Monday, March 8, 2010

The Art(and Science) of Scrap-Fu

Approach students. Close the circle at the feet of the master. You have come to me asking that I be your guide along the path of tae-kwon-leep Scrap-Fu, but be warned. To learn its ways, you must learn the ways of your own soul. Let us meditate on this wisdom now.

I've gotten several emails lately asking me about my materials collection methods. I've spend years developing procedures to find and sources of economically feasible(read: mostly free) building materials. And now I'd like to share them with you.

Kaden Harris talks about the art of scrap-fu in his book,
The Eccentric Cubicle. He coined the phrase to describe the art of knowing what you're looking at in a scrap yard. I'd like to extend that definition to include all forms of materials scrounging, whether it be dumpster diving, cull hunting, or anything else.

There are many methods with which you can obtain materials at less-than-retail prices:

  • Dumpster Diving
  • Scrap Yards
  • Cull Bins
  • Craigslist and Freecycle
  • Local Industry
  • Luck
These are just a start, but they are the main methods I use.

Dumpster Diving

Whether you call it dumpster diving, binning, skipping, or skally-wagging; it's all the same. You go around looking for loot in garbage receptacles.

Nope, you're not too good to root through dumpsters. If you think you are, Scrap-Fu is not for you. Now, most people think of dumpsters as seething cesspools full of used needles, soiled diapers, and angry transients. While this is often true for residential and foodservice dumpsters, it is not the case in your local industrial park. Take a peek sometime in the local cabinet shop's bin. It's likely full of clean, usable hardwood scraps. Not a hobo to be found.

Is it legal? As far as I can determine, yes. In the US, at least, trash receptacles are considered public domain. Use your head. Don't go past locked gates, don't go on private property, and if you can, ask first. Most companies don't mind someone going through their bins, especially if the project is interesting.

Safety is paramount. Industrial dumpsters are full of pokey bits, corrosive bits, and downright dangerous bits. Don't get in a dumpster. Wear heavy gloves. Don't reuse anything, ever, that will come in contact with food. That said, dumpster diving is my main sourcing method. With it, I obtained all of the wood for the yurt walls. ALL of it. FREE.

Scrap Yards

Kaden Harris pretty much has it covered on this front in this exerpt from the Eccentric Cubical. Buy the book. It's good.

Cull bins

Any home improvement store(Lowes, Home Depot) has a cull bin. The cull bin is how they dispose of their damaged lumber. Instead of throwing away a dented piece of plywood or a warped 2x4, they cut it in half and put it in the cull bin. My Home Depot sells these bits for 50 cents apiece. Not bad for a half sheet of 3/4" plywood or a slightly-warped fencepost.

To find this, just go to your home improvement store and ask for the culls.

Craigslist and Freecycle

If you're looking for something specific, here's where you go. These websites are fantastic sources for the used and often free materials that you need. Keeping an eye on these can be tough, though; often the best finds are gone minutes after initial posting. My favorite tool to even the odds is a little known feature of Craigslist: RSS feeds.

You can get an RSS feed for any category on Craigslist. You can then monitor it from you favorite reader, which is awesome. Even more full of win is the fact that for every search on Craigslist, there is also a feed. For example, here's the feed for a search for exterior doors in the materials section of CL.

Local Industry

Local businesses are indeed the trickiest part of Scrap-Fu. Sourcing materials with this method requires patience, diplomacy, and a lot of luck. Never underestimate the power of local companies for providing materials. I was provided all the used billboards I needed to cover my yurt by a local advertising company, free of charge. All I had to do was ask. It's really that simple.

I have a couple strategies that I use when dealing with local companies. The first thing you need to do is find the right person to talk to. To that end, avoid dealing with office staff if you can. They're more likely to say no just to get you out of their hair. Find the person who's actually in charge of disposing of the materials you want and ask them directly.

For example, at the local hardwood store, I asked if I could have(or buy) their offcuts to build the yurt with. I was given a flat "no." A couple months later, I replied to an ad on Craigslist for a huge truckload of free offcuts. The ad was placed by the same company, but by the warehouse instead of the front office. When I picked it up, I found out that had I talked to the warehouse manager to start with, I could have gotten those materials months before. The office staff didn't know, so they just told me it wasn't possible.

No one will return a phone call. Ever. Period. You must go in person if you want to get anything.
Remember that these are businesses that you're dealing with. They're there to make money, not give you free stuff. They are likely to be busy, so be prepared to wait. Most of the time companies will give you scrap materials for free but be prepared to pay(a reasonable price) for them. And be nice. Nobody gives anything to a jerk with a sense of entitlement.


Sometimes, the universe lines up just right and you know that you're going to score something awesome. I know of a guy who bought some dirty aluminum wire from a scrapyard to make chainmaille out of, and it turned out to be 15 pounds of titanium!

Happy hunting and remember that the path of Scrap-Fu is not a road to a door, but a path leading forever on to the horizon...

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