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Junkstorming: Aggressive exploratory recycling: Transforming trash to treasure.

From How to live well on very, very little

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In the early days we almost never threw anything away in my family. We'd put everything away somewhere, 'just in case' we found a use for it later. Scrap lumber, metal, and paper, old clothes, broken radios and TVs, car parts, you name it, we kept it. We often accepted the cast offs of neighbors and friends too, and simply added it all to the pile. This drove my mom crazy, but it sure did come in handy. Over the years we ended up actually re-using quite a bit of this stuff, often in ways we'd never guessed when first putting it aside. This often saved us from having to buy new items, or waste the time driving around shopping/looking for same. So it saved us both money and time.

All us kids (well, at least the boys) thus became trained to always check the 'junk' in the basement or garage first when we needed or wanted something. We'd scan the assortment of items, brainstorming on ways to improvise upon this item or that, to achieve our goal of the moment. And so, we were being steadily trained in the art of 'aggressive exploratory recycling'.

Of course, to be a master of this technique like my dad, you must educate yourself by all available means. Schooling helps a lot-- but mainly serves just to get you started on your real education, in this field. You have to be willing to learn as you go, on-the-fly, allowing what opportunities come your way to shape your studies and experimentation.

For instance, decades ago dad noticed some electrical motors being thrown away at his workplace, and realized such things could really come in handy in his own personal workshop. So he'd gather up the discarded items and take them home and test and disassemble them to find and correct the problem, where possible. Often it turned out to be simple fixes which were considered impractical for a large company to fool with, but well worth the time of an individual looking to cheaply motorize a home or small workshop. He'd replace worn out brushes or bearings, and end up with valuable industrial grade motors which in many cases would last the lifetime of a single household like ours (which couldn't stress motors as severely as a factory). Indeed, I'd wager dad still has some such motors ready to work at the flip of a switch today, that he first salvaged and repaired 40 years ago or more.

Of course, motors usually require the housing of frameworks or larger devices to really do anything. So dad designed and built himself things like combination saw and grinder tables for such purposes. He also built custom window fans to cool our non-air conditioned home in the summers.

Dad did things like obtain 'junked' lawn mowers and electric drills from places like yard sales or the discards of neighbors, revamp their motors or other items needing repair, and add the once-again functional devices to the household armory. Some 10-15 years back he built an electric lawn mower out of an old dead and motorless mower chassis, discarded car battery, and electric motor. He's used it regularly ever since.

Another motorless lawn mower chassis he did something quite different with. During a spate of neighborhood vandalism, dad's front yard and driveway became frequently strewn with very hard to see nails, which were a hazard to both his and visitors' car tires and to anyone walking the area. Dad checked his junk collection and found he had a motorless law mower chassis, and a large two-foot long magnet which had been discarded by a food plant maybe 25 years before (it was originally used to extract metal objects from produce to be canned). So dad put larger wheels on the chassis to raise its rolling height to accommodate the magnet, and viola! he now had a 'nail sweeper'. This gave dad a tool by which he could comprehensively sweep the affected area of all nails early each morning. I saw for myself its effectiveness. It literally gathered up hundreds of nails, filling up bucket after bucket, over a several week period. So besides removing a real danger from his yard and driveway, dad actually profited from the vandalism by adding to his carpentry nail supply.

To help keep us kids entertained and out of trouble decades ago, dad built an amusement park ride out of a single tall metal pole, four or five long lengths of chain, and maybe ten short metal rods or pipes. This gave several kids at once a contraption they could each slip one leg into and hold onto with one or both hands, and fly at great speeds around at wildly fluctuating heights-- with the speed and height determined solely by their own physical exertions. It was much better than a conventional swing set. So much so that all the neighborhood kids preferred coming to swing on our special ride, than use their own store-bought swing sets.

As a teen I got into cars big-time-- especially race cars. Unfortunately, I couldn't afford to get the shiny new Firebird Trans Am I drooled over in the magazines, and some of my richer high school associates managed to receive as gifts. Fortunately though, me and dad were able to work together to pretty much satisfy my automotive yearnings in another way. One which as a byproduct provided me with a substantial education in automotive systems, principles, design, troubleshooting, and repair (That training would serve me and those around me well in the decades to follow).

Dad and I did a heavy customization of a 1969 Ford Mustang Mach One, with the goal being to incorporate many cutting edge features of the most famous race cars of the time (this was ages ago: the nineteen-seventies). One of these refinements was a large air dam for the front of the car. The bottom needed to be flexible so it wouldn't break when it occasionally encountered a curb or the road itself. So we shaped the upper portion from sheet metal and the bottom six to eight inches from an old thick rubber conveyor belt, thrown away by a factory. It worked like a charm. Heavier duty suspension parts (like anti-sway bars and springs) and sleeker, more functional body parts (like air scoops) from originally better equipped or newer versions of our Mustang were sought out and retreived from auto salvage yards. Discarded steam pipes formed the interior roll cage. Discarded aluminum conduit was used in building a custom dashboard. We cut louvers out of a metal box which originally contained an air conditioning unit gone bad, and welded them into the hood for both cool looks and extra engine cooling. Built our own custom grill with window screen and sheet metal. I guess you get the idea here. We were able to do some pretty neat race car customization of an existing vehicle using largely junk materials available for free or very low cost.

