Tag Archives: architectural salvage

The Money Thing

Money, so they say/is the root of all evil today.

Cash rules everything around me, C.R.E.A.M. get the money, dollar dollar bill y’all….


Yes it’s true, one of the biggest sticking points for many folks who want to start their own tiny house venture or other off-grid endeavour, is a lack of start up cash. According to the Federal Reserve Board, 47% of americans have less than $500 in savings, so this is you, you’re not alone. I was fortunate enough to have supportive parents and a decently paid job, so I saved quite a bit between age 16-19. Still, I ended up spending most of the money I had saved for college on the tiny house project, deciding that having a warm, safe place to sleep no matter where I went was more important than a degree that might end up being useless and loading me with debt in an uncertain world.

In light of this, it’s incredibly important to figure out how to get the most bang for your limited buck. So I’m going to lay out a few strategies I used to complete my project on a limited budget.


A brand-new cargo trailer from Wells Cargo, the top-of-the-line trailer maker, costs approximately $3600 for a basic 6×12. After shopping around, this seemed to be the going rate with other companies, including smaller local trailer sellers. However, I’ve seen listings on Craigslist for used Wells Cargo trailers of the same size for $1400-$2000; mine was $2000. That’s a savings of $1500 right out of the gate. When buying a used trailer, make sure to check for a valid VIN number (stamped into the frame), working brake lights and turn signals; avoid trailers with frame rust of other frame damage. If you have more time, ambition, and carpentry skills, you can buy a flat bed utility trailer like this for around $1100; however, you will have to frame out the structure of the house, and this will require more time and more costly materials-not to mention more skill. But it will give you more options as to insulation and the shape and structure of the house. Weigh your options and priorities and choose accordingly.


Yes, we know your neighbor is a total tool, but you can’t use him to build a house with, as much as you’d like to use his face to pound in nails. You’re going to need a decent set of hand tools, if you don’t have those already, and a couple power tools. Here’s a list of what I ended up using in my pretty basic tiny house build:

Adjustable wrench, 16-oz claw hammer, cordless drill (this is the same one I had-never did me wrong through the whole project), screwdriver set with a couple different sizes of both flat-tipped and Phillip’s head screwdrivers, small and large flat bar, small handheld disc sander, several sizes of paintbrush (from 1″ to 3″), paint roller and tray, 7″ circular saw (also called a Skil saw, although when I use it, we call it an Unskilled Saw), chalk line, 25′ measuring tape, small Japanese hand saw (really helpful for smaller stuff), hacksaw (for cutting bolts), 1/2″ and 1″ chisels, table saw (with the right jigs, clamps, and work surface, you can forgo this and just use a circular saw), adjustable dado cutter (pretty sure it can be used with a circular saw-for several joint types used in furniture making), 1/2″ and 1″ spade bits, assorted drill bits (lots and lots. If you don’t want to blow half your budget on drill bits, make sure you get ones designed to use with metal if you have to drill holes in metal.), small cross cut saw, assorted rasps and files, assorted sand paper (60 to 100 grit, and discs for the sander), utility knife and extra blades, nail set

I’m probably forgetting quite a few, and there’s a couple things I wish I’d had, like a miter box for cutting perfect 45 degree angles. But this gives you a good idea of what you’ll need to start out. Tools can be pretty expensive, but there’s a few ways around this. If you’re buying hand tools, Harbor Freight has a wide selection for low prices. Although they don’t have the best reputation for quality, they do have a tool replacement policy on hand tools-if a tool you bought there breaks, they’ll replace it for free, according to my friend James (and hey, if you can’t trust a guy who keeps a giant snake as a pet, who can you trust?) Also, look into finding a tool library in your area, for anything large, expensive, or difficult to find. Your local Habitat for Humanity store will often carry gently used tools as well as building materials, appliances, and furniture; also, check out yard sales. If you know anyone in a trade who is retiring, ask if they are interested in selling any of their tools. Or if you have an older family member who has lots of tools but doesn’t use them anymore, offer to clean and organize their garage, workshop or attic in return for taking some tools home.


I spent about $1500 on materials. Some of this cost definitely could be reduced by better planning and knowledge; I did end up with a few things I didn’t need, especially parts for the solar shower. Proper planning and measuring are the first line of defense when saving costs on materials. Figure out exactly how much square footage/length/whatever of something (plywood, flooring planks, paint, etc) you will need and purchase accordingly. Accurate measurements are VERY important here! If you have the exact measurements for each piece of a project, you can even figure out in the store how you will be able to cut the pieces from the material with the least amount of waste. Or, figure out the standard sizes for the materials you will use, then plan accordingly, using graph paper to plan out the layout of the cut pieces. For example, a standard piece of plywood is 4’x 8′. For other resources on low-cost building materials, see my post on scrap and reclaimed building materials.


