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A non-sustinable clearcut. Deforestation is tragic, even more so when 11% of a forest will end up as waste lumber in a dumpster. **


Wood is a marvelous material. Building strong structures or additions that will last for a long time and serve many people over many generations is a noble end for these trees if they are to be strip-mined from the forest-better that they be grown and cut in a sustainable way--even more so when it is done with salvaged material that was destined for a landfill or furnace.

Much of the framing lumber, 2x4s,2x6s,or larger that is waste after a house is built is thrown in dumpsters or debris boxes. i.e. Ten foot pieces are used to build an 8 foot wall thus leaving many stub ends. These are perfect for uses that require short pieces of wood. Many contractors don't bother saving the short or left-over full length material because of high labor costs and nowhere to store it. So it gets tossed in a dumpster. This page discusses how you can get all the material you need for free and how best to use it to its maximum utilization.

** "1/6 of new lumber delivered to a jobsite ends up in the landfill each year plus the far larger volume of lumber annually wasted through demolition.

If you're not familiar with the building terminology here is a nice series of pages that talk about and illustrate the wood framing used in houses.

Is it legal? 

There have been Supreme Court decisions about the right of police to seize, search, take things out of people's garbage without a warrant. Their reasoning was that once something is placed on a public street in a garbage container, or in an area accessable to the public, the owner has "no right of the expectations of privacy" and has "abandoned ownership."

Here's the Supreme Court case as discussed by the FBI in their ongoing education of their agents' right to snoop legally: (Not an FBI website)

So this applies to boards in dumpsters as well as drug evidence.

This does NOT trump trespassing laws on private property. If the dumpster is behind a fence or is marked "no trespassing" forget it. If it's on the curb or in a shopping center-go for it.

Very often a contractor will save the material for you outside of the dumpster if you ask nicely, pick it all up and don't look like you'll hurt yourself on his job site. This can save him the often substantial cost of hiring an extra dumpster. A six pack of cold drinks offered to workmen on a hot day is a nice token of appreciation and has smoothed the way for us to scrounge many hundreds of dollars of building material in exchange.

Once you have the wood you'll want to keep it dry and out of the sun which will warp it by unevenly drying and shrinking the exposed side. Stack it on its flat edge off the ground with the length in feet and inches written on the end of each board so that you can pull out the length that you need without having to measure it.

Very often material such as 8 foot long 2x4s with a few nails in the ends can be salvaged from demolition site dumpsters. You remove the nails and/or cut off the shattered ends and you have perfectly serviceable wood that has the advantage of not only being free, but also being dry, meaning that it will not shrink, and sometimes it is far stronger than anything that you can buy new especially in the larger sizes such as 4x4s etc.

Timing and behavior while dumpster/debris box diving.

Dumpsters are usually picked up on Monday morning. This means that the best time to scrounge in them is on a Sunday afternoon because they will be full and there will be nobody working on the job site. Wear gloves and work clothes when you 'dive, make as little noise as possible and leave the area cleaner than when you arrived. Very often the best way to hide what you are doing is to do it boldly and quickly in broad daylight with a sense of purpose. If someone is giving you the eye either casually wave at them and continue to load or just leave. Scan the site once and proceed. Looking around nervously is like waving a red flag. Referring to a piece of paper, looking over the edge of the dumpster, pulling a piece of wood out and checking off something on your paper is a good bit of street theater/camouflage that may make you look more official.

In all the years that we have done this nobody has ever challenged us or called the police, although we have left when situations didn't feel right. If the box is on the street it will be easier to approach, select material and load from than if you have to go through a gate with a "no trespassing" sign on it. Remember, you are doing the builder a favor by removing material since it may make the difference between renting one or two boxes. If you arrive at a box with workmen around, just ask them nicely if you can have some "scrap wood". Usually they won't care. When you start pulling 10 foot pieces out of the box they are not going to stop you if they have already said "go ahead".

What not to take/touch.

Never take anything from a construction site that is not in a debris box unless you get permission. You may be taking material that is to be used on the job. Theft of building material is a felony in some states. If someone does challenge you, multiple apologies and acting stupid will usually pave the way for a graceful exit.


Tools and techniques to make your 'diving easier.

