Building with Salvaged and Recycled Materials

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Using recycled and salvaged materials is a great way to keep costs down on a tiny home build.
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"Microshelters" by Derek "Deek" Diedricksen provides an inside look at the tiny home movement that is sweeping across America.

Microshelters (Storey Publishing, 2015) by Derek “Deek” Diedricksen explores the most creative, clever microshelters out there and what makes them work. Diedricksen also gives plenty of tips for supply scavenging, building and decorating a tiny home. This excerpt comes from chapter 7, “Budgeting & Salvaging.” 

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Microshelters.

By now you’ve probably sensed a “subtle” theme that runs throughout my projects and designs: I like to build things with free junk. “Curbside culling” is a term I coined a while back, and it covers everything from yard-sale searching and word-of-mouth acquisitions to dumpster diving and back-lot browsing, all of which can make a microshelter much more affordable. In addition to the obvious environmental benefits, using recycled goods can make your structure stand out from the pack — in a very good way.

There are, however, some ins, outs, dos, and don’ts of the trade, and I’d like to cover a few of the more common, worthwhile goods you’re going to come across when cruising the streets. You don’t have to wake up early to race the trash crew for prime pickings, and you don’t have to combat fellow “seagulls” (junk hunters) with your fancy moves. Just keep your eyes peeled any time you’re on the road. Don’t worry, it’s not brain surgery; you’ll do just fine.

What are you waiting for? Get out there and start some creative harvesting — and enjoy the process, the savings, and the eventual results.


These things are strewn everywhere. With increasing technological advances and insulation efficiency (R-value) standards, homeowners are ditching their old (perfectly good) windows at a darn rapid rate. For you and me, this is not a bad thing by any means. I can’t tell you the number of windows I’ve come across, grabbed, and later used in my own projects or just sold to pay for construction items I can’t find for free.

There are, however, a few things to be wary of when it comes to windows. Beyond avoiding cracked glass or broken frames (unless the window is amazing and could be fixed easily enough), you might want to pass on older windows. Not only are most “antique” windows single-paned, and therefore less efficient, but their glazing (the putty that holds the panes in) often needs work or replacing and can sometimes contain a percentage of asbestos. These windows are more likely to be covered with lead-based sealants and paints, too, both things you don’t want to be sprinkling on your breakfast cereal! Now, if the windows are perfectly intact, I’m not saying you can’t use them, as I’ve made use of plenty of them in sheds and shacks, but just be careful, especially if it’s an installation that will be in close proximity to kids, since lead exposure is dangerous for children.

That said, if you ever find any antique-looking stained-glass windows, or Gothic-arched church windows, grab them and hold on to them for dear life! They’re very valuable.


Logically, doors would be the next topic of consideration here, and they too are abundant. New, they can be incredibly expensive, so on any build I’ve done for a client, if I can incorporate a nice, vintage door that actually enhances the look of the structure while decreasing my cash outlay, you know darn well I’m gonna play that hand. Vintage doors typically are built differently (often better) than most standard stock doors you’ll find out there today. Granted, you’ll see some amazing new doors with incredibly good R-values, but whether you use them will depend on the caliber, intent, and overall look of your project. For the budget-minded soul, just keep a lookout for replaced doors. Like windows, these are often just sitting curbside, waiting for a new home. At any given time, I seem to have about three or four in stock, which gives me the luxury of options when I’m faced with a need. When my stock gets too thick, I just sell a few.

You can also build your own board-and-batten doors, which is surprisingly easy. The sky’s the limit in terms of materials and design: multicolored boards, mixed lumber stock, inset windows or wine-bottle ends, carved designs — you can get as highfalutin and original as you want.


Although small in the overall scheme of a building project, hardware seems to be the most overlooked realm of ever-present freebies out there. I really do mean ever-present. Most people will see a roadside pile of cheap doors and pass them up without a single synapse-fire of consideration. But true scrounger ’n’ savers are wiser than that. Take it from a guy who won’t have to buy hinges, hooks, knobs, or drawer pulls for a few decades. Now, you may be thinking this a waste of time and energy — all for items so very small — but aside from the motivation of saving perfectly good metalwork from the landfill, consider that hinges, for example, can run up to three or four dollars each. Now consider that the average home has several doors and swinging cabinet fronts, and you’ll start to get a feel for the bigger picture.

I once bought a small box full of old, rusty hinges for two dollars from a barn estate sale in my town. After using many of them, I sold the rest of the lot on eBay for almost $100. Vintage hardware is hard to come by, and it’s expensive at “salvage boutiques,” so be on the lookout for old doors being tossed. Smashed-up dressers often have nice hardware on them, as do kitchen cabinets, which are frequently updated and are loaded with metallic goodies. Learn to look beyond the initial face value of each item you come across — you’ll be amazed at what’s left behind.

