Eccentric Cubicle book excerpt: Scrap-Fu: The Way of the Yard

Energy & Sustainability
Eccentric Cubicle book excerpt: Scrap-Fu: The Way of the Yard

We don’t think Kaden Harris’ book, Eccentric Cubicle, has gotten nearly enough of the love it deserves. This is a really smart, funny, and informative book that any maker can benefit from and enjoy reading. If you’ve looked at it and thought: “Hmmm… I’m not interested in building desktop seize equipment or a personal guillotine,” look again. This book is treasure-trove of worthwhile wisdom on “improvisational fabrication” of all kinds. You can apply the ideas and build-techniques (in woodworking, metalwork, optics, electronics) to all sorts of DIY project. And the book is chalk full of all sorts of pearly wisdom and terrific tips from a gifted artist and master craftsman. And, the book is currently on sale in the Shed for $19.50

To give you an idea of what sorts of great material you’ll find in the book, here’s an excerpt. Step (reverently, please, young Padawan) into Kaden’s junkyard dojo and let him show you the way of Scrap-Fu.


Scrap-Fu: The Way of the Yard


Enter the scrap yard.

Oh, all right. Enter the “metal recycling facility,” if you absolutely insist on using the current politically and environmentally correct terminology. Call them what you will, but enter them you must: they are the wellspring of arcane components and mysterious metals you need to complete your endeavours.

You must be wary. The scrap yard is a perilous and mysterious land of unknown wonders and horrors, its treasures protected by formidable and inscrutable metal monks. Mastering the ancient art of scrap-fu gives you the undefeatable skills you need to emerge victorious.

You must practice your scrap-fu skills for many hours. Watch, listen, and remember. Celebrate your victories with rice wine. Bind your wounds and learn from your defeats.

Become one with the scrap yard, but be forewarned: not all yards are created equal, nor the denizens who serve them. Knowing the yard and respecting the priests enhances your experience a hundredfold, optimizes your chances of fulfilling your quest, and reduces your risk of meeting a horrible doom at the gaping maws of the beastly Iron For-Klift, or becoming lost on the desolate plains of Ex Tru Sion.

Now pay attention, grasshopper. Class is in session. Understanding a scrap yard means understanding the scrap they deal with. Some yards are general-purpose, some are more specialized. Some are huge industrial yards that deal with hundreds of tons of one or two specific kinds of metal daily. Other yards are more like a neighborhood junkyard repurposed into a thrift shop. Both have their merits, but a smaller “mom and pop” yard is more likely to have trippy cast-off arcana from unexpected sources. Scout out a few different flavours of yard and get a feel for each. You’ll eventually end up needing the services of all of them, if you’re halfway adventurous.

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In the Maker Shed:



Eccentric Cubicle
Sale Price: $19.50
Sample chapters.

Scrap Metal at a Glance
There are four main commodity metals traded regularly at scrap yards: copper, brass, aluminum and stainless steel. There are a bunch of different grades of copper and aluminum and a few flavours of brass and stainless, and each of them can be found in various subgrades. Each is bought and sold at a different cost per pound, which can quickly become confusing when it’s time to cough up the cash. Local scrap yards make money in a pretty simple way: buy metal cheap, clean it up and sort it out, then sell it in quantity to a larger broker upstream in the commodity chain. If you’re selling to a yard, you can optimize your return by sorting and cleaning it beforehand. If you’re buying metal or wire, you’ll be paying roughly the same rate the yard gets when they sell their metal upstream, but you’ll find that being a regular is often reflected in a more favourable rate of exchange. Buying salvaged components and artifacts brings other pricing considerations into play; I’ll deal with that in detail later.

Other common metals like lead, tin, and zinc are daily staples at ‘yards, but if you need something from a less well-traveled portion of the periodic table, like bismuth or titanium, your search may be thwarted.

Steel and iron are kinda like the redheaded stepchildren of scrap yard metals: they’re there, but they’re not afforded any respect due to their low (in comparison) commodity value. Current (mid-2007) street-level value of steel is about $40 a ton. Mid-grade copper is about $2.50 a pound. Turning a profit from recycling steel requires a large-scale industrial operation that can handle hundreds of tons a day. Every city has a big steel yard or two, and it’s a fascinating field trip to see the inner workings. They’re generally lacking in personality, and safety-wise not the best place for lone Makers to be poking through tubs of metal. Unless you’re fabricating a lifesized model of the Nimitz and need a lot of structural steel plate and 18″ I-beams, you’re better off finding and frequenting a local scrap yard.

