This was your trash

For as long as I can remember, I have been frugal. I have my mum to thank for this. She clothed me in hand-me-down jeans with knee holes patched by their used-to-be back pockets for cryin’ out loud! As a kid, LEGOs fostered my creativity and love for building; I would always build something more inventive than what was pictured on the box. As a homeowner, my frugality and love for building merged as I discovered the joys, and sometimes disappointments, of saving money by “doing it myself.” The trinity was complete when I started working for the UH Office of Sustainability. My passion for sustainability gave my DIY projects a new theme – using trash to build treasures.

My latest build was a reconstruction of an old, cheap chest of drawers that used to sit in a little hall between my kitchen and bathroom. We kept bath towels folded and stacked precariously on top, and the drawers were warped so badly that they did not open anymore. I knew it was time for a makeover, so I hit the streets in search of wood. Using scraps of wood collected from two neighborhood renovations (see #4 below), the hardware from the drawers and some leftover paint, I was able to construct something that bested the old drawers in both efficiency and aesthetics. Now every time I walk into the bathroom, I am pleased by the extra space that my streamlined design allows me. When I put towels away, I feel a sense of accomplishment as I say to myself, “I built that.”

Here is the finished product in use as soon as the paint dried!

Five years ago, a friend from high school was about to tear down a skateboarding ramp that his dad had built for him several years before.  The 16-by-40 foot ramp was taking up too much room in their garage, and they were going to hire someone to get rid of it. I volunteered, in the nick of time, to take it off their hands. With the help of my wife and a few friends, I dismantled the $7,000 ramp and rebuilt it at the T.W. Davis YMCA skate park. To weatherproof it, I covered it with oil-based paint that I got for free from the local recycling center, and the YMCA graciously bought a bucket of skate paint for the riding surface. After two years of heavy outdoor use, the weather got the best of the ramp. The riding surface warped and some of the beams in contact with the ground became rotten. I  decided to dismantle it again and make new obstacles out of the pieces that were still good. Sadly, the whole park closed down and all that remains now are a few beams in my shed waiting to be repurposed, a planter box outside my kitchen window and surfboard racks in the shed. Every time I see the yellow beams, I’m reminded of my hard work and all the joy the ramp brought to me and so many other skateboarders at the YMCA.

image 5 image 6 better






Now that you’re motivated to go turn some trash into treasure, let me share some tips with you. Here are four ways that you can get started on becoming a master treasure builder:

1. Collecting the materials: the essentials

It’s important to keep a couple of basic tools with you whenever you step out on a trash trek. A screw driver and crescent wrench should be all you need to quickly strip the hinges and drawer handles off of old desks and cabinets. This type of hardware, along with those little metal rods used to adjust the height of shelves, is usually in great condition in even the most decrepit desks and sorriest shelves. They are just begging for you to save them from the landfill and give them a new life in your next build.


Don’t forget to bring these basic tools when on the prowl for materials.


There’s a fine line between hoarding and preparing for your next build. I’d rather err on the hoarding side.


Salvaged shelving rods don’t have to be used in new shelves. I plan on using these as the pegs on a spinning carnival wheel.





2. Use your bike

If you don’t have a bike, get one. If you don’t have a sturdy basket on your bike, get one! The mechanical advantage that a bicycle provides will allow you to quickly and easily patrol your neighborhood on trash day. A milk crate or similar sized basket along with a short rope is ideal for carrying just about any load that you would otherwise have to lug around by hand. There are many options to choose from. Check out these ideas and get inspired!


A load of recyclable trash I picked up from the park the morning after Labor Day.


Here are some smooth, uniform pieces of wood that a neighbor was throwing away. I can’t wait to put these beauties to use.











3. Take advantage of Home Depot’s services

Home Depot will cut wood for you if you don’t have the tools or space to do it yourself. They sell perfectly good pieces of wood that are left from in-store cuts for pennies on the dollar. You might get just the piece you didn’t know you needed. Home Depot also offers guidance on a variety of DIY projects. This particular project looks like it could easily be made with curbside materials. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that Home Depot offers free, in-person, DIY workshops. Take that, Pinterest!

4. Make lawfulness and safety a priority

Be aware of any laws in your city regarding dumpster diving, and even if the law is on your side, always be respectful. If you do find items in your neighborhood or on private property, don’t take the materials until you’ve received permission from the owners. Try not to get so excited about your build that you accidentally cut into an existing piece of furniture that you’re using as a work bench (like I recently did). In the same vein, do not attempt projects that are beyond your scope of knowledge.

cut table

Building without an actual garage or workshop can be rewarding, but when building in your living room or front porch, be extra careful where you’re drilling and sawing.

It has been my pleasure sharing my hobby with you. I’d love to hear about any projects that you’ve made or ideas you have in the comments below!

 -Clancy Nelson



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