Salvage and reclamation - it's a woman's world

The salvage business is doing rather well in these bargain-hunting times. And you may be surprised to find that the use of salvaged materials in interior design is driven by women, not their supposedly super-handy-where-there's muck-there's-money-menfolk. 

By Kay Hill
Antique radiators have an elegance. From the Old Radiator Company

The UK has one of the most successful salvage industries in the world. And demand is, apparently, driven by women, according to organisation Salvo which promotes and regulates UK salvage businesses. Using salvaged materials - which are retrieved during building demoltions or refurbishments and house clearances - is very eco-friendly as it reduces the amount of fossil fuels needed to produce new building and architectural products. Pictured above: beautifully restored cast iron antique radiator from The Old Radiator Company in Kent, which has a stock of some 4,000. For salvaged materials, check out Wells Reclamation, Masco and Retrouvius, while Skinflint is the go-to place for salvaged/reclaimed lighting.


With the popularity of TV shows such as Seeking Salvage, Salvage Hunters and the granddaddy of them all, American Pickers, you might imagine that buying reclaimed and salvaged items is way of life for Britons. But perhaps in the same way that cookery programmes are immensely popular with people who never venture into the kitchen, it seems that many salvage watchers have yet to dip their toes into salvage in real life.
Thornton Kay, founder of Salvo, an organisation which seeks to both champion and regulate the UK salvage industry, admits that the amount of architectural salvage sold in the UK has barely changed since the 1990s, representing just one percent of the money spent in the building materials sector, or around £300 million a year.
Interestingly, Kay presents it as a kind of building site battle of the sexes: 'The use of salvaged materials is mainly driven by women, who make most of the decisions about interiors. In general, women appreciate the old materials and think it's sensible to reuse them, despite the opposition of the mainly male builders who find salvaged materials harder to use. The fact that the UK has one of the best reclamation industries in the world is thanks to the tenacity of women.' 




Cast iron tree seat available at Wells Reclamation. Max tree diameter 26 inches. £595.
Large reclaimed stone trough, L130xD110xH75cms, £2,000, from Staffs-based Cawarden.
Late 19th century cast iron garden urn, H53xW44.5cms, £290,from Lichen.
Pink and white marble slab, from an altar front, mid C19th, £1,250 + VAT.
Vintage croquet set, £275, from Masco.
Trainspotters specialises in reclaimed lighting.
Vintage dresser from Lassco. Vintage furniture is invariably well made.
Pair of brass handles - ideal also for use a towel rails - £150 each from Retrouvius
Unlike much of the building industry, the salvage market has also stood firm through the recession, says Thornton: 'Recessions affect property values and make people realise they will have to live somewhere for quite a while. This helps salvage to remain fairly buoyant as people want to get a job done with the money they have, while knowing they will have to live with it.'
The most popular salvage items, says Thornton, are things that will fit easily into most rooms such as tiles, wood flooring and cladding, fireplaces and doors, rather than harder-to-place items such as staircases.
The big three - Retrouvius, Masco and Lassco
If you ask people to name a salvage/reclamation company, those with an interest in the sector will probably say Retrouvius in London,  Masco in Gloucestershire, or Lassco, which has two London and an Oxfordshire venue; Brunswick House in Vauxhall, Ropewalk in Bermondsey and Three Pigeons in Oxfordshire.
Lassco was founded in the early 1970s, when 'it became evident that there were householders at one end of a North London street throwing original features into skips that householders at the other end were busily reinstating... between the two a business was born'.
Today, Ferrous Auger is MD and buyer at Lassco Brunswick House, which specialises in the antiques and hardware side of the business. The top five products customers want, he says, are: Lighting, mirrors, seating, tables and door furniture, although reclaimed flooring is also a huge part of the company’s business, dealt with mainly from by its Ropewalk depot.
Reclaimed does mean dirt cheap
'Some salvaged items are cheaper than new, some are not,' advises Ferrous. 'It depends how much we’ve had to pay for it and how much restoration is needed. Restoration costs are pretty high as they require skilled techniques – reversing the ageing process on an item is not an easy thing.'
For this reason he recommends you consider carefully how authentic they really want to be. 'With door furniture people can get bogged down in history, and the reality is that most people don’t live in a listed house,'he says. 'Do you want to be a purist? If so you’ll have to be prepared to dig deep so all the handles are the same. Or do you just want the look, which will be a cheaper option?'


Encaustic tiles from The Vintage Floor Tile Company are perfect for Victorian houses
Antique hardwood wideboards from David Gunton Hardwood Floors, from £120 m2