Pallet Wood

Pallet wood can be hit-and-miss. Some of it is just so lousy that it’s not really worth the time to gently bust it apart into useable planks. On the other hand, some pallets are made with woods that may be common in a place like Brazil but are considered exotic and interesting to people like you and me. And shipping pallets, also known as forklift pallets, often are made of oak. Usually you can tell an oak pallet from pine (or other softwood) right off the bat when you try to lift it; oak is much heavier. It’s also expensive, so the effort of reclaiming oak from pallets can be very worthwhile.

Pallets are free at many locales, such as behind industrial park businesses, hardware stores, and any retailers of bulky, heavy items (woodstove shops, for instance). Often all you have to do is ask. You’ll need a truck or trailer to haul off more than one or two, though. Then there’s the disassembly. Some folks use pallet busters — long, crowbarlike tools with forked ends — to speed up the process. And you can find plenty of online tutorials (on YouTube and the like) showing several ways to get it done.

The most important thing to look out for is the grading or identifying stamp on a pallet. The pallets you want to use are stamped with a big old “HT,” indicating that the wood was heat-treated to kill any possibly invasive insects before it made its journey. The pallets you want to avoid carry an “MB” or “MT” stamp. This stands for methyl bromide, a fungicide; you wouldn’t want to spray this on your toast, so don’t use the wood for your new home. Regardless, even with clean-looking “HT” pallets, it’s never a bad idea to brush, then spray them down before use, as who knows what used to sit atop them?

There are a ton of things you can use pallet wood for. There are more than a few books on the subject, as well as dedicated websites and instructional videos. Among the most common uses are flooring and wall cladding. While time-consuming, this gives any home a great, multicolored look — all with rustic, natural woods. I’ve also made quite a few Adirondack chairs and benches out of the stuff, as well as bookshelves, toolboxes, and garden planters. I’ve even used the thicker struts (often 2x4s or 2x3s) for actual framing, and I’ve gone so far as using whole pallets as mini “budget decks” or landings on my backwoods cabins.


Don’t forget that lingering out there in garages, sheds, and workshops ’round the world is a veritable treasure trove of nearly or completely free lumber that once was purchased by overzealous do-it-yourselfers who never realized their dreams of building a seven-level tree house, ark, or homemade time machine. This is why it’s important to be outgoing and vocal about your future projects, interests, and needs. By making it known that I’m always on the prowl for materials, I’ve had many people offer up unused lumber piles to me for nothing, on trade, or for a ridiculously small amount of cash. Craigslist is another place where homeowners and carpenters often offer up their overstock. Best
of all, though, is the free garage-clean-out lumber I’ve found streetside. I won’t say that I stumble upon this situation all the time, but it
isn’t as elusive as a Bigfoot sighting, flock of dodo birds, or albino rhino, either. Keep those eyes peeled.

However you come by it, salvaged lumber can give a build a custom look in addition to saving you loot. If you’re aiming for a distressed look or a certain patina, there’s no better way to achieve this than with wood that already has that genuine aura about it. And this is much easier than trying to reproduce the look of antique wood with new stock, expensive tools, too much time, and chemicals! If rough and vintage wood isn’t your thing, keep in mind that not all free wood is going to be paint-laden and worn. With a little looking, and word of mouth, you’ll probably find just what you need.

As a final tip, plan ahead and start to harbor materials early. A shed will do wonders to keep your materials safe and dry until they’re needed, but on the low end of the spectrum, even just storing them under a six-dollar tarp will be sufficient — at least for a bit. Add in a good dose of patience and persistence while hunting for all this stuff and, again, you’ll be just fine.

Road Tools

Here’s a quick list of tools that I often stash in my vehicle in case I need to do some quick dismantling on the roadside, at a transfer station, or in your garage at night! (Kidding … kidding … ) These enable me to take things apart safely and to store them cleanly and securely for transport in my vehicle. If you have a truck or a trailer, you’ll be way ahead of the pack and able to haul just about anything you want, but even the smallest of cars will work for most found items (well, maybe not hot tubs, grand pianos, and fridges!).

• Tarp (to keep your vehicle clean)
• Small crowbar/cat’s-paw (small, crowbarlike tool designed for pulling nails)
• Hammer
• Utility knife or folding knife
• Tape measure
• Rope
• Goggles
• Bungee cords
• Pliers
• Chisel
• Hand saw
• Bucket (to store odds and ends and small finds)
• Small socket wrench set
• Phillips and flat-head screwdrivers
• Battery-operated power drill (optional, but certainly quick and helpful)
• Gloves

Read more from Microshelters :

Tiny Homes: The Rock Bottom

Excerpted from 
Microshelters (c) Derek Diedricksen. Photographs by (c) Derek Diedricksen. Used with permission of Storey Publishing. Buy this book in our store: Microshelters.