Salvaging Building Material, continued
Over the years we've learned a lot about removing material so
that it can be reused. Doors are easy: Just pop off the casing
and use a recip saw to cut the nails that hold the jamb to the
frame. Pop a nail through the jamb to hold the door shut and
you have a prehung door unit (Figure 3). The same goes for
Figure 3.Interior doors are always in strong
demand. They're easily freed by removing the casing and cutting
the nails with a recip saw. Driving a nail through the jamb
holds the door closed and leaves it ready for a new life in
Trim, siding, and flooring.
Removing molding, even brittle redwood molding, is easy once
you get the hang of it. If the molding is caulked in place,
score it with a knife, because the old caulk may be stronger
than the wood you're trying to remove. To remove door and
window casings, I drive a flat bar in from the long point of
the miter and lift both pieces at the same time. Wiggle the bar
slowly and stop if you hear cracking, which tells you that
you're going too fast or applying uneven pressure.
Once you have the casing far enough off the wall, slip your
fingers or a second flat bar behind it and pull from both edges
of the trim at the same time. You want to pull from both edges
because uneven pressure cracks wood. Stock that's wide, thin,
or soft like redwood is the hardest to remove. One of our guys
likes to hose down exterior redwood siding before removing it
— he claims it makes the wood less brittle.
Glass, ceramics, and stone.
The same basic techniques used to remove wood also apply to
materials like mirrors, granite, and marble. The trick is to
maintain even pressure and avoid creating fracture lines. After
losing several glued-on mirrors, we found a way to get them off
the wall without breaking them. We cut wood wedges that taper
from 3/4 inch to a feather edge and drive them between the
mirror and the wall. The wedges are typically about 12 inches
long, but longer wedges may be needed if the mirror is very
wide. We insert them every 8 inches along the long edge of the
mirror and tap them in simultaneously. If you do it right, the
mirror will start to pull away from the wall and you can peel
it off the rest of the way by hand. To be on the safe side, we
always wear gloves and goggles when we do this.
Marble and granite slabs can be removed similarly. The
difference is that you need to use steel or iron wedges. We
bought a bunch of cheap flat bars to use as wedges in this
application. We've had good results, even when the stone is
held in place with epoxy.
Every so often we salvage a building that contains unusual
handmade tiles, but we haven't had great luck removing them.
One salvage operator I know has been pretty successful by using
a grinding wheel to remove all the grout around the tile before
lifting from the back with a pry bar.
The most successful tile salvage I ever did was a shower wall
with hand-painted tiles that went together to make a tree of
life. The tiles were set in mud, and I got them off intact by
removing the entire wall, mortar and all. The shower wall is
currently attached to a plywood backer with a redwood frame and
is on display in my warehouse. Many people have asked me to
sell it, but I can't bear to part with it.
Tools of the
Our favorite tool for removing wide pieces of
flooring, trim, and siding was developed by my
friend Ed, who runs most of our demolition sales.
He took a section of tapered leaf spring from an
old vehicle and gave it a handle by welding a piece
of black iron pipe to one end. The leaf-spring
blade is thin enough to slip behind trim and long
enough to maintain even pressure across the back of
wide material. It works better than a regular bar
because its shape allows you to drive it all the
way behind the delicate piece of wood you're trying
When you remove hardwood flooring with this or any
other tool, it's important to pry from the tongue
side, because that's where the nails are. If you
pry from the groove side, the tongue will break
off. If you can't make one of these removal bars
for yourself, you can remove the handle from a
common garden hoe and use the blade to pry up thin
stock enough to get your fingers behind it.
A rugged and versatile tool
for removing board siding and flooring can be made
by welding a length of black iron pipe to a section
of tapered automotive leaf spring (left). To
prevent damage to tongue-and-groove flooring, one
worker drives the tool beneath the material from
the tongue side with a rubber mallet, while another
worker opens an initial gap by prying from the end
with a flat bar (right).
Rubber mallets allow you to pound on things
without damaging them. Different size mallets are
needed for different jobs; I even have a large
rubber sledgehammer that I use to remove large
posts and beams. If you're going to be removing big
pieces of heavy material, it's worth investing in
some big pry bars. Some guys will try to remove 2x6
redwood decking with a flat bar, but it's faster,
easier, and less damaging to the material to pry it
up with a long bar. Likewise, it's easier to remove
frame blocking with a single whack of a sledge than
to hit it 50 times with a smaller hammer.
About the only electric power tool we use is a
recip saw. We just wish someone would produce
blades 2 or 3 feet long so we could use a recip saw
to snip the screws that hold cabinets to the
To prevent material from being scratched and
workers from being injured, we remove protruding
nails as soon as possible. Interior trim is usually
put on with finish nails, which can be pulled
through the back side of the material with a pair
of nippers, leaving the face side intact. We like
to stack and clean as we go to maintain a safe work
A few years back, a company called ReConnX
(888/447-3873, www.reconnx.com) introduced the
Nail Kicker, a pneumatic denailing gun that allows
you to remove nails four times faster than you can
with a pry bar or hammer. We now own two of them
and use them to remove nails from framing stock
after we pull it off the building. To use the tool,
you stick the hollow shaft of the gun over the
protruding point of the nail and squeeze the
trigger, and it drives the nail out the other
Pulling nails from used
lumber is an especially time-consuming aspect of
building salvage, but a Nail Kicker denailing gun
speeds the process dramatically. The hollow shaft
of the tool slips over a protruding nail, and
pulling the trigger activates a pneumatic piston
that shoots the nail back out the way it went in.