Old handles for drawers and doors are a big seller at Lassco.
Lassco offers antique and vintage mirrors, either original or with new plate.
Victorian Woodworks' luxury Grand Collection of reclaimed hardwood flooring.
Salvaged school hall lights, Chester, circa 1963, opaline tulip diffuser, from Cornwall's Skinflint
Masco has a lot of reclaimed baths, including antique roll top and slipper baths, which it restores
Small stone garden bench, £475, at Masco in Stroud.
This is especially true when it comes to mirrors: 'A lot of mirrors get broken, so a lot of salvaged mirrors are actually new plate in old frames; genuine mercurial plate is more expensive. Some people really like plate that is coming away at the back so you can see a mirror that is perishing, especially if they are putting it into an authentic interior. But most people putting a mirror in a more modern home would wince at the bits of foil coming off the back and would be happier with an old frame and new plate, or a reproduction mirror, if they are just buying it for the look.'
When it comes to furniture, he has little doubt that buying an older salvaged piece is good value: 'If a piece of furniture is a bit wobbly or wonky it probably only needs a few screws tightening up or a bit of wood glue. The important thing to remember is that a chair in mahogany or oak made 150 years ago is still a useful piece of furniture, and you will be getting a better deal buying salvaged as it will be made from solid wood and traditionally constructed.'
Another area where you might get a better quality item by buying reclaimed is radiators, as it’s hard to reproduce the look of a traditional cast iron rad. At Kent-based The Old Radiator Company, Fiona Triplow explains: 'Original cast iron radiators were built by craftsmen with early items dating from in the late 1800s. The metal content and quality of casting are of a very high standard, so using a professionally reclaimed radiator is a good way of achieving a high quality finish with an interesting, in some cases unique, historical piece.'
If you buy a radiator from your local junk yard you will probably want to get it inspected before connecting it to a modern heating system. 'Professional restoration companies will remove the existing fittings, clean out the internals, replace with modern fittings, remove the existing paint, pressure test and repaint,' says Triplow. 'Radiators that have been in service for a 100 years will be capable of giving another 100 plus years of service, combining beauty and practicality with the eco-credentials of a recycled product.'


A reclaimed claw foot bath at Masco's restored with a distressed finish requested by the client
If you have a wall to build, consider using reclaimed bricks. Try London Reclaimed,
You may find your imagination is fired up after a walk around a reclamation yard
Unrestored copper bateau bath, French, C19th, £2,750 from Original Baths in Somerset. www.originalba



Pifco table lamp, circa 1960, aluminium shade, steel base, from Skinflint,
Retrouvius has salvaged iroko wood school worktops, great as table tops
Lassco chandelier - reclaimed light is rewired and PAT tested
Skinflint Design and vintage lighting
Salvaged lighting is great for bringing character to rooms and specialists in architectural lighting salvage include Cornwall's Skinflint Design, set up by Sophie and Chris Miller, and Trainspotters. Designer Charlie Luxton is a big fan of Skinflint; he says the quality of lighting reclaimed from schools and factories is impressive and products have an appealing idiosyncracy.
Ferrous Auger at Lassco says industrial-style lighting has become a big seller - but he advises people to choose lighting that is in keeping with their houses and not to put industrial lighting in inappropriate places just because it's become trendy.
Schools and museums provide rich salvage pickings
Nick Hughes at Retrouvius, which has a showroom in Harrow as well as an extensive online presence, says the most popular buys at the moment are salvaged iroko table tops from school laboratories and patinated pieces of hardwood turned into dining tables. Restored Anglepoise lamps and rewired vintage lighting are also good finds.
'Our clients appreciate the quality of the pieces we stock and the value is in their longevity,' says Hughes. 'Retrouvius stands against disposability and our clients tend to be interested in the actual article, provenance and quality rather than necessarily following trends.'
Asked to predict what we'll be going crazy for in the not too distant future, he suggests old museum equipment: 'Museum cabinetry is particularly under-valued at the moment - it has quality and superb craftsmanship and is relatively affordable. Our two-door cabinets from the Natural History Museum are very popular at present. We saved a whole run of them while the museum was undergoing modernisation and an upgrade of its entomology storage department.'
Where to buy salvage
Direct – people refurbishing a home often discard things that others can use, so there’s no harm asking the home owner if you see a refurbishment in progress. But don’t just rummage around in people’s skips without permission; it is still theft even if the other person was throwing it away. 
Local scrap yards, junk shops etc – you probably have a local scrap metal merchant sitting on piles of reusable metal goodies, from wrought iron gates to cast iron fireplace surrounds, cool industrial-style lockers and filing cabinets to metal balustrades and bannisters. Remember to haggle!
Check out junk shops, lower end antique shops, flea markets and car boot sales for old furniture and textiles.
Salvage companies – go to a proper architectural salvage business and you get expert staff and more information about what is for sale and when it dates back to. Select from the 150 or so dealers affiliated with Salvo and they also promise that items have not been stolen or come from a historic building without consent. Salvage businesses vary from small open-air yards to posh shops. As well as Lassco, Retrouvius and Masco, there's Cox’s Yard and Ribble Reclamation.
Specialists – some companies specialise in one type of salvage, for example, The Vintage Floor Tile Company and The Old Radiator Company do exactly what it says on the tin.
For reclaimed lighting, see Skinflint, Trainspotters, and Trinity Marine.
Be particularly careful when buying salvaged lighting, warns Thornton Kay at Salvo: 'If it’s dirt cheap it may not be rewired or safe, so look for the PAT (Portable Appliance Testing) sticker with a date on.'
Reclaimed wooden floors are very widely available, but reliable experts include David Gunton Hardwood Floors and Victorian Woodworks.
Masco is a general salvage business but it has a particularly good range of reclaimed baths, basins and taps.
For garden products try Lichen Garden Antiques, which always has a good and inspiring range.