Architects, designers, and homeowners are increasingly on the hunt for salvage materials whose superior grade and character have passed the test of time. “I think a lot of people are tired of thinking something is quality, putting good money down for it, and then a few years later it is not holding up,” says Don Short, owner of West End Architectural Salvage in Des Moines. Noreene Parker, owner of Pinch from the Past architectural salvage stores in Greensboro and Savannah, Georgia, agrees. “You can no longer get the materials at any price that are the quality of antique materials—they simply do not exist.”
In addition to enduring quality, people choose salvage because it affords something unique in a sea of new-product sameness. Offerings range from 10¢ nails to $200 lighting fixtures to $17,500 19th-century gargoyles. “As far as what sells, there is an ebb and flow,” says Matt White, owner of Recycling the Past in Barnegat, New Jersey. “When we started about 15 years ago, the hottest thing was to make a lot of furniture from recycled materials, and then that slowed down, but now it has shot back up again. Doors and mantles are always popular, and industrial stuff has been hot for the past 4-5 years.”
“I love that you can’t pigeon hole the customers,” says Elizabeth Scalice, founder of Architectural Salvage of San Diego. On any given day, shoppers might include an architect looking for antique French doors, a designer trying to find a retro pink sink to compliment a vintage ‘60s bath, or grandparents reminiscing about the past. Urban dwellers snatch up things like art glass or large mirrors framed with repurposed ceiling tin to use as decoration, while loft and condo owners value burnished flooring for its touch of warmth and nostalgia. Owners of older homes buy period building materials and fixtures for restoration projects; owners of new homes are simply looking to add distinction. “The drive to add character to newer homes is huge for salvage,” says Short. “For instance, you can buy a beautiful old door for around $600 that would have to be custom-made today and would cost $5000 new.” You may need to reframe the door to make it fit, but your efforts will be rewarded with something that makes your house stand out for decades to come.
If quality and affordability aren’t enough reason to join the treasure hunt, factor in the sense of buying a bit of history and nostalgia along with the idea that repurposing is a very smart way to go green.
Types of Salvage
Flea markets, estate auctions, garage sales, architectural salvage companies, and wood recyclers offer various opportunities to find one-of-a-kind building materials for your next project. Here are just a few of the product categories:
Reclaimed Wood: Whether dismantled from weathered barns and old houses or dredged from river bottoms, salvaged wood is not inexpensive. In fact, this is the one category where the labor-intense cost of collecting and processing old, rare, and even extinct wood drives the price to double or triple that of new woods. (New oak flooring costs about $5-$7 a square foot; antique oak is priced $10-$16.) Still, many are willing to pay the difference to bring the rich colors, tighter grains, and warm patina home. In addition to flooring, reclaimed wood includes beams, wainscoting, stair parts, cabinets, porch posts, moldings, and corbels.
Windows, Doors, and Mantles: Doors are possibly the most popular salvage item, partly because they are affordable and partly because they make a high-impact statement. Windows are seldom purchased for functional use unless for historic buildings. A few find a second chance with gardeners building small greenhouses. Stained glass windows are most often hung as works of art, while regular windows are often repurposed as mirror or picture frames. Mantles range from lustrous marble to intricately carved cherry. Some buyers simply attach them to the wall to serve as a headboard or shelf.
Kitchen and Bath: The two most remodeled rooms of the house keep salvagers in a steady supply of both antique and vintage tile, faucets, appliances, sinks, toilets, tubs, and lighting.
Garden, Deck, and Patio: Unique items are abundant for your outdoor rooms, including statues, urns, fencing, gates, terra-cotta pieces, benches, and fountains. Don’t forget that a lot of these items will look great inside the house, too.
Furniture: From a copper parlor chair to a midcentury black vinyl sofa to a new table made from salvaged wood, furnishings remain a growing category.
Lighting: In addition to period chandeliers, pendants, lanterns, and sconces, there are many vintage, one-of-a-kind fixtures made from salvaged materials.
Decorative metal: Tin finials, copper weathervanes, wrought iron gates, and bronze gratings are just a few of the metal items available. The increasingly popular industrial look, which includes lots of metal and aged glass, has brought things like metal factory carts and copper pendant lighting to the foreground, as well.
Tips for Buying Salvage
When shopping for salvage materials, stay open to both potential and possibilities. Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you go sleuthing for salvage:
1. Be proactive. If you’re building or remodeling, don’t wait until the last minute. Go find the salvage materials you love and then let the contractor craft to fit. It’s much harder if the contractor first cuts a hole and you then need to find something you love that will fit.
2. An item may not look great yet, but much can be restored. “There are a few people that I can take into my warehouse, and I’ll pull out something with a hundred years of pigeon doo doo and they’ll say ‘That’s it!’” says Noreene Parker of Pinch of the Past. “You might find a deal on a chandelier for fifty dollars, but you’ll need to understand it might cost another two or three hundred dollars to get it restored with new wiring and sockets to bring it up-to-date. But everyone that walks into the house will think it’s to-die-for and you’ll have something really special.”
3. Measuring is critical to ensure that a piece will fit and function as you need it to. “Mantles are gorgeous, but they often won’t fit around new fireboxes, which are more long and narrow,” says Don Short of West End Architectural Salvage. “You’ll also want to measure that any piece you’re buying will fit through your doors and into the space you have in mind.”
4. Get the most bang for your buck by beginning with focal-point purchases like an antique front door or a dazzling entryway chandelier.
5. Make sure you are working with people who appreciate salvage. “Don’t even bother if you don’t have a supportive contractor,” says Elizabeth Scalice, owner of Architectural Salvage of San Diego. “Find those who understand the joy of repurposing to create something special. A lot of people trust when their contractor says something isn’t possible. Make sure you’re hearing the truth.”
6. Beware of reproductions, especially with items like marble mantles, stained glass, and iron work. If a price sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
7. Look around for interesting porch, deck, patio, and garden finds. “Tap stone pottery and garden antiques to see whether they sound solid and do not have cracks,” says Matt White of Recycling the Past. “In cold weather, water inside cracks can freeze and cause damage.”
8. “Retro tubs can be a steal,” says Short. “I sell cast-iron claw foot tubs for $200-$500, whereas a new cast-iron tub is about $2500.” Even with the cost of refinishing the tub, you’re still dollars ahead. Installation requires common plumbing techniques, and any old faucets will need to have washers carefully repacked. “Old faucets can be used, but they generally require special maintenance because they have more joints that develop leaks,” Short adds. “If period authenticity is not critical, you might consider well-made reproduction faucets instead.”
9. Antique doors are beautiful for exterior or interior usage. Check that they have no rot on the bottom and that there is no warping. Heavier, more solid wood doors will function better than lightweight doors, such as pine.
10. Many salvage pieces are ready for a different second life. Antique doors can become room dividers; porch posts can be cut down to make lamp bases. “I remember the first time I saw Bob Vila on TV, he was walking around a salvage yard and was really on the forefront of getting people to think about salvage,” White says. “One of the items in that salvage yard was a red English phone booth that I thought was pretty cool.” So cool, in fact, that White went to England years later to buy one that he is planning to turn into an outdoor shower.