Giving scrap material new life can reveal a lifetime of stories.
I can’t precisely pinpoint the first time I dumpster-dived, but I know I started young. My parents added on to our home six times when I was growing up, and there was an ever-changing set of crews reconfiguring walls, adding a porch, or fixing the roof. Dumpsters took up residence in our driveway, full of scrap wood and bits of metal that started to prod my seven-year-old imagination. I scavenged ends of 2x4s for my own backyard constructions, supplementing them with branches and stray cinder blocks.
Eventually, I moved on to bigger quarry. By the time I got to college, I was well-practiced. For cardboard prototypes, the compactors behind big box stores offered the biggest, cleanest sheets. For metal, I swept the dumpsters by the engineering buildings on campus. For wood, never-ending campus expansion made for plentiful cast-offs from plywood formwork and interior framing. I carried my harvest back to the architecture department’s wood shop and built my first pieces of furniture, slowly populating my efficiency apartment.
Years of piecemeal acquisition — a dumpster here, a scrap pile there — didn’t prepare me for the sheer abundance of waste material that I came across once I started working construction jobs. Carpenters are as efficient as they can be, but building things is an inherently entropic process. Job sites trend toward disorder. I was suddenly a wealthy man, swimming in material riches. My furniture projects increased in complexity and refinement, driven by what I found.
Most of this material had a deeply embedded history. My bedside table (shown above and featured in Guerilla Furniture Design) consists of a plywood box slung between two old-growth A-frames. I made the A-frames from old studs I pulled out of a job site on Garfield Boulevard, just west of the University of Chicago. There are dark iron stains around the old nail holes, and tiger stripes of faint white where plaster bled through gaps in the lath. The wood — some species of jack pine — is darkened by a century of life inside a wall. Extremely tight-grained, especially in comparison to modern stud lumber, it probably came from a tree that was at least a hundred years old. Now it sits in my living room between two armchairs, filled with magazines and topped with family pictures.
That wood, and the furniture I turned it into, tells a story — a story far bigger than the table itself, reaching back into a Wisconsin forest some 200 years ago. A hard-handed man cut it down around the turn of the last century, then rolled it into a river to be sluiced down to the mills. A great many hands touched that stud before it ever fell into mine, and I like to think it will touch a great deal more after I pass it on. Should it ever find its way into a dumpster, perhaps another curious college student will pick it up and spin onto another long and interesting path.