Add Metal Salvage to Your Home

Discarded architectural elements can add distinction and charm to your home.

I’m constantly amazed by what people throw away. From ornate wrought-iron railings and decorative stamped-metal signs to stunning antique light fixtures and brackets, I’ve seen it all piled at the curb, waiting to be hauled off by the trash collector. These discarded metal gems (called “architectural salvage”) can add personality and a sense of uniqueness to your home, provided you know where to find them and how to work with them.

Architectural-salvage suppliers are the ideal place to find discarded metal objects that make great conversation pieces.

Besides the obvious tactic of “dumpster diving,” the best way to locate old metal items is by prowling the aisles and yards of architectural-salvage suppliers (vendors who buy and sell building parts salvaged from demolished or remodeled structures). Some architectural-salvage dealerships resemble junkyards, with broken windows and piles of rusty debris stacked in haphazard fashion, but others are more like museums, with artful displays of wood, glass, plaster and metal treasures.

Common metal items you’ll likely find include wrought-iron railings and fences, antique brackets and castings, hot-water room radiators, light fixtures, cast-iron tubs and sinks, doorknobs, hinges, locks and cabinet pulls. Though some may be able to serve their original purpose, the real fun lies in finding creative uses for salvaged items. Exterior railings can function as room dividers (as in our project), radiators can serve as table supports, an old interior light fixture can become a hanging candelabra for an outdoor room – in short, if you can imagine it, you can probably create it out of salvaged metal.

Modifying metal
Unless you plan to reuse a salvaged metal piece for its original purpose, you’ll need to make modifications, which usually entails cutting. For very thick metal, the old-school approach of an oxy-acetylene cutting torch works well. (And let’s not forget modern plasma cutters that can slice through thick metal as if it were butter.) But for thinner or more delicate pieces, you’ll need to use a more refined cutting method.

If you don’t mind sweating, a hacksaw can yield great results. But if you want to avoid arm cramps, a jigsaw outfitted with a metal-cutting blade will do the work faster. For softer metals such as aluminum, you can sometimes use a circular saw equipped with an appropriate nonferrous metal-cutting blade or a miter saw outfitted with a 40-tooth carbide blade. Metal-cutting chop saws work well for both round and square tubing, and depending on the wheel you choose, angle grinders can easily slice a straight line through large sections of plate.

Cutting salvaged items to size is only half the battle, however. Once you’ve determined your design and made the necessary cuts, you’ll need to weld everything back together (see photo, below). A wire-feed metal-inert-gas (MIG) welder works great for steel – in fact, all of the welding projects we’ve done in HANDY have harnessed a wire-feed MIG unit – but you’ll need other types of welding gear and processes to work with the types and thicknesses of metal you’ll most likely find at a salvage supplier.

Typical stick welders such as this Lincoln Electric model include a voltage setting, an electrode (or rod) holder and a grounding clamp. While 110-volt models available, you’ll get the best results from 220-volt units.

To modify the iron exterior railing for this project, I needed to use a stick welder. Unlike a wire-feed welder, a stick welder doesn’t have a motor, a drive wheel, a wire-feed mechanism or gun tips that have to be replaced. Instead, a stick welder uses a short consumable flux-coated rod that is clamped into an electrode holder. Once the ground is clamped to the workpiece, an arc forms when the rod comes in contact with the metal.

The trick to using a stick welder is to keep a gap between the tip of the rod and the metal after you strike an initial arc by quickly touching the rod to the workpiece. After the arc is started, if you hold the rod too close to the workpiece, it will fuse itself to the metal; if you hold the rod too far away, you’ll lose the arc.

Although a stick welder worked great for this application, it might be the wrong tool for the metal you’re working with. A wire-feed welder, a tungsten-inert-gas (TIG) welder, an oxy-acetylene unit and even a propane torch all have a place in metal modification (see “Metal Requirements,” below).

Even with the right tools and metalworking knowledge, the secret to successfully working with architectural salvage is patience. It takes time to find just the right piece. Most cities offer a variety of salvage outlets, you’ll find more than 300 in the United States and Canada, and you can even shop online. Explore as many outlets as you can, and enjoy the hunt. You never know when you’ll spy the perfect metal piece peeking out from behind a pile of forgotten woodwork.

In addition to railings, salvage supply houses are a great place to find everything from light fixtures and radiators to cast-iron tubs.

Metal Requirements
When dealing with salvaged architectural items, the four most common types of metal you’ll encounter (not including steel) are iron, copper, bronze and brass. We could write an entire book on how to successfully repair and modify these metals, but here are the basics:

Iron: Probably the most common material found at salvage dealers, iron exists in both cast and wrought forms. The typical thickness of most iron items means you’ll need to use a stick welder instead of a wire-feed MIG welder to make any modifications or repairs. And instead of using a mild-steel electrode for the welding process, you’ll need to use either a 55-Ni (55 percent nickel) or a 99-Ni (99 percent nickel) electrode.

Copper: To this day, copper and copper alloys remain among the most important engineering materials because of their good electrical and thermal conductivity, resistance to corrosion and metal-to-metal wear and distinctive aesthetic appearance. Thin copper can be repaired or modified by brazing or soldering, but because copper has such a high thermal conductivity, you’ll need to use either a gas metal arc-welding (GMAW) or a gas tungsten arc-welding (GTAW) process to make repairs or modifications to thicker pieces. For the GMAW process, you’ll need to use deoxidized copper (ERCu) electrodes. In addition, the shielding-gas mixture required will be largely determined by the thickness of the copper section you plan to weld. Use Argon gas when working on pieces thinner than 6mm and helium-argon mixtures for thicker sections.

Bronze: Often found in cap rails and other decorative items, bronze is essentially a copper alloy, usually with tin as the main additive. Though brazing can be used to successfully repair or modify bronze items, you can also use a MIG-welding process with a silicon bronze welding wire and argon shielding gas.

Brass: An alloy of copper and zinc, brass is difficult to repair or modify with most welding methods (such as GMAW or GTAW) because of its high zinc content. The American Welding Society recommends using the brazing process and one of these filler rods: RBCuZn-A (naval brass), RCuZn-B (low-fuming brass) or RCuZn-C (another low fuming brass).

When working with salvaged metal items, bear in mind these basic safety tips:

  • To avoid injury, recruit friends to help you lift and move heavy items such as radiators or tubs.
  • Never rely on old wiring. If you’re planning to reuse an old light fixture, rewire it.
  • Take proper precautions when stripping old paint, as it may contain lead.
  • Wear proper safety gear when using a chemical stripper or a sandblasting unit to remove old paint.
  • Handle items cautiously – rough edges can easily slice your fingers, and the last thing you want is a cut inflicted by rusty metal (especially if you’re not up-to-date on your tetanus booster).