Vintage Salvage How-To. Getting started.

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vintage salvage how-to

Every piece of salvage is unique so I created this post simply to illustrate that nearly any interesting bit of salvage, no matter how rough, can be turned into something pretty and fun for your home.

I will assume you love, as I do, all things vintage, cottage, shabby, chippy, junky, farmhouse, rusty and one of a kind so why not try your hand at making something truly Junktastic!  It is fun and very satisfying to complete projects using materials you already own and only spending minimal amounts of cash when needed.   Starting with a small project is great and usually fast but work on whatever your heart desires. You do not need a full workshop or Pinterest worthy creative space to get started.  They are gorgeous but making stuff is what matters so don’t wait for your perfect work space, start the fun now!

Gather what you have for tools and bring all your leftover paints, stains, varnish, poly, sandpaper, glues, wire, various crafting supplies, etc to one place. Commandeer at least a small area where you can work, things are gonna get messy!  

Gather your stash.  Anything you have that you want to change or repurpose is fair game. Also, any odd pieces of door or drawer hardware, old light fixtures, fabrics, even old jewelry can become materials. Find something that you feel has potential: starting out with a wood item makes sense since it is easy to work with using common tools. But again, do whatever excites you.

Keep your eyes open, there is great vintage and salvage items all around.  Have you searched your own garage or storage area?  Maybe ask Gramma and Grampa, or your favorite Uncle if you can have a look in their basement, attic, or workshop for a project item.  Look at old stuff with fresh eyes, hold it up, turn it every which way and see what you come up with. Sometimes you have to noodle on it for a bit before inspiration strikes. When inspiration does strike, you are ready to start. Thinking is great, DOING is even greater!

Good sources of junk: family, friends, yard sales, thrift shops, flea markets, auctions, the side of the road for free, CraigsList, Freecycle, Facebook local for sale groups.  Even if you have to pay for an item, salvage and vintage things tend to be cheap because the seller does not see the potential that you do.

Here is one example of turning some very grimy junk (some would say GARBAGE) into something nice using basic tools and materials. This small project should prove nearly anything can be reworked.


vintage salvage how-to DIY

I was in the barn moving hay when, from a dark corner, this caught my eye.  My husband used to shoot pyrotechnic displays and this old thing is a gun rack for smaller fireworks.  I pulled it into the light, tried to avoid touching the dried on pigeon you-know-what  (didn’t work) and gave it the once over.  I decided there was potential so I pulled it apart and found a broken second one nearby.

vintage salvage how-to DIY

vintage salvage how-to DIY

salvage, what are these?


I brought them to the workshop and started going through my stash to see what might inspire a project.  Here’s a photo gallery of some of my stash, if you’re interested.

vintage salvage how-to DIY


I haven’t used any of my insulators lately, hmm?

vintage salvage how-to DIY

Tools of the trade. Start with the basics.

 Sturdy and dirty salvage can normally tolerate a soap and water scrub. Do not do this with nice antiques, anything with paint or a patina you wish to keep or anything that has a wood veneer.   You are normally safe scrubbing glass, rusty metal and rustic wood items.  If in doubt, start with a damp cloth in an inconspicuous spot and see what happens when you rub lightly. Lots of items do very well with a light brushing off and damp cloth cleaning. Every item is unique and sometimes you just have to see what happens and work with it. These pieces were COVERED in pigeon droppings so a good cleaning was essential.

vintage salvage how-to DIY


vintage salvage how-to DIY

Salvage freebie: pigeon poop!

vintage salvage how-to DIY

Dry thoroughly, outside in the sun is even better.


Make sure the item passes a sniff test, if it is not offensive, proceed.  If the item stinks, try washing it again and leaving it out in the sunshine. There are some items you may not be able to use for your decor or as an item to sell because the odor may not be removable.

I have had good luck freshening up smelly objects with OdoBan  I also use it in my home for mopping and general cleaning, I love the fresh scent.

Sometimes a coating of polyurethane can cover up an odor in an otherwise unusable piece of salvage, it’s certainly worth a try.

If the item is old wood without a lot of paint, a 50/50 mixture of boiled linseed oil and turpentine (both common hardware store items,) painted on and allowed to sink in and dry will give a nice scent ( I like it, anyway) and revive wood that is dry and thirsty.  You can finish the item as you choose after it has had a chance to soak in and dry. This elixir actually gives wood a longer life and helps primer and paint adhere better.

How To remove paint from glass

Mr. Clean does the job


An easy way to remove paint from glass that has nooks and crannies is to soak it in Mr. Clean.   I use it full strength and just pour it back into the bottle when I’m done so I have it for the next project. Mark it clearly so you don’t clean your home with it.  Once the glass has soaked for a couple hours (overnight for tougher jobs,) some elbow grease will have it sparkling.

vintage salvage how-to DIY

I cut the salvaged gun racks and got three useable pieces and some extra to cut little feet.


I have a mitre saw but a normal, and fairly inexpensive jigsaw works well for most projects.

Something to consider: when the relatives ask the inevitable question  “what do you want for Christmas?”  say  “tools, please!”

vintage salvage how-to DIY

I attached little feet and once the wood glue dried, they were ready for the next step.


I always use weatherproof wood glue,  Elmer’s brand has been good to use.

vintage salvage how-to DIY

Once all the surfaces had stain rubbed on them, I left them to dry.  Stain can take one to two days to dry so be patient.

I will normally have at least two projects going at once so I have something to work on during soaking/drying time.

Right now, I am also working on these two rough customers:

vintage salvage how-to DIY

This tall cabinet came out of my boyfriend’s dairy barn.


vintage salvage how-to DIY

I dug this out of the dirt floor of an old woodshed. It is an old metal storage case for a socket wrench set. love the size: 18″ by 6″ so many possibilities!


vintage salvage how-to DIY

The next step was a coat of water based  polyurethane before the finishing touches.

My favorite paint brushes and rollers are made by Wooster.  Nothing beats their quality and the icing on the cake is all of their products are Made In The U.S.A.  There are some projects where using a disposable brush makes sense but having high quality brushes, and cleaning them regularly, makes good financial sense and allows me to always have the tools I need on hand when the desire to create strikes.

vintage salvage how-to

Two of the pieces were left stained and polyurethaned, and the third piece got an added coat of white spray paint. As a last step, I distressed the white piece with fine sandpaper.

To add extra flicker from underneath, I placed three LED tea lights upside down inside the insulators and added regular tea lights on top.  Sometimes the LED tea light will need its cover removed in order to fit the spot you want it in.  The cover pops off easily when a small flat tool is inserted along the edge. Use a tiny piece of electrical tape to hold things in place once the insides are revealed.

vintage salvage how-to DIY

LED innards

Using the tea lights that come in clear cups should have nearly the same look and will look great on a table with a reflective surface.

Total working time to create these three items was two-three hours not including drying time.

vintage salvage how-to DIY

Stay Curious!


DISCLOSURE: This post contains affiliate links for products that I use and recommend. If you purchase those items through my links in this post, I will earn a commission. You will not pay more when buying a product through my link.

1 thought on “Vintage Salvage How-To. Getting started.

  1. Pingback: Oversized Wire Spool Clock DIY | Curious Goods Vintage

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