We use a "cherry picker", a tool used to grab cans off tall shelves, that we found in a dumpster behind a supermarket: This is great for raising the ends of boards that are too far down to reach or small objects up to the point where you can grab them. A long thin metal rod bent to a J shape will work almost as well. You should keep your feet on the ground when you are diving because you will have more leverage to pull things up and out. Climbing into a debris box is serious business because you may step on upturned nails or cut yourself plus there is the climb into and out of the box as well as the lack of deniability should a cop drive up. Assume that any liquid on boards or other objects is toxic and leave them in the dumpster.

Have you car ready to load before you drive up to the box with the seats down or to one side, pieces of cardboard laid out to prevent the inside from getting dirty or scuffed up and a red flag and some means to attach it to projecting loads. Once again, attitude is important. Prepare yourself for the worst thing that can possibly happen like the contractor or a cop driving up and challenging you. Have your story all ready and act innocent, "I'm getting some firewood" or I'm looking for some boxes". Being prepared thusly seems to relax us when we dive.

Don't be greedy. We have all seen the yard of the pack-rat that keeps accumulating stuff which ends up getting ruined in the rain or becoming an eyesore to the community. This stuff is of no use to anybody-it usually gets tossed in the end anyway.

Make a list of what you need and look for it. The five most dangerous words for a 'diver are: " I Can Use This Someday". Save your sanity, neighborhood reputation and your marriage. Don't grab everything.

On Minimum Codes and Overbuilding.

Wood is incredibly strong. If it's kept dry, roofed properly and doesn't burn down, carefully constructed wooden buildings, built to code standards can last for many generations. Wood is forgiving. The advantage of building with salvaged wood is that you can overbuild things with no financial or environmental penalty. That is, with minimum skills and tools, you can build additions to your house or structures that are far stronger than what the building-code requires . It will outlast much of the crap that is slapped up today.

Most new residential construction that we have seen in the San Francisco Bay Area, (we live in Oakland), is garbage. Oriented strand board , vinyl windows, extruded gutters, plastic pipe, green wood etc. often put together not by skilled carpenters, but rather by unskilled immigrant day laborers picked up on street corners does not promise enduring structures that will be around 100 years from now. What you overbuild with 30 year old massive old growth salvaged wood can last as long. or longer if you work carefully and learn what to do.

Here are some links that involve the wise design and building of homes:

"A Small Home That Grows When You Do. Plan to build small with the option growing as your needs and budget grows. Plan on using quality recycled materials by designing them into the home and saving them before construction begins. Building an affordable, functional, and beautiful home is all dependent on design."

 How Your House Works-excellent site-orthodoxy practiced here but a start to the uninitiated.

Zone 0 - Our Permaculture House: The application of Permaculture principles to the home design
Shear Wall Construction -Mcvicker Engineering. These guys really have created something wonderful. A website that makes engineering understandable even to mathphobes. Lots of interesting links and a great approach to using the web for the common good.

home page:

Simpson Strong Tie-This is a great company that makes the best line of products for strengthening new and old houses. Their illustrated catalog is an education and they test everything and publish results-plus they make almost everything in the U.S.


Great website by a Bay Area Retrofitter who has created the most useful site on the internet for understanding seismic strengthening.

The Engineered Wood Association-small pieces of wood or scrap made into useful and very strong materials like plywood etc. You can learn a lot from these guys. Lots of free PDF literature.

Optimum Value Engineering (OVE) refers to framing techniques that reduce the amount of lumber used to build a home while maintaining the structural integrity of the building.
Measurements, Conversion Units & Calculations

 A note on the timber industry and its responsability for exacerbating forest fires:


 All about waterproofing new and renovation construction:

This is a very through and detailed site the covers all aspects of building with great diagrams.


 All about Caulks

The Institutionalization of Housing: an article about breaking out of the code model and building your on your own.

Part of the massive free online book Radical Simplicity and the Fourth Step -




Overcoming Consumerism Index ; Consumerism's bad effects

O.C. Accomplishes? |    
Active Resistance      Hands on methods

2 Families compared       our personal consumer choices

consumption chart      resources to overcome consumerism

radical anti-consumerism      cars     

How to raise food     How to raise trees

eliminate polystyrene products

Corporate officers and their interlocking interests


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