At our farm, we recycle and reuse as much as possible. The reasons are manifold, and include cost and responsibility. Cost-wise, recycling can reduce the outlay for certain building projects, with a caveat: you have to think about where the recycled products can be used based on their condition. As for responsibility: we feel that the energy expended in making new materials is basically non-renewable due to the massive contribution of fossil fuel inherent in every item made today. Thus recycling can reduce our footprint in certain cases, and it definitely reduces the overall volume of waste people generate.

That being said, if you think I am a “progressive” for thinking this way, then I suggest you research John Muir and the history of conservatism – the core of that word being ‘conserve’. I want my grandkids to have a better world if possible, and the only way to make that a reality is to do it myself. I do that by voting with my billfold (where and what I buy), voting with my feet (where I choose to live) and by doing what I can to help reduce the overall “disposable society” that cheap oil has engendered.


Now that you know where I stand, let’s sort a few things out regarding “junking”…

Recycling lumber can be easy or intense. If you are buying from a lumber recycler, it is easy. If you are removing somebody’s old deck, it is intense. Both are recycling, the primary difference being that recyclers usually charge closer to new pricing, and in the case of “aged” or “weathered” wood, outrageous prices. Old lumber from boxcars is now in vogue as flooring, and the price for this material far exceeds buying premium milled limber of equal dimension. The same holds true for old beam and sills from houses – the size of the timber means you are paying close to or over the price of a new beam, depending on the “character” it exudes. And that elusive and ephemeral “character” is pricey.

The best way to recycle is to plan for it. One needs to have a place to store the material, and that means, at a minimum, an empty garage space. For us, we just put it under the “lumber shed” we previously built with recycled lumber. A truck or at least a ten-foot trailer is required. A crow bar, nail bar and a hog-leg for parting out and nail removal are necessities. A sledgehammer, one small for single hand use and another sizable for severe whacking of recalcitrant structures, are valuable. A large magnet for picking up scrap nails during teardown and wherever the work area is will save tires and supplier gripes. A Sawzall is invaluable.

Sources for scrap lumber are local want ads, local deck builders, Craigslist and other sites with local ads and realtors. Realtors often have structures they want to remove (dead spas, gazebos, rotten decks, shabby fencing, etc.) and they are always looking for cheap labor to do it. Free is the best kind of cheap, and just letting a realtor know you would be interested in removing old structures can lead to good things. Craigslist has the same thing, but you do need to be willing to go to or live near a metropolitan area for decent finds. Rural people tend to just burn old buildings or recycle themselves.

The thing is, in urban areas, this scrap has to be hauled away and the contractor has to pay for landfill disposal. Simply saving him the $50-100 disposal fee is profit for him. A fiberglass hot tub costs the same, and is terribly bulky and unwieldy to remove, bathtubs are similar. By helping a contractor in the teardown or prep for a project, you can find some good lumber.


The new “awesome” thing is to use old fencing as a wall treatment when doing a remodel. This is now “hip and trendy”, and just last week I had a guy relate to me how his son and daughter-in-law had done this, only to find they had imported termites into their recently purchased home. They had taken the old fence boards and just nailed them up, not knowing any better. So while on this anecdote, let me advise you that termites will eat both treated lumber and cedar once they are sufficiently degraded enough. If there are termites present in the teardown site, every bit of lumber must be inspected before storage. If you fail to find and eliminate termite contaminated lumber, the critters simply keep on chomping and will destroy what you worked so hard to get on the cheap.

I am not going to say much regarding teardown, except to use common sense. Don’t assume a wall isn’t carrying a load, until you can see behind the drywall or cladding. Don’t assume the water is turned off – check. The same for gas lines and electricity – check. If it creaks, then it is moving somewhere, somehow. Tear down buildings by removing the inner and outer cladding, then take out all the crud inside; get ready to move fast and in good weather, then remove the roof and disassemble. We tend to load out to help the contractor then sort and do removal and trimming at the farm, prior to storage. It depends on what deal you can strike with the owner.

Termites: termites need water, so they tend to gather where wood is wet or they can tunnel into the ground near a wet area. They leave runnels and trails and tunnels over and through wood, eating the softer bits more quickly. If there is one visible or a runnel or tunnel, then it is likely there are more. We tear away all these sections where the termites were at work, and set them aside to be loaded out and gone through later. If you are unsure the termites have eaten at a piece of wood and moved on, then cut through the damaged area with a saw until it is clear of runnels and tunnels.

