If Steve and Jim Kelley had a treasure map, it would probably be scrawled on the back of the garbage pickup schedule. The power tool-toting stars of The Junk Brothers aren’t looking for diamonds in the rough, they’re digging through castoffs at the curb.
Their HGTV show has the Kelleys prowling nocturnal neighborhoods in their pickup, scooping furniture and flotsam off the curb and carting it back to their workshop where they turn trash into treasure, or at least into unexpected reinterpretations and reprieves for landfill-bound refuse.
Who knew a sink would make an interesting grandfather clock? Or a pair of broken-down bikes could become a karaoke stage! But the Kelleys don’t put their creations in a shop window with a price tag. They take them “home,” back to the curb from whence they came. Then they ring the doorbell. And run.
It’s an odd intersection of prank and project, but the brothers seem perfect for it. Growing up in the sawdust of their father’s Ottawa furniture restoration shop, the Kelleys learned an appreciation of the craft and what it took to rescue a neglected treasure. And they each gained an eye for any object’s potential — even before the production company found them.
“We’re not necessarily dumpster divers,” says Steve. “But if we see something on the side of the road it’s usually in the back of the truck in a minute.”
It’s this attitude that turns a rusty lawnmower into a rolling drink caddy and an ill-used rowing machine into a chair fit for George Jetson’s den. We pulled the brothers away from the workbench to find out how they find the odd in the odds and ends, like turning an old traffic light into a tasteful bedside table.
“You got to have vision,” says Jim.
“And a big garage,” Steve adds.
Which project were you tempted to keep for yourself?
Jim Kelley: The one I was most tempted to keep was the first one we did. It was an old console TV. We cut it out and turned it into a fish tank. When it lit up for the first time, we got really excited about it.
Steve Kelley: There was an antique chair that was from about 1880. They obviously didn’t know what they had. We completely restored it. It was such a nice, quality piece of furniture. If I could have kept one, that would be it.
What’s the one tool you can’t live without?
SK: Probably the cordless drill. It just makes life so much easier. It works as a screwdriver, a drill, and it’s convenient. You can take it wherever and you don’t have to have a power source.
JK: I wish there was just one. I would say the reciprocating saw. It’s just a tool that I can use for a bunch of different projects. It’s great for demo[lition]. It pretty much revolutionized the saw. You can use it for any kind of material: wood, metal. You can cut holes out.
What does your show teach us about modern society?
SK: It teaches us we live in a throwaway society but we don’t have to. We sometimes have to peel the onion back to see that there is some value. We can maybe make this into something or fix it, or make it better. It doesn’t have to be, “Hey, it’s paid for. I don’t like it. I’m going to throw it out.”
JK: If you pick something off the curb, you think you’re a garbage picker. But that’s not necessarily the way it is; you’re basically saving it. We just have to get past this stigma. My next-door neighbor was throwing out the coolest ice cooler I’ve ever seen. It was metal, from the 50s. I’m using it right now. It’s right at the end of my bar.
What do you need to get rid of?
SK: I really have a hard time throwing anything out. That’s probably a good question for my wife. If I can’t use it on this project, I can use it on the next project. I like to hang on to everything.
JK: I’ve stopped accumulating and I’ve started to reduce what I have by reusing things, but I guess the one thing that I need to get rid of is the rest of my carport. I tore it out so I could get a truck through. I took all the 2×10s. I took all the nails out. I’m down to the sheets of plywood I had on the roof. I can’t find a use for it. I guess I need to get rid of it.
For the complete interview and more images, go to makezine.com/13/junkbros.