Vintage tiles, old doors, claw-foot tubs, fireplace mantels and a host of other items salvaged from old homes, barns, schools and more can add character and soul to even a modern home. These components can be used for their original purposes or transformed into something different—wood from an old barn could become the surface of a table, for example.

The advantages are not just aesthetic—the architectural components of the past often were built to last…reusing salvaged materials is environmentally friendly…and it creates domestic jobs—new items tend to be made overseas, but salvaged items generally are ripped out, reconditioned and resold by people right here in the US.

Creative Salvage Finds

Some salvage items that can add character to any home tend to be ignored by home owners when they are available. Keep an eye open for…

• Old, dingy lumber. Vintage floorboards and other wood planks that are covered with decades of grime or paint can look totally unappealing. But this old wood could be stunning when sanded down and refinished. It could be used as flooring or transformed into things like tabletops or sliding doors for pantries and closets. Lumber can go for 60 cents a linear foot to $6 a square foot, depending on the wood.

Salvage_sink• Light fixtures with ugly metallic finishes. These can be worth buying despite their ugly finishes as long as they work and their form is attractive. The finish can be transformed by ­applying a spray paint designed to stick to metal. A local paint store can help you choose one of these. (You might have to sand the fixture’s metal surface first and/or use a spray primer designed to stick to metal before applying the paint.) And because the ugly original finish turned off other buyers, you often can pick these up for $20 or less apiece.

• Old doors. Most homes have boring interior doors. Replacing these with old doors can add instant charm and interest. Doors featuring frosted-glass windows can be especially nice for small, under-lit spaces, such as bathrooms and laundry rooms, because they let in light without letting people see in. Heavy industrial doors and big sliding wood doors can bring visual interest to a home, too. Doors cost $10 to $250.

• Old dressers with stained, cracked or badly worn tops. An ugly furniture top will turn off most home owners, but it’s worth looking past a damaged top if the rest of the chest or dresser is very well-made and in good shape. These can sell for $20 at a garage sale. The top could be covered or replaced by a piece of marble (or some other stone) and the piece reused as a dresser or even used as a kitchen island. Or transform the dresser into a distinctive bathroom vanity by replacing the top with a sink.

Where to Look

The easiest way to obtain ­interesting salvage materials is to visit architectural salvage shops in your area…or hire an architect or designer who often works with such things. (This also is the best way to ensure that any old items you buy are in good working order.) But if you are trying to save money and/or if you enjoy hunting for distinctive salvage decorating materials yourself, there are other options…

• Rebuild centers, sometimes called building recycle centers, sell mostly mundane materials removed from recent renovations or tear-downs. But occasionally you can find old and interesting architectural salvage materials such as old doors, tile, banisters, ­pedestal sinks and claw-foot tubs.

What to do: Enter your state or city name into a search engine together with the words “used” “construction” and “building supplies” to locate these ­resellers. Also visit the website of Habitat for Humanity to see if it has a “ReStore” rebuild center in your area. Or ask employees at your local dump where area contractors get rid of old but still useful building materials from renovations.

• Colleges and high schools sometimes sell off interesting old architectural components plus furniture and other items useful for decoration. You might be able to obtain cool vintage lighting fixtures, lab tables and stools, maps, chalkboards or lockers that could be repurposed into distinctive cabinets.

What to do: Call colleges and high schools in your area, and ask to speak to their facilities management departments. Ask whether the school ever sells off old equipment, furniture or architectural surplus.

• Restaurant secondhand equipment resellers are a good place to find dining room and kitchen equipment and furniture. Vintage lunch counters, banquettes and stainless steel kitchen work areas can look distinctive.

What to do: Enter your state and city and the words “restaurant equipment” and “used” into a search engine.

•, local newspaper classifieds, flea markets and yard sales can be excellent sources of reasonably priced items. Occasionally people even list salvage items for free to anyone willing to haul them away.

What to do: Enter specific items you are looking for into Craigslist…or enter more general keywords such as “vintage” “reclaimed” “architectural salvage” or “wrought iron.” Focus on yard sales and newspaper classifieds in towns that have many older homes and/or barns. When you come across a flea market, ask sellers who have architectural salvage items if they have shops or websites through which they sell similar items.

• Some auction houses and estate sale companies offer architectural salvage items on occasion.

What to do: Get on the e-mail lists of any of these businesses in your area, or monitor their websites.

• Some secondhand shops and antiques stores sell architectural salvage items.

What to do: Call or drop in on every secondhand or antiques store listed in your local phone book, and ask if they ever stock architectural salvage. Make regular visits to any that do.