In addition to the various commodity metals, most scrap yards salvage artifacts, componentry, and technology for resale.

What kind of componentry?

Damned good question, Billy. To answer it, you need to answer the main question people ask when they first visit a scrap yard: “Where the hell does all this shit come from?” Seriously, every yard I’ve ever been in is for the most part a chaotic mass of twisted copper plumbing, piles of aluminum window frames stacked like cordwood, huge drums of snarled CAT5 cable and fetid mounds of decommissioned commercial kitchen equipment. Scrap yards are filled with the metal from demolition jobs, leftover supplies from construction sites, scrap and cutoffs from manufacturing firms, obsolete industrial equipment, and the contents of hundreds of garages and basements.

Which is to say that on any given day, you run the possibility of finding anything.

The kind of stuff that gets salvaged depends on the stuff that comes in, and how hip the staff of the yard is. You’ll see a lot of plumbing and electrical supplies, and stuff that reflects the local industrial landscape. Vancouver, where I live, is a port town, so there are a lot of marine fittings and commercial fishing-related stuff coming into yards. Machinists’ metal stock, and fabrication-grade box channel, tubing, and plate can be found, but rarely in useful size and quantity. A surprising amount of functioning machinery finds its way into scrap yards. It’s generally one or two generations old, and being scrapped to make way for new ‘n’ improved gear. Big industry doesn’t often waste time and money disposing of old kit on eBay or Craigslist. To them, it’s depreciated to the point of having no value, so it gets scrapped. Once it’s in the yard, it’ll either have all the easily accessible commodity metal stripped from it, with the bare carcass being tossed into the metal ghetto of “the Steel Bin,” or it’ll be kept in hopes of resale, either intact or parted out. Makers in the know rub their hands together gleefully at this, because what’s “scrap” to industry and “metal” to scrap yards is “componentry” to us. Finding cool tech just waiting to be harvested for functioning subassemblies is kinda like ChristmaHanuKwanzakah, your birthday, and a date with a leggy supermodel all at once.

Really. It’s that good.

I recently happened upon a decommissioned medical imaging device called a UroView 2500 at North Star Recycling. It was in three pieces, sitting in between a stack of benches recently removed from a shopping mall, and a three-ton tub of elevator wiring harness. I had a quick chat with yard owner and scrap-metal ubermensch Phil Watson, then proceeded to harvest the carcass of the UroView (yup, “Uro” as in “Urology.” I had a moment of chilling discomfort when visualizing the large and dangerous looking mechanism being used in close proximity to my . . . well, my urinary tract) for four precision 16″ linear actuators, a handful of microswitch-based motion limiters, half a dozen low-speed/high-torque gear motors and an assortment of drivetrain components. Total elapsed time, 20 minutes; total cost, 20 bucks and a coffee.

My scrap-fu is strong.

Notable tech left behind for the next adventurer to encounter in the corpse: a digital rotational encoder accurate to three decimal places, the Fuji hi-res video camera and image intensifier circuitry, and all the motor control circuitry. A couple of days later, when the yard grunts got tired of tripping over the remnants, the once proud UroView 2500 was unceremoniously consigned to the Steel Bin, signaling its impending return to molten metal.

During the same expedition I picked up some sheet brass and /16″ brass roundbar that had come in as scrap from a local machine shop, a motorized flow control valve that had been part of a plumbing contractor’s weekly “beer run” transaction, and a spun copper planter brought in by a retiree cleaning out his basement that became the motor housing for the hypnodisc I made for David Pescovitz (MAKE’s Editor-at-Large).

Damn, I love scrap yards.

Anyway, my point is this: if you can master the skill of “seeing at a component level,” you have begun your journey towards scrap-fu mastery, because at a scrap yard, components are everywhere.


The Secret Language of Scrap Yards
Similarly to the Inuit having multiple words for “snow,” scrap yard metal nomenclature is both specific and cryptic. Here’s a brief translation guide to common scrap yard commodities:

#1 Copper The king of metals right now, currently being bought at about $2.80/pound CDN as a result of recent studies indicating that there is insufficient copper metal on the face of the earth to wire up China and South Asia’s networks with CAT5 cable. Corrosion- and solder-free copper plumbing, sheet-copper cladding, and stripped industrial gauge electrical cable are considered “#1 copper” at scrap yards, and you will pay top dollar to buy it. Unless you’re dead set on a particular pristine piece of metal, you’re better off buying something lower-grade and cleaning it up at home with emery paper and steel wool.

