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One man's trash is another man's modern design, or at least so found Steve Dodds, Queens-based architect and professional "maker." In his popular DIY bible, Re-Creative, Dodds offers up 50+ project ideas for repurposing curbside finds and materials into high-concept modern furniture and home accessories.
Plus, read on for his tips for Shoestring readers looking to adopt his lifestyle of smart and oh-so sophisticated scavenging (in even the smallest of workspaces...)
A SCAVENGER'S LIFE FOR ME
In the preface to his book, Dodds asks readers to consider "upcycling" or getting "recreative" instead of buying items new from this perspective:
"Without leaving the mall, you can buy pre-faded T-shirts with 'vintage' graphics, distressed furniture with factory-applied patina, or home accessories that mimic the style of decades ago," Dodds writes. "Each gives the appearance of having a history and a soul. In reality, it's just the same mass-produced stuff that everyone else is buying."
But, most people buy readymade goods because they don't have the time or the skill, right? Wrong, according to Dodds, who urges that going DIY can be just as simple, albeit with a little planning:
3 Ways with "Stuff"
According to Dodds, there are three ways that we find "stuff" to use for projects: we come across it at a yard sale or on a curb and it's too cool to pass up; we accumulate it or inherit it, like the Metro cards he once used to make a lamp shade or the baby food tubs he and his wife are currently collecting for a future project; or we have to hunt it down when a job requires it, like the scrap metal strapping used for the wine trivet project (below).
Some of Dodds' favorite places to find "stuff" for projects are from "just walking around over the course of the day, living in a city and walking past people's trash on the sidewalk," he said. "But I do enjoy garage sales, especially in old houses or old neighborhoods, and estate sales, where the really cool stuff has had time to accumulate."
If he's looking for a particular material, like plastic or metal or computer parts, then Dodds will always search for a salvage place to visit before buying new, or will look or post an ad on Craigslist.
Always Be Prepared
Dodds comes from a long line of resourceful makers, growing up as a third-generation "stripper." (No, not that kind.) Salvaging things and reusing things was a skill learned by example from his father and grandfather, who would retain parts or strip things for hardware before they got thrown out. "We had an organized drawer of hardware to choose from whenever you needed something," Dodds said. "I grew up with the idea of taking advantage of what's around and available. If we needed plastic, for example, we'd go over to the fabricator and paw through their scrap bin or trash instead of buying a big sheet of it. It saved us money and saved it from the trash and worked out for everyone."
Dodds now carries a Leatherman tool with him everywhere he goes, and when sees something interesting he just takes the usable part and leaves the rest where he found it (for someone else). Think about DIY design as a consummate Eagle Scout adventure.
Look at the Parts, Not the Sum
One of Dodds' best pieces of advice is also seemingly the simplest: If you want to reuse or recycle things, you need the ability to look at them from a different perspective and see an item for its construction or inherent qualities — not necessarily the readymade label for that item. "Take a wine crate," Dodds says. "You have to look at it for its quality: it's nice wood, it's got jointed corners, and a cool design burned into the front. Could be a good storage box or a drawer, or you could turn it over and make a step stool."
Also think about what's still usable from an item bound for the trash can. Maybe it's just summer or maybe it's just genius, but another of Dodds' Re-Creative projects uses aluminum legs from a broken lawn chair, sawed off and strung to a wooden disk, to create a wind chime. Hallelujah! We always wondered what to do with those things, and what a great example of seeing past current function to the silver lining of what's still usable in the form.
Be a Smart Scavenger, Not a Hoarder
Knowing which kind of projects you generally gravitate toward can help you collect and select the right materials to "scavenge" over time, without just adding clutter. Dodds encourages keeping safety and practicality in mind, too, when deciding whether or not to bring a found object home. "If you have a little kid in the house, you're not going to want to take an old piece of furniture with old flaking paint on it, empty containers when you don't know what was originally in them, or old monitors and computer parts with lots of nasty chemicals in them." Bottom line: know when to stop.