After a very few inspections, you will be able to easily see termite damage and know when it goes in the burn pile or when you can cut an end off and use the rest. In most cases, you can see the nasties easily, and you can get rid of them without insecticide by just laying the wood out to bake in the hot sun. Lay the wood out, preferably on asphalt where it gets most hot. Place the boards off the ground on metal, and not touching each other. Let them sit in the hot sun all day, then flip them over. Any termites will be on the cool underside, but most will have tried to get away from the baking heat, dying in the process. Repeat this on day two after flipping each board over. Store the ‘termited’ boards separate from other lumber, and then have a look at them in 2-3 weeks. If in your garage, then wrap them in plastic so they cannot get loose and start in on your garage; inspect them every few days for activity. If no visible activity after a few weeks, then you are likely fine.

Dry Rot: this is fungus, and there is no way to effectively stop it except to submerge the lumber and leave it to kill the rot. We simply put these in the burn pile, as dry rot tends to run down the grain in the path of least resistance – making boards very weak. Any other fungus is similar, so we don’t use these boards for anything but decorative things – the fungal damage can make certain boards have a lot of “character”. But we varnish these to effectively kill the fungus.

We get our scrap to the farm, where we de-nail and de-screw it. If a nail or screw breaks, we use a grease pencil to encircle the hole where it broke. This avoids ruining saw blades when selecting lumber for specific purposes from our stash. We know not to cut through the circles or we can expect to hit a nail or screw buried out of sight.

Then we sort by length and stack and store for the future in our lumber barn. We have 2×6, 2×4, 4×4, trim boards, siding and much more stacked and stored. We do not re-purpose OSB – it is too flimsy and susceptible to humidity issues when stored outdoors. Similarly, we only store plywood scrap of ½” thickness or more. We just used 5 pieces of 1” plywood decking scrap to make a 14’ long workbench in the shop we are currently building.

Fiberglas insulation can be reused. Neither cold nor heat cares one wit about being in smaller pieces than a roll. You just have to overlap the ragged edges and it does fine in between studs and ceiling joists. We are currently going by building sites and dumpster diving for excess insulation drop-offs when we board scavenge. We just used some of this to winter-proof our water line spigots at the farm. We cut 4” PVC to fit on the pipe coming out of the ground, packed in the glass wool, then put on a PVC pipe cap with a ¾” hole drilled through the cap to clear the pipe. We screwed the hose bib back on, and used silicone caulk to seal the cap around the pipe exit hole. We had 15-degree front hit and the pipes were fine. And fire ants do not like glass wool – they do not build into these pipes in spite of it being wet-proof for them.

PVC can also be recycled, but get it from residential building sites – commercial building sites run things other than water through PVC, and once an odor is ingrained in the plastic, it tends to stay and flavor any water running through it.

Structural Lumber: these can be used in tandem with new lumber to reduce cost. 2×4 lumber, where each salvaged piece is 5’ long or more, can be scabbed together and used as a wall stud with no structural issues. Avoid scabbing just the ends of 5’ pieces – there is structural loss when you do that. It is simply better to double up. When using scabbed studs, pre-drill for electric lines, as it is far easier to do that than to drill through a doubled stud with less inter-stud clearance for the drill.



There is nothing that says you cannot use a 4×4 instead of a 2×4 stud. We do this routinely, as we get a lot of usable 4×4 from old decks that exceed 96” stud length. These allow you increase spacing to 20” or 22” between studs as well, while supporting the same loading. Again, pre-drill due to the awkwardness of drilling through a 3-1/2” board when upright.

Finishing Lumber and Siding: we try and save all moldings, as they are expensive per foot. Molding re-use will require you to fill old nail holes, but this is easy with caulk or plastic wood, depending on whether painted or stained. Siding we group by type. Most of today’s siding is not wood, but masonite. This is useless due to how easily it absorbs water, and we throw it away.

Naturally, hardy-board and hardy-plank can be re-used, but anything less than ½” thick becomes brittle in less than 5 years. We know, as we have torn it down. And to successfully pull hardy-board down, you have to locate the screws and remove them ALL before trying to pry the board free. When we do get wood siding, we store it until we have enough to use in a room or an outbuilding.

Windows and Doors: we love windows, because we are about to begin building greenhouses. By using glass in a greenhouse, you do not have to worry about polycarb degradation by UV, which is common in today’s greenhouse designs. We also do not have to do the every-other-year replacement of plastic sheeting used in most tunnel houses. You can take an aluminum frame window, make a wooden casement for it, and use it in a greenhouse very easily. Sliding glass doors are superb for the walls or ends of a greenhouse, and the old ones are literally given away when people replace them.