What you use as a tow vehicle will depend on how much, what distance, an over what terrain you plan to tow the tiny house. For starters, get a good idea of the total weight of the trailer so you can choose a vehicle with a proper towing capacity. Some junk yards may have a truck scale that you can drive your trailer onto and have it weighed; this will have the most accurate results, so it doesn’t hurt to ask around. Then, think about where you’ll be towing the trailer. Will you be towing it short distances, over back roads, or very level terrain? If so, you can go fairly close to your vehicle’s max tow capacity. But if you want to tow long distances, on busy highways, or over hilly terrain, you want to make sure your vehicle has enough power to accelerate fast enough to merge and climb hills. In this situation, also consider getting a truck or SUV with a special towing package (this includes features like towing mirrors, electrical connector, tow hitch, and transmission cooler.) Research the tow capacity of various vehicles, and choose one that fits your needs. If you’re towing your trailer a short distance only, don’t go overboard. For example, a four-cylinder Toyota Tacoma has a tow capacity of 3500 lbs, more than enough for a small house trailer. Choosing a smaller vehicle will ultimately save you money both on purchase and fuel costs. Keep in mind, however, that a truck or truck-based SUV can tow more than a car with equivalent engine displacement due to features like a heavier-duty frame. If you have your vehicle choice narrowed down to a few models, you can often find vehicle-specific discussion forums where people share their experiences with towing and answer questions. As for getting a tow hitch installed, shop around and compare quotes; Uhaul locations are nearly everywhere and offer affordable tow hitch installations. Mine ran to a little under $300 for the hitch receiver, hitch, ball mount, pin, and wiring harness. I would not trust a used tow hitch-don’t take a risk on your house and belongings just to save a buck.

Anyway, good luck, thanks for reading, and, uh, happy budgeting.




Salvage Sources & Dumpster-Diving Safety

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.


  1. 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.


8. Craigslist

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.



-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!

Go tiny or go home: a virtual house tour


Welcome to my virtual house tour, now with crummy cell phone quality photos! Enjoy all 72 glorious square feet of my humble dwelling.  Highly recommended: listening to this while viewing. I got the keys to the highway!



Just inside the front door-kitchen area, waiting for the second countertop. You can see my woodstove on the left side of the picture (still have to set that up too!)


My countertop, finished with 6 coats of tung oil. I hang napkins and towels from the hooks in the wall, and stores knives in the block in the corner.


The shower caddy by the door holds toiletries. The cabinet has hooks on the side for hanging stuff like grocery bags up. (Don’t tell my friend Justin I still have the book he loaned me…)


The kitchen cabinets and shelves are built from recycled pallets and plywood scraps, plus some flooring samples I found in a dumpster.


I found this sink in a junkyard. It cost $12, versus $80 to buy a similar sink brand new. I’m going to hook it up to a waste water tank.

This bedside table was constructed from a scrap of siding I dumpster-dived. The legs are laurel branches.
This rolling shelf slides out from under my bed. I use it to store clothes and books (in the cabinet).


Detail of bed. This decorative piece was made by drilling holes of various sizes in a piece of 1/2″ thick stock, then sanding and coating with 3 coats of tung oil. (This  was a really nice piece, found in my grandma’s garage…think it’s maple?)


I papered the shelves with recycled gift wrap to prevent delicate fabrics from snagging on splinters or rough areas in the wood.


There was a vent over my bed, but it was basically just a hole in the ceiling; this louvered vent cover makes it possible to open the vent or close it while driving to keep out dust and debris.


This decorative bracket is supposed to hold a potted plant, but makes a good holder for my LED lamp or a candle.


The view out my window: the house I grew up in. This will change soon I hope…

Over my door. The paper cranes were a birthday gift from my sister, the dream catcher was made by my aunt.


The view with the back ramp door down. yup, this is it!


From the outside-with the best little car ever.


Wish the Civic could pull it. 😦

A Floor For the Trailer

This past winter was an unusually mild one for my area, and not very snowy, so there were a few days where I could go outside and chip away at the trailer job. I was only working part-time, so I had plenty of down time. The problem was, the trailer demanded more than time, it also demanded skill, i.e. someone who knew what they were doing, i.e. not me. But I refused to be intimidated. Like I said, when I got it, the trailer was basically a box on wheels: no windows, no insulation, and a nasty, warped plywood floor. First, I had to take off the panels that came with the trailer. This was a process that took several weeks, as I could only work outside for 10-15 minutes at a time before my hands would start to go numb from cold. Also, the panels were held on with about 5 different kinds of fasteners, some of which were almost buried by a sloppy coat of paint, and some of which had to be cut with a hacksaw. My friend Tommy and my father were recruited as (occasionally reluctant) help and/or moral support.

