Scott K of New Jersey — On Fixing Old Stuff, Pearl Diving, And How To Get The Best Deal


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Scott: Yours truly.

Scott: Yours truly.

From an early age, Krrb member Scott K began mastering the trades that harken back to yesteryear. They’re perfectly suited for his scavenging habits – we’re talking skills like caning (as in furniture weaving, not corporal punishment) blacksmithing and wood turning, to name a few – because finding old bikes, tools, machines, rocking chairs, and desks that need love fuel his appetite for creative thinking and re-imagining.

Scott is a prolific writer on his blog, My Second Hand Life, and a fun addition in 140 characters as well. And of course, check out his Krrb Corner which has some pretty awesome retro items.

Read on, fellow thrifters, scavengers and creative recyclers.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m 38 years old, a father of two (three if you count the dog, and we do), who loves hunting down second hand items for reuse or repurposing.

Where are you from and where do you currently live?

I’m originally from northwest New Jersey, where the cornfields outnumbered the people (at least when I was a kid, not so much anymore). After getting married to the wonderful Samurai Mom (sorry folks, you only get to know her superhero identity), we moved into the chaos that is Seaside Heights. Three summers of watching drunk visitors pee on the neighbor’s bushes and three winters of watching hotel-turned-halfway-house tenants having animated conversations with pigeons. Fun. After that, we moved a bit north (Brick Township), far enough removed to not have to deal with the summertime crowds yet still close enough to get to the beach without turning it into an expedition.

Scott: A box turtle, with my sons toes in the background.

What is the most awesome thing in or about your neighborhood?

I love the fact that our neighborhood is a five minute ride to tons of strip malls and department stores and yet we’ve seen and heard more wildlife now than when I lived in northern Jersey. Listening to spring peepers and cicadas each night, watching ospreys hunt for fish, catching lightning bugs with my kids is just amazing. As I type this, I just noticed a box turtle cutting through our yard. I gave him a piece of lettuce from my garden for the effort.

Favorite place you go locally to discover hidden treasures?

While I will occasionally stick my head into the local thrift shops, I tend to prefer hitting up garage sales listed on Craigslist. You can get a good idea of what’s up for sale and build a rough map of where you want to go. It helps maximize my limited free time and keeps me focused on what I want to get and how much I want to spend. On that note, I am a cheapskate by nature. Although I was raised by Queens natives, my maternal grandparents were raised in New Hampshire and I tend to exhibit that famous Yankee frugality. An emerging trend with garage salers in the area is to leave the unsold items out at the curb after the sale, free for the taking. My father was a master “pearl diver” (garbage picker to the rest of the world) and I’ve never seen any shame in stopping to paw through a box of free items. I’ve also come away with some surprisingly nice finds doing this: a solid brass misting nozzle for a garden hose, a near-mint film projector and two bucketloads of free hand tools.

What blogs or websites do you visit regularly?

Craigslist, Old Woodworking Machines, Thriftcore, PvPOnline, Radiolab. I follow tons more on Google Reader and their topics run the gamut: recycling/repurposing, woodworking projects, music blogs, vintage posters, web comics, job searches, government auctions, and the list goes on. If I sat down and actually read all of the items I have left in GReader, I could easily eat up most of the day reading and five more days poking through all the additional links and questions those readings would bring up. The Internet is my drug of choice!

As a kid, were any of your toys and clothes hand-me-downs? Stories please!

I did pretty well as a kid in terms of getting new toys, although there may have been a few that were garage sale scores. However when I started to learn to use tools, I often ended up with some of my father’s secondary tools: lightweight hammers he didn’t use, a broken screwdriver ground down into an awl, rusty pliers from some sale long ago. I do remember it kind of bothered me that he got to use the “good” tools while I hacked away at a project with his leftover beaters, but I’m finding myself buying more and more older hand and power tools for both myself and my kids. It’s kind of trite to say “they don’t make them like they used to” but with ever rising competition, tool manufacturers are often forced to cut corners, using lower grade or thinner metals or even resorting to plastic in some redesigns. Older tools are usually heavier, more durable and/or have replaceable parts and often can be had for a fraction of their modern counterparts. That spells win-win for me.

Today, how often do you go to garage sales, flea markets, etc.? What is your modus operandi? Any personal tips you’d like to share?

I usually don’t have a great deal of time on the weekends to spend cavorting around town going to various sales, so most of my stops are unintentional. If I see a sign that looks promising and won’t take me too far out of the way of my original destination, I’ll at least “throw an eye” at what’s available. If something looks promising (or painfully cheap) I’ll stop and take a look.

My best advice to garage sale junkies: talk up the seller. Comment on something positive: the organization of the sale, how nice their furniture looks, anything. Even if you have to stoop to talking about the weather, do so. It humanizes you to the seller and vice versa and can often lead to a bargain. I came away with a double armload of stuff from a recent sale for the princely sum of five dollars (and a free glass carousel horse for my daughter) all because I made a talking point about the seller’s sweatshirt!