I'd end up having quite a few interesting times with that car, before everything was said and done.

Another time I was embarking on one of my earliest stints of self-employment, and needed a heavy duty but still portable air compressor. To buy a ready-made new unit like I wanted would maybe have cost a $1000, and still wouldn't have been as lightweight and portable as I wanted. So my dad and I figured out another solution. I bought a tiny new light duty compressor for a fraction what the heavy duty tanked model would cost. Dad happened to have a good-sized steel water tank among his 'junk' stores, which we decided to make a part of the system. This tank was several times larger in capacity than most of the new tank-compressors available on the market, and so would create less strain on the light duty compressor (the compressor wouldn't have to run as often). Plus, we figured we'd keep the portability and lightweight elements by keeping the system in two parts: the small compressor and the tank itself. I could carry them separately to my set up sites, and instantly assemble or disassemble the whole set up using the quick connects/disconnects we installed in the plumbing work. Dad also had a water pressure gauge we added to the system, only to use for air pressure here. We installed handy valves while we were at it. All the main valves, gauges, quick connects and the pressure regulator for telling the small compressor when to start and stop we built onto the top of the water tank, in a piping framework. This mass also gave me a useful handle by which to lug the tank around. We tied a rope harness around the tank to give me a few other handles too for moving it around with. This set up worked superbly for many years, and is still functional today, if I need it. Even the light duty compressor itself still works (despite getting a tremendous workout for many years), apparently because dad and I designed the overall system so well the light duty compressor never became strained by its tasks.

In 2002, my mom wanted a movable desk type of device that would hover over her bed to hold her flat panel desktop computer display, keyboard, mouse, and possibly other items so she could use them from the bed itself. Within a day or two dad had put together an impressive, sturdy, and stable bed desk which spanned the entire width of the bed, offering more than enough desktop space for all mom's needs. The bed-desk was custom built to mom's bed specifications (so someone else's would necessarily be different), with a desktop 17 inches deep and 64 inches long, with a half-inch raised lip around every side but the one facing the user, so that small items could not roll off out of reach onto the bed. A wooden panel on each end stands 29.25 inches high to hold the desk off the floor. Reinforcements of various means were applied to where the desktop and side panels meet, among them a couple of boards 17 inches long (cut to fit), 3.5 inches high and 0.75 inches thick, which conveniently double as exterior handles for moving the desk. The desk can be easily pushed towards the foot of the bed for mom to disembark, and put completely away by removing the computer gear to a nearby standard desk, pushing the bed-desk all the way to the foot of the bed, and then tilting the bed desk over to lay on the floor and act as a foot stand to the bed, neatly tucked out of the way and almost unnoticeable in the room, despite its significant size. The main three sections of the bed-desk consist of (one) the top of an old piano we disassembled to get rid of from the house many years ago, and (two) two panels from some old cabinets we removed from the house long ago too, during a renovation.

I have more tales where these came from, but you get the idea. Aggressive exploratory recycling can save you tons of money and time, and expand your horizons in countless ways. Of course, it helps if you have a spacious place to store all that junk until you find a use for it. It might be that getting together with close family, friends, or neighbors of like-mind on such matters, and all storing their junk in the same fortuitous place, agreeing to share the spoils first-come-first-served could work out well. However, everyone might also have to agree NOT to sell anything from the common store in yard sales/garage sales/flea markets once it had been placed in storage, unless all participants agreed.

One last point here: You don't have to restrain your 'junkstorming' salvage efforts to physical resources alone. You can also aggressively seek out pure ideas too. For example, my dad loves building bird houses and feeders. He's been known to see an interesting but expensive bird house design in a store, or pictured in a mail order catalog, and build his own much more economical version later in his workshop. Plus, by building his own, he can customize the design to his liking, scaling it up or down in size, or adding features he believes the store-bought version was lacking. Similar re-use of ideas can be done with all sorts of devices you might see in stores, advertisements, or elsewhere. Often you can get even more information about a particular design (if needed) by searching out references on the internet, or browsing through related how-to books in your local library or bookstore. Sometimes the business promoting the original item will even provide free brochures, photos, and other info on request.

Of course, if you go beyond making such items for yourself and begin selling them to others, you might get into intellectual property issues where legal permissions and a licensing fee would be necessary, if your own design too closely mimicked that of another. Things like patents and trademarks are considered serious matters in most developed nations these days. That's a whole other subject though, which is beyond the scope of this page.

If you have suggestions for improvements or additions to this page, please send them. You never know: it might be your idea that saves the world.

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