Working over a trash can or similar container makes
it easy to collect the nails for
The Nail Kicker does have some limitations. It
only works on nails that stick completely through a
piece of lumber. Once the worker with the Nail
Kicker has removed as many nails as possible, a
second worker with a hammer, cat's-paw, or pry bar
has to pull the rest by hand. We also find that the
Nail Kicker has a lot of down time because the
O-rings don't last very long. But when it's
working, it's a great time saver.
We hear about jobs from city officials, historic
preservationists, recyclers, solid-waste haulers, and anyone
else with an interest in removing good material from the waste
stream. We also pick up some of our deconstruction work from
clients who've seen our signs in front of demolition sales or
have been to sales as customers. Every project is different.
Depending on the situation, we may work for the demolition
contractor, the building contractor, or the owner.
Demolition contractors will bring us in to reduce what they
have to spend on dumpster fees. We strip out and sell whatever
we can, and the contractor knocks down what's left and hauls it
away. We don't charge anything for this service because we make
our money from the salvaged material. It's a profitable
arrangement from the demolition contractor's standpoint because
the more we sell, the less there is to break up and haul away.
The volume of material that actually gets salvaged depends on
the house. On one recent job, we took away 3,000 bricks and
stepping stones, which came to several tons of material. In
other cases, we may take only desirable, easy-to-remove
materials like crown moldings and cabinets.
Deconstruction. A couple of
years ago we got into the deconstruction business, which means
taking buildings apart by hand all the way down to the
foundation. Clients have to pay for this service because it
requires us to salvage low-value items and dispose of waste
material. We can't save everything, but we do try to minimize
what goes into the dumpster.
Items like drywall, composition roofing, and built-in-place
cabinets can't be salvaged. Saving chimney brick is difficult
if the mortar is in good shape. Pieces of trim and framing go
into the dumpster if they're too short, too full of nails, or
too damaged to sell. We put metal such as plumbing pipes,
electrical wire, ductwork, flashings, and aluminum window
frames in a separate dumpster that a recycling company hauls
away for free (Figure 4).
Figure 4.Although there's a lot of metal in an old
house, little of it is salvageable. But if it's all collected
in one place, at least you don't have to pay to get rid of it.
The author collects metal in a separate dumpster that a metal
recycling company hauls away for free.
Paperwork and red tape. The
State of California requires municipalities to divert at least
50% of all waste from landfills. As a result, many towns and
cities in this area have ordinances that require contractors to
divert 50% of the waste generated on construction projects.
They can do this by recycling or by getting a company like ours
to salvage buildings slated for demolition.
In some areas, a builder can't get a construction or
demolition permit without posting a deposit based on the
expected tonnage of waste. The deposit is refunded based on the
amount of waste that's diverted. In those cases, our client is
responsible for dealing with the municipality; our involvement
is limited to providing the client with a "tonnage report" that
lists the amount of material kept out of the landfill. This is
simply a matter of adding up the approximate weights of the
salvaged items. For example, we figure that toilets weigh 35
pounds apiece and cabinets weigh 10 pounds per lineal foot.
Standard bricks are 6 pounds each, and so on.
Sales and Marketing
After doing demolition sales for several years, we opened a
combination store and warehouse in East Palo Alto so we'd have
a place to bring stuff that we couldn't sell on site. We sell
as much as we can on site because it's expensive to transport
and store used material, but leftover salvage is sold from the
warehouse; we've even sold items on eBay.
Tax benefits. We also have
relationships with several local nonprofit agencies. People can
donate used construction items to these groups and we sell them
in return for a portion of the proceeds. Homeowners sometimes
donate a house slated for demolition to one of the nonprofits
and get a tax deduction based on the appraised salvage value of
Using the Internet. Eight
years ago, we had staff members who would call customers to
tell them about upcoming sales. As you can imagine, that took a
lot of time and effort. We tried faxing notices to customers
who had fax machines, but the results were mixed. Now that most
people have e-mail, we use the Internet to contact customers.
These days, we send out over 4,000 e-mail messages before each
sale. We ask for e-mail addresses when people sign in at a
construction sale, so our customer list is growing all the
time. Each sale adds about 100 new addresses to our
The messages are linked to our website, where customers can
preview the house we're going to salvage (Figure 5).
Figure 5.The author's website contains listings of
upcoming salvage sales, as well as a listing of salvaged
materials in the company's inventory.
The website preview contains a list of materials that will be
available at the sale, as well as digital photos of selected
items. The website also provides a partial list of materials
available at our warehouse.
Paul Gardneris the owner and founder of Whole House
Building Supply and Salvage in East Palo Alto, Calif.