Still, it’s an adventure every time you go, and all proceeds from your shopping go to support Habitat For Humanity!
2. Construction site dumpster
You’ll definitely find construction debris here, but you’ll probably have to dig through a bunch of junk to get to the useful stuff. There’s also probably lots of drywall dust, insulation, sawdust, and other nasty stuff you don’t want to breathe in, so wear a dust mask. You also run the risk of pissing someone off if they bust you rummaging through their trash. It helps if you know a guy who knows a guy…
If you must go this route, scout out the site before you go there. Do you see any debris worth salvaging? Are they easily accessible? What times is the site unoccupied? Where will you park your ‘getaway vehicle’? What’s your plan/explanation if things go sour? I probably would not recommend doing this unless you ask the folks in charge of the site first.
3. Dumpster behind lumber supply company
Reward:risk ratio is pretty high here. Lumber supply companies throw some CRAZY stuff in the dumpster. I’ve found almost half sheets of good plywood, pristine flooring samples with various finishes, pine siding with only a small warp/defect at one end, broken (but usable) trim pieces…either ask the store owners if you can take or buy scraps from them, or wait until after hours to grab your present from the plywood fairies and make a quick getaway. One person’s trash is another’s treasure.
4. Abandoned barn or old building
A pretty reliable source of salvage goodies, depending on how long it’s standing and how well it’s picked over. Avoid places with no trespassing signs unless it’s REALLY REALLY abandoned. It’s one thing to take some old pieces of barn board from a falling down building in the middle of nowhere in a field…another to bust into some place someone’s actually trying to fix up. In this case, you’re better off if the building is on your or a friend’s property, or ask the building owner first. Also, with very old buildings, be cautious about taking painted stuff, because it may have been painted with lead paint and you don’t want to put that in your house.
5. Friend/relative’s garage
Probably the safest source, and usually free. Just make sure to be polite and grateful; offer to mow their lawn or something. You would be surprised what people have had sitting in their garage since the Nixon administration. They might even thank you for clearing out some extra storage space for them.
6. Yard sale/tag sale
This may be not the best place for finding castoff construction material, but it’s a great source of furniture that can be reborn in new forms. Also a great source for second-hand tools, but be sure to ask to test power tools before buying. Anecdotal evidence: my dad has a tag-sale find table saw and it works fine-all it needed was a new blade.
7. FreeCycle (https://www.freecycle.org/)
A network of local non-profit groups through which people list, trade, and give away useful items that would otherwise be thrown out-for free! This site isn’t construction material specific; you’ll find everything on here from mattresses to dishware to used trampoline frames (to name a very specific example) and everything in between.
Check the Tools, Materials, and Free section. The Materials section is a great resource; it’s mainly people selling either salvaged materials or new materials left over from a building project in amounts to small to complete another project-perfect for a tiny house! Even with the new items you can usually save money over going to a store like Home Depot. The Free section is useful for finding free firewood.
9. Local paper/advertising section
People will often sell old tools, furniture and occasionally scrap material through the ad section of the local paper. This is usually a pretty trust-worthy source, especially if you’re in a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone. not the best source for scrap, better for finding old tools-but keep a sharp eye out for a good bargain and don’t be scared to negotiate a bit.
GENERAL SAFETY & STEALTH GUIDELINES
-Wear comfortable, durable clothing that’s easy to move around in. Cover arms and legs to avoid splinters and nail scratches.
-Wear sturdy shoes or boots with thick soles to prevent foot injury from nails or falling objects.
-Wear a dust mask if you plan to be salvaging in a dusty area or poorly ventilated old building.
-Wear work gloves if you plan to be doing demolition type stuff or handling things with nails sticking out of them.
-Park your vehicle out of sight if you’re dumpster diving, plan a drop-off route that won’t make you conspicuous, and be prepared to explain yourself. If asking for materials is an option, take that option!
-If you have to actually take things apart to get at what you want, bring pliers, a hammer, flat bar, flat head and phillips head screwdriver…this should cover most of your bases.
-If you’re dumpster-diving, it may help to bring a friend as a lookout.
Above all try to stay safe, keep things on the up and up, and if you have the option of asking for scrap rather than dumpster diving for it, take that option! And don’t do anything too dumb like I would. Happy scrapping!