Have you ever taken home an object you found in the street or dumpster? If so, what was it? And where is it now?

I’ve pearl dived for so many things, it’s something of my stock-in-trade as a thrifter. My previous employer had been in business since the late 60’s, so there was often a steady stream of older office furniture making its way out to the dumpster. Wheeled and stationary office chairs, maple topped drafting tables, wooden pallets and desk lamps would sit outside waiting for the next trash pickup. Many of them (unless they were broken beyond recognition) never got to be seen by the garbage man because I dutifully dragged them home. One complete drafting table I broke down and reassembled at home and is now my main workbench; I saved the top from another one, cut it in half and combined it with some scrounged metal bench legs for a mobile work station. I had always secretly hoped they would put out a few of those indestructible steel tanker desks, but it never was to be.

Scott: The completed tractor seat.

Scott: The completed tractor seat.

Are you a hoarder or a minimalist?

Thanks to numerous shows on the subject, I’m reluctant to bill myself as a hoarder but I know I’m far removed from being a minimalist. When I pick up an item, my mind immediately throws out half a dozen ideas for what it could be turned into and I often grab it because the idea is enough for me to reason getting it. However, I’m realizing that just because I have a good idea doesn’t mean that item gets used right away. I once toted home the bottom half of a wheeled draftsman’s chair from my previous employer year’s ago, thrilled with the idea of adding a metal tractor seat and making a fun and funky shop seat for myself. The only problem? No tractor seat. The draftsman’s chair sat in the basement for years doing nothing until I found a tractor seat at an estate sale just a few weeks ago. Although I am thrilled with the final product, I learned an important lesson: no item is worth it if it’s not going to get used right away.

Scott: My Picnik folding bike (LOVE!)

Scott: My Picnik folding bike (LOVE!)

What is your most cherished thrifted, secondhand, vintage, upcycled object you possess? What’s the story behind it?

I think that would have to be my folding bike. I purchased a secondhand Worksman cycle a few years back with the idea of making it into my garage sale heavy hauler with carrying racks on the front and back. After riding it a while I realized it was a really nice bike for riding but felt top-heavy and hard to steer (and that was just with me on it). The idea of adding racks full of cargo did not leave me with happy thoughts for my knees and other yet-to-be-scraped-up body parts. So I casually browsed through Craigslist’s bike section for a few weeks. A lot of racing bikes, a lot of beach cruisers, but nothing that screamed “beast of burden.” Until I happened upon a very brief, photo-free ad selling an Italian folding bike for only $35. Even a casual browser like me knew that most used folding bikes have a zero attached to that number, so I dialed the seller as quickly as possible. Met him at his house, took a very brief spin up and down his street on the bike and then happily paid for it. It’s not a Bianchi (actually, a private label called Picnik; probably welded up in Yugoslavia and fitted with Italian parts), but it’s small, highly maneuverable and the rear carrying rack is actually part of the frame (no worries about overloading an aftermarket rack). It’s decrepit to be sure and one day I’ll spring for a sharp coat of paint and some spiffy whitewalls, but right now I love it because it works. The tires hold air, the brakes work and with the help of a few bungee cords I’ve already dragged a bunch of things home with it. What more can I ask for?

Scott: My freebie Kia bike - currently dismantled and getting stripped for repainting

Scott: My freebie Kia bike - currently dismantled and getting stripped for repainting

Do you create/make things? What are you working on these days?

I’m always tinkering with some idea or other, that’s just my nature. As a kid, my family was big into furniture restoration. We’d find beat up chairs and tables at various sales and spend our time carefully scraping, gluing, sanding and refinishing them. My mother took caning classes and taugh both me and my sisters how to do it, so I can often pick up awesome rocking chairs with blown seats for a pittance and be able to give them new life. From watching my dad, I learned a great deal about furniture construction and what makes one dresser worth bringing home and another fit for kindling. I still do some furniture work (cleaning up a cute Art Deco telephone table for my daughter’s room now), but I’ve stuck my nose in plenty of other restoration projects. I spent some time rebuilding old woodworking machines (table saws, drill presses, circular saws, etc.) which taught me plenty about restoring metal finishes and electrical wiring. I also recently scored a free Kia bicycle (yes, the car company originally made bikes) and, using some of my tool restoration knowledge, I’m finding myself getting into bike repairs. I’ve taken blacksmithing courses (welding is next), tried my hand at wood turning, want to learn to make my own amigurumi (crochet instructors, anyone?) and pretty much will throw in with anyone willing to teach me anything. I find it hard to relate to people who spend their time watching sports or playing endless video games. Maybe it’s just me, but wouldn’t you rather be doing something?

By the way, what’s your day job?

I spent eleven years as an environmental planner, but was laid off about a year ago. I’m currently studying to become a middle school science teacher. With the few teaching classes I’ve had so far I’ll say this: it makes corporate life look like mint juleps on the porch.

The Short List

Old Woodworking Machinery
Thrift Core
PvP Online

Find Scott
My Second Hand Life
Scott on Twitter