10/11/2011 07:16 pm ET | Updated Oct 11, 2012

Amy Hughes Reveals Secrets To Salvage

Last week, a comment came up in a story on how a designer decorated her home with salvaged items. Actually, it came up on a story about pumpkins, but it was meant for the salvaged home post. And it basically said that we shouldn't be shopping salvage yards for vintage items.

It would be nice if these stories would just admit that the stuff they are using has been in antique shops for decades. No one goes into antique shops anymore so we have stopped carrying this sort of material. Salvage stores charge very high prices for this stuff, antique shops are just trying to get rid of it. Soapstone sinks have been offered by us since the 1980s, with only a few dealers buying them, if they were the shallow ones, not the cellar type shown here. Depression glass as seen on the shelf, we can't sell anymore, to cheap to take up space in the shop. Old wood, I can get you barns full of it.

And my thoughts about this were that there is a lot to discuss about buying salvage. Namely, where we should be buying salvage in a way that's budget-friendly and supports businesses. And when I say 'budget friendly,' I mean 'not an arbitrary mark-up because salvage is cool now.'

So I got in touch with Amy Hughes, an editor at This Old House magazine and the author of the new book Salvage-Style Projects. And it turns out that, despite a sleepy image, salvage is more controversial than you'd assume.

"A lot of salvage dealers (have been writing a column about this for a while) don't even like me to call it salvage," Hughes says. "It has a negative connotation now, mainly that salvage is the equivalent of junk."

What is the preferred term, then, I ask.

"Architectural artifacts," she says, with a half-laugh. "I suppose it sounds more high-end, more refined, and granted there are many high-end [salvage] dealers. The market is split: One with [dealers] who consider it art and those who admit to it being old house parts."

Of course, I think it can be both and with Hughes, I find a kindred spirit. She's someone who, even if she wasn't an editor at This Old House or writing a DIY book, would willingly spend her weekends rifling through bins of old doorknobs. The kind who gets excited at the idea of a pristine farmhouse sink hidden under years of honest-to-goodness junk.

In other words, a weirdo. But meant in the best way possible.

"Lots of people have trouble wrapping their head around the notion of salvage, because again, they have the idea that it's junk. But I grew up with visiting salvage yards on a routine basis. My mother was so into home renovating and restoring old houses. Basically, we moved every two years. You can't help but develop an appreciation for historic styles and the quality of materials."

Did she ever rebel?

"I fought it for a while. I think it happens when you're young and surrounded by antiques, and not say, the comfy armchair everyone else had. When you're young, you don't want to be so different. But when I got older, I found myself gravitating again towards salvage."

So sometimes that old mantel is not an old mantel, but a portal to a time when we were young and carefree. Or something like that (probably not). We laugh.

But there is something about salvage that is more comforting than brand-new items. Because the object has lasted decades, it's more permanent, reliable, sturdy. A functional heirloom from the relatives we wished we had. I think that's why salvage has become such a "thing" lately.

The flip side of this popularity is that it has lead to me assuming that anything with the word 'salvage' in the shop name equals a higher ticket price. Hughes assures me otherwise.

"Yes, there will be dealers who charge high prices for salvaged stuff, but overall you can still find great bargains. I've been in places that are so packed with items that you can't physically move anything, but the prices will be amazing."

So I pressed her for secrets and finally got a few leads:

- Stay local, if you can. "Most people don't realize they have a salvage yard near them, so they do an online search and find a great piece. But then you have to ship the item, which is usually very expensive. So, staying local is better. If you don't know where to start, ask an online dealer. They'll usually be happy to make recommendations."
- Look into reuse centers. "Not a traditional place to find vintage, but you can find treasures. However, it's a trade-off: The prices are great but you'll have to visit the center more to see what comes in."
- Start small. "In the early 20th century, even common mass-produced items like window guards were designed with care and a certain degree of artistry. Doorknobs have a million different uses and are often inexpensive. Even if it won't fit into your home, you can use it to make a great project." Such as Hughes' great idea for creating a doorknob rack.

To catch some of Amy Hughes' handiwork, check out This Old House. I also highly recommend her book, Salvage-Style Projects.

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