Finally, all the panels came off, and we unscrewed the giant eye-bolts from the floor. The floor was not particularly pleasant. Full of small holes and splinters, it was also covered with a layer of rough black paint that would have been miserable under bare feet. I weighed many options for flooring before finally settling on tongue-and-groove hardwood floors. There’s several reasons I chose wood floors: I worked for a flooring installer for a summer, so I knew the basics of installation; I liked the look; and wood has a respectable R-value, so I would be providing a measure of insulation in my floor without sacrificing height-my trailer is short on the inside even for me! Plus, wood flooring is pretty durable and fairly easy to clean. The problem is, new wood flooring costs $2-$5 per square foot, meaning I would be paying at least $140 for a floor in my tiny space! Seems minor, but my inner tightwad found it unacceptable. So I turned to Craigslist to search for used flooring. I had almost given up when I looked in the “free” section on a whim and found someone offering over 120 square feet of used red oak flooring for free! I contacted the seller, and she explained that she was renovating a house she was moving her family into and wanted to re-use the floorboards she’s ripped out, but between caring for her children and running her window-washing business too, she didn’t have time to prep all the flooring. I felt like it was my lucky day. I climbed into my ancient Civic and drove halfway across the state, winding my way down 9 and weaving through wrong turns and roundabouts. When I got there, Melody, the craigslist poster, was waiting for me at the house. We laughed when we saw that we were wearing identical brown Carhartt jackets and work boots. It’s not often I meet other women who get enthusiastic over the prospect of recycling moldy old floorboards, so it’s pretty awesome when I do.

You wouldn’t believe how much flooring I managed to cram into a little car approximately the size of a loaf of bread, but I got all 120+ square feet of flooring home safe and sound (even though it took 2 trips.) Next came the step of prepping the flooring.

It was full of scary-looking nails, and in some places it was split, cracked, or eaten with mold. The first step I took was to remove the nails, which turned out to be more of a chore than I had thought. If you’ve ever installed tongue-and-groove wood flooring, you’ll know that one side of each board has a thin strip along the side that sticks out-the “tongue”-and fits into a slot on the side of the next board-the “groove”. There’s also a tongue and groove on the end of each piece.

tongue_groove1<—like so.

To attach the flooring to the subfloor below it, nails are driven through the tongue at a 45 degree angle, and the heads countersunk (made flush with the surface of the wood.) That way, the groove of the next board fits neatly over the tongue and the nails are hidden. But the tongue is very fragile and splintery, so you can’t really pull nails with a large head out. What I did was cut them off at the back and pound the stubs down flat. For those of you who want to experiment with reclaiming wood flooring, the best way to get the nails out depends on what type of nails were used. For nails with very small heads, just pull out through the back with pliers, using a small wood block for leverage if needed. For flat nails with an L-shaped, large head, or other nails with a large head, it’s best to cut the nails off very close to the back side of the board with a pair of bolt cutters and pound the stubs down. Try not to pound the nails back THROUGH the board, or the heads will pop out the other side and make it difficult to set your flooring flush against the neighboring piece. The process of removing the nails only took 4-5 hours of work, spread over several days and aided occasionally by my dad. The next step in prepping the flooring was to cut out damaged sections. Since the planks were very narrow and not too long, I did most of this on my dad’s tag-sale-acquired table saw, which didn’t see much use otherwise. Any piece with cracks, splits, broken tongue or groove, or mold or water damage was marked and cut to save the good sections and discard the damaged sections. If you don’t have access to a table saw, using a circular saw can be a cost-effective and space-efficient alternative; just make sure your flooring is secured and supported while you cut it. Also, make sure your cuts are square, not angled. Wear eye protection, and be very careful to avoid cutting through nails, as this will dull the blade very quickly and may cause the wood or the saw to “kick” back, which is dangerous

oak flooring    The finished result.

To install my flooring, I had to use a different method than what I had learned working for Floor Guy. Usually, wood flooring is installed over a plywood subfloor, with a layer of tar paper between acting as a vapor barrier (to keep moitsure out). My trailer floor was made of 5/8″ plywood, like a traditional subfloor. I also had a roll of tar paper I stapled down to cover the floor. But unlike a house, my floor had no joists under it. Joists are part of a house’s frame; they support the floor, and when installing wood flooring, you drive the nails through the flooring, through the subfloor, and into the joist for an extra secure anchor. I also didn’t have the specialized nail gun professionals use for installing wood floors. A flooring nail gun uses compressed air to drive nails into the tongue of a floorboard at the correct angle AND properly countersink them. I didn’t have the skill to do that by hand, and my floorboards were made of oak-a hard wood that’s difficult to nail into for a beginner like me. So instead of nailing through the tongue of the boards into joists and having the nails be hidden, I decided to use screws and go through the “face” (visible side) of the floor boards. Screws have greater holding power than nails, thanks to their threads, so I didn’t need joists to anchor my floorboards. And it was easy even for me to drill pilot holes through the tops of the boards, then screw them down. If you do this, be sure to use wood screws, not drywall or any other type of screws, and look for screws that are finished for outdoor use so they do not rust-you’ll be tracking a lot of dirt, moisture, etc. on your floor even if you don’t intend to. 0223161030-00

Here’s the first 4 “courses” of my floor laid out.


