Rescue Mission

By Blythe Copeland | Boston Magazine |

Reusing antique building materials offers a forest-friendly alternative to modern resources.


When it comes to construction materials these days, well crafted can be, well, almost impossible to find. But thanks to salvage storehouses, history-minded homeowners can uncover the likes of beautiful solid wood doors circa 1930, stained-glass windows from 1890s Victorians, and fine antique hardware, all top-notch architectural details rescued from demolished or renovated older houses.

“The quality in the old things is far superior to what’s out there today,” says Bill Raymer, owner of Restoration Resources in the South End. “Hand-detailed pieces from 100 years ago are made of rare woods like chestnut, bird’s-eye maple-—woods that would be very hard to find these days.” What’s more, salvaging material helps cut down on waste: According to the new book Unbuilding, by Bob Falk and Brad Guy, if the material from the roughly 250,000 single-family houses demolished each year were salvaged, 4.25 million trees would be saved.

Raymer has been selling salvage for 20 years, typically to homeowners who want to restore the original look of their antique house. One might own a 1920s bungalow that’s missing its pocket doors; another may have a late-19th-century townhouse minus one marble mantel. But increasingly he’s also seeing people, inspired by home-design shows, trying to incorporate finds from different periods, like brass doorknobs alongside leaded cut-glass windows, into new houses.

If you’re planning to go the salvage route, Raymer recommends coming prepared with pictures of the styles, materials, dimensions, and colors you’re going for. That way, staffers can help you navigate stacks of doors, buckets of doorknobs, and endless light fixtures to find the items that will perfectly match your home. Here are some other tips from the salvage veteran:

[sidebar]Shop around the block

Scope out more than one local salvage spot to get an idea of how much you should be paying, since the prices are often set to match the competition’s. In the Boston area, a marble fireplace mantel from the early 1900s, for example, usually runs about $2,500; if you go in expecting to pay a lot less, you’re in for serious sticker shock.

Invest in the past

As a rule, salvaged materials don’t come cheap (see the aforementioned mantel), but buying used is still almost always less expensive than having a replica made. It’s also usually a good value because the level of workmanship is so high. Think of it as purchasing a piece of art, Raymer suggests.

Measure twice, buy once

It sounds obvious, but don’t forget to make sure the piece you buy will fit in the space you have for it. Almost nothing old is standard size, so check with your contractor or architect before purchasing anything.

Get the whole picture

Items should be cleaned up and in good condition before they’re put out for sale—cracks should be fixed, broken pieces repaired, original wiring replaced with new. Finishes are less of a concern, since pieces can always be stripped and refinished, if desired.

Restoration Resources, 31 Thayer St., Boston, 617-542-3033, restorationresources.com.