Go for Quality, Not Quantity
Dodds encourages would-be recreatives to try and look for items with inherent quality — "wine crates or knife blocks, something that's durable and would be $100 to $200 or more if you were to go out and try and purchase it, but make something a bit different out of it," he said. "Go for stuff that's out of the ordinary or has a luxurious quality to lend to the composition [of your project.]"
Be a Jack of (at least a few) Trades
Projects are a lot of trial and error, and "you have to be able to learn from your mistakes," Dodds said. "Part of the fun of (going DIY) is to gain some new skills." Dodds' must-have skill sets for any aspiring maker include, but aren't limited to: being able to cut things, sand things, make holes and disassemble things, look at objects from a different perspective, have a degree of comfort with tools for any project, whether you're cooking or sewing or whatever, and having a level of coordination and patience, especially if you're learning to do something new.
Strategize & Stock Your Toolkit
You do have to have some restraint. If you want to start doing DIY projects like this over and over again, you're going to accumulate scraps or hardware, and you have to be organized. Ideally, you have a dedicated space to work and make a mess, but that's not always an option, Dodds admits. He suggests having a space to store your material and keep it organized, as well as being thoughtful about how you store stuff. "I keep tools out of sight and out of mind most of the time, but right where I need them when I need them."
For specific handheld implements and machinery that Dodds prefers, plus tips on how to use them, pick up his other book, appropriately titled Tools.
Check out these two beginner DIY projects — straight from his book and right in line with current (far pricier) picks from contemporary catalogs, shelter magazines, and showrooms. For detailed instructions on each of these projects, grab a copy of Re-Creative on Amazon.com, Alibris.com, or, in the true spirit of reducing and reusing, we found a few available for swapping on SwapTree.com. (First come, first served on the latter!)
Floor and table lamps using authentic, antique wooden tripods for the base, as well as competing "vintage-looking" replicas, such as these ones at Pottery Barn, Bond & Bowery, Ralph Lauren and Wisteria, have been the darling of interior design blogs and retailers this year — a coveted look that will cost you anywhere from $200 to upwards of $1500, and one that Dodds was able to create for less than $10.
"It was just another example of stuff making its way into my life," Dodds says. "A friend from school asked me to help him out putting some trim in his kitchen. He had two wooden tripods that he dragged home from his office, and his wife wanted them out, so he gave them to me. They’re everywhere now and I should just start selling kits."
Let's hope he does, but until then, here are the basics you'll need for your project:
First, find your tripod base. The hunt might be a bit harder than in Dodds' experience, since there's so much competition for wooden tripods right now, but we were able to find this vintage wooden tripod on eBay in less than five minutes, and for about $10.
"If it's a piece that I've already got, I try and find out a way to use it, find out what I need to add to bend it to my will, like this tripod lamp," Dodds says. "Other than the tripod and the lamp pieces, there's just a small piece of aluminum tubing. It's just figuring out how the lamp has to connect to it and how the tripod needs to connect to it, and then figuring out how to make that happen."
Wine Cork Trivet
We've all seen them: wine cork trivets (and wine cork trivet kits) have been all the rage in modern home accessories for the past few years, especially among the eco-minded set. However, even the least expensive option is going to set you back at least $15, and we know that Shoestring readers in particular will have a few real wine corks laying around (or can quickly accumulate them.)
Unlike the boxy, rectangular wooden options generally found in kits, Dodds chooses instead to work in a circle, binding a group of about 75 or so corks together in the round — simultaneously playing off of and working with their organic shape. Two bands, an inner band of walnut strip wood and an outer band of metal strapping secured by grommets, hold the corks together by friction when they are squeezed into the rings. True to form, Dodds recommends finding the strip wood and metal strapping (used to secure crates during shipping) at a salvage or lumber yard, or check with your local home center.
Story Copyright 2009 Shoestring, LLC. Photos Courtesy of Steve Dodds