Here’s the start to finish steps I took to install my floor:

  1. Prep the subfloor. In a trailer, this is just the plywood floor that was put in the trailer by the manufacturer. Fill any small holes, patch larger holes, sweep debris out, remove any bolts, screws, etc. that are sticking up.
  2. Staple a single layer of tar paper or other vapor retarder over the subfloor. Make sure it’s even and doesn’t bubble up or gap anywhere.
  3. Snap a chalk line to mark where you’re going to lay your first line of floorboards (I started about 1″ from the wall; most people start in the middle of the room, but I’m just a weirdo)
  4. Stretch your chalk line along the line you snapped, lowering it until it’s barely touching the highest part of the floor. If there’s gaps between the floor and the line, the floor is warped; put down an extra layer of paper in low spots, or for extreme cases, shim it with really thin plywood. Repeat across the room to make sure floor is not warped (ok, maybe I fudged this bit a little.)
  5. Start by laying first course of flooring-AKA, the hardest part. Line floor boards up along chalk line, drill pilot holes through the “face” of the board about every 16″-24″ (depending on board length-some I used were very short). Screw them down.
  6. Lay out the second course of flooring next to the first; make sure that the gaps between board ends don’t line up next to each other. Make sure the second course is flush next to the first course, with no gaps/cracks. Sometimes it will need a little encouragement-take a scrap piece of flooring, fit the groove over the tongue of the good piece, and tap on the groove of the scrap piece with a hammer until the good piece of flooring scoots over and closes the gap. How close to the wall should you go with the end of each flooring course? It helps if you know what you’re using for trim. you want enough of a gap to allow for expansion (or installing wall paneling if you haven’t done that yet) but you want it small enough so it will be covered by the baseboards. I had a gap of about 3/4″.
  7. Proceed with installing your flooring across the room. when you reach the last course, next to the far wall, use a flat bar to shimmy the pieces in next to the second-to-last course. You may need to “rip” (cut lengthwise) the last course to fit it in.


The flooring install itself took several weeks, but probably only 10-12 hours of actual labor. Mostly it was still too cold outside to work. The sanding and finishing actually ended up taking almost as long; my friend Tommy, a professional house painter, brought over 2 orbital sanders and we spent almost 6 hours sanding the old finish off the floor. If you reclaim wood flooring that’s finished and the finish is in poor condition, it’s best to sand it off and put new coats on. You don’t have to sand off all the finish either-just the damaged layers. Still, it’s hard work, so recruit a friend with promises of sandwiches or beer or whatever it takes. First, we sanded twice with 60-grit to remove the scratched finish layers, then with 80-grit to remove the swirl marks left by the coarser sandpaper. Finally, I made a few passes with 150-grit, lightly hand sanding the floor to make it extra smooth. Most floor finishes are not something you want to breathe in, so wear a mask while sanding, and preferably eye protection too. This is not something you can do by hand; if you don’t own a power sander, consider borrowing from a friend or renting one from a tool rental business. For most tiny homes, you can use a relatively small, inexpensive one. Be sure to use a bag on the back of your sander to collect the dust.

I finished my floor with polyurethane because at the time I didn’t know any alternatives; it’s durable, water resistant, and displays the natural wood grain really well. But unfortunately it’s also nasty, toxic and persistent; and burning polyurethane produces dioxin, one of the nastiest and most persistent toxins out there. In addition the fumes are irritating to your eyes and lungs (don’t have to tell me that twice!). But it IS readily available, durable, and fairly easy to apply. If you want to go the polyurethane route, make sure the floor is ABSOLUTELY CLEAN first. Avoid dust and debris, take off your shoes, wear clean clothes, etc. and apply thin coats with a brush or lambswool applicator. 2-3 coats should be good. If you want to avoid poly, there’s alternatives-I’ve finished other wood surfaces in my trailer with a 50-50 mix of tung oil and citrus solvent sold by the real milk paint company and loved the results. 0317160841-00

And here’s the finished product! In all, my reclaimed floor took about 35-40 hours of total work, and cost about $60, between fasteners, finish and gas I burned picking up the flooring. If you’re interested in reclaimed flooring, look in the Materials section of Craigslist, your local Freecycle website, or ask someone who renovates homes (helps if you know them well first.) And last but not least, DON’T BURN SCRAPS OF FINISHED WOOD! your lungs will thank you.