We only take hollow doors when we are building a dwelling, and use them internally. However, there are so many wood doors being scrapped that we ceased holding onto hollow doors. Wood doors with bottom rot are easily fixed with a table saw and some glue and wood putty. They can also be used as tables and recut into some very stout “mini-doors” to be used for cabinets.

We recycle tin from roofs and barns, even rusted tin. A simple coat of oil-base paint after sanding the rust off will make old tin very durable for buildings, or you can use it inside as a wall treatment. In many cases, the tin is bent, and we cut ends off pieces we cannot easily straighten with a hammer and bit of galvanized pipe. For short sections of tin, we just overlap the short sheets like a shingle and go on with the roofing.

tin siding

You will have to buy some exterior caulk and seal the old nail holes. For this reason, we don’t use as much old tin on big roofs – it’s just too much work up on a tall ladder to caulk all the holes. But we do use it often as siding, and on smaller roofs. Caulking the nail holes is easy when the sun is bright. You can see every hole from inside the building. Or you can caulk from the outside at night by using a light inside the building.

We even re-use old asphalt composite shingles. We require the shingles to be whole, so when taking them off you need to go slower and start from the apex of the roof. But you can easily re-use them due to the overlap – the old nail holes will be covered when you re-use the shingles. You just have to nail them off in between the old holes. We store the shingles in bundles just like new ones, and you can stack them outdoors.

They also make excellent walkways. Just lay them out the way you want, using good overlap. Do this in high summer, so the heat will let them conform to the ground. The cinders on the shingles make them non-slick, and grass has a tough time overcoming them. It’s easy to use a weed-eater to trim the walkway, and you can run a mower right over it. My son is planning to make a bike trail with them next year.

The correct way to skin an old pallet is to mark a line on both ends, just inside the nails on the ends. Do this on both sides of the pallet. Then use a circular saw to rip through the boards. This will allow the ends to be free, and then you can wrestle with the centerboard much more easily. Our system is to pull the center nails out, then cut the ends free. The scrap gets burned in the fire pit or wood stove, where we can get the nails out of the ashes with a magnet.

For crates, we try to save plywood when we can by ripping the ply free from the framing, using the circular saw or sawzall. For bigger crates like tractors or equipment crates, we just try and de-nail or unbolt as much as we can, then saw off the stubborn parts and burn them as fuel in the fire pit.

Be aware that pallet wood thickness is completely a crapshoot – which is why you need to think about where to re-use it or else have a way to gauge thickness and stack accordingly. Some pallet boards are African, South American or Asian woods, and some can be incredibly hard after it has dried. If you come on this and are trying to re-use it, you may need to pre-drill nail holes to avoid getting really angry at bent nails or end splitting.

For the same reason, we recommend using a filter mask when cutting a lot of pallets up. Some of these woods are toxic, and many of them can trigger allergies when you breathe the sawdust. Since you don’t know what it is or where it came from, better to be safe than runny-nosed and bleary eyed.

I’ll get some pictures of recycled tin and lumber in the next few days and put them up. But for now, I have to go pick up some old sliding glass doors a guy has kept leaning against his garage for 3 years…


Notes on Recycling and Re-Purposing — 2 Comments

  1. Curious how you have handled the coatings one the inside of double glass sliding doors. Have several in the shop at the farm to use in a future green house project that the seal had failed and they became cloudy. Hence the “good” deal gotten on these from a recycler. I have dismantled one and that coating does not come off easily.

    • We are in Texas – the coatings actually help reduce the sun in the hot summers we get here. Anything that reduces the cooling needed in high summer is a good thing for us. We routinely try to peel sunshade film off, and that isn’t too bad. When we get a double pane door, we split the glass out and make 2 of them – with the bush hog and other farm things flying about, double pane anything doesn’t last long due to the seals going. You need help for splitting the glass out, but as long as you have another wooden frame ready to silicone it into, it isn’t too difficult. I could see where you would want to keep the double pane thing up north, but maybe the best thing is to simply vent between the panes more effectively. Yes, you will lose some of the double pane insulation effectiveness, but retain most of it. If it is vented well, it will still e a slow-moving zone between the panes, just not completely sealed. I also think cloudy might be just fine with plants – they tend to be non-discriminatory – hence their phototaxic growth.

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