#2 Copper The next most valuable: copper plumbing, sheeting and bare wire with corrosion, bits of solder, and impurities of dubious provenance. Price-wise, this is a better bet.

#1 Copper wire This is thick stuff. Insulated uniconductor household wiring is an example. Contractors often sell leftover rolls of this stuff for beer money. If you’re doing some home improvement, you can save a ton of money scoring your wiring supplies at a scrap yard.

Burnt copper wire This comes from the windings of overheated transformers and industrial motors. It’s worth money to sell to a yard, but I’ve yet to find a use for the stuff in the shop. Gag-inducing aroma, often covered in flaky detritus like a cross between mica and glitter that will make your skin itch for days. Avoid at all costs.

#2 Copper wire Multistrand consumer electronic wiring: AC cords, audio, CAT5, and other data cable, that kinda stuff. This is another commodity that often comes into a yard in full roll quantities that are an absolute bargain if you do a lot of cable runs. I hit Capital Salvage on a good day once and got 100 yards of high-end Belden three-conductor-plus-wovenshield audio cabling for a ten-spot. Lost the next three days obsessively designing, fitting, and soldering up a custom wiring harness for my V-Drums, but that’s another story.

BX wire This is #1 copper wire in that flexible aluminum armour. Gives a nice Mad Max vibe to your wiring projects, and the empty aluminum cladding is useful in countless other applications.

Brass Comes in innumerable yellow and red alloys. The price the yard buys at varies on how much other stuff has to be removed to leave clean (read: “no other metal attached to it”) brass. The selling price is generally at a par with the yard’s upstream selling price. Plumbing fittings, ornamental household items, marine instruments, arcane componentry that defies logic and imagination . . . it’s all at a ‘yard, and it’s made outta brass.


FWIW, cymbals are treated as brass, rather than the bronze they truly are. There is (for a drummer, anyway) no greater thrill than paying $2.50/pound for a beautifully aged, lovingly maintained Paiste Seven Sound series 18″ flat ride. Been there, done that, still grinnin’ like the butcher’s dog.

Stainless steel Comes in about a million alloys, not all of which are nonmagnetic. Surprisingly cheap for the longest time, it’s recently become “dynamic,” as they say in the commodity metal trade. The king of stainless alloys is 316L: yer A-1 Primo Surgical grade metal of choice. You can use it to fabricate the scalpel you’ll need to remove the arm and leg you’ll be using to pay for it. If you can find 316 in /32″ plate, it makes for an effective guillotine blade.

Just sayin’.

The vast majority of stainless that enters scrap yards is in the form of food industry equipment, which, beneath the inevitable thick coating of deep-fryer grease, also contains useful industrial-strength mechanisms like compressors, chain drive trains, high-torque gearboxes, and the like. If you can steer your nose around the odours, you can scoop up quality mechanical schwag for cheap, because the guys who work in scrap yards would much rather have you disassemble the stuff than suffer the task themselves.


Aluminum is a brutally diverse metal in the eyes of a scrap yard, with the buy/sell prices being just as confusing: Extruded Window frames, structural pieces, box channel, that kinda stuff. Aluminum extrusion comes in a range of profiles that staggers the imagination: you name the shape, and I can guarantee that some manufacturer somewhere has found a need to extrude aluminum with that particular profile. Seek out the extrusion stacks at a scrap yard and spend some time pondering the shapes and sizes you encounter. It almost requires a full-on meditative trance state to open your mind up to the potential of intricately profiled extrusion, but I can assure you of the value of such consideration.

New aluminum Heavier-gauge machine formed metal: plate, pipe, fabrication-grade metal. Machine shops sell their scrap regularly, and depending on the jobs they’ve been working on, their scrap can include regularly shaped cutouts/cutoffs/ punchouts in quantity. As an example, I have a couple of fivegallon pails of circular / “-plate cutouts ranging in diameter from one to ten inches. At some point in time, I’ll actually find a use for them.

Cast aluminum What it says. As a material, it’s brittle and the surface is generally unfinished, but cast aluminum comes in shapes ranging from commonplace (barbecue grill hoods) to being completely alien in topography (I’ve built home décor items from electric motor housings that would not look out of place on the bridge of a Klingon battle cruiser). If you’re prepared to spend time on surface finishing, scrap yard cast aluminum is a limitless source of Dali-esque project boxes and enclosures.

Old aluminum Thin-gauge metal: rain gutters, siding, that sort of thing. A good source of easily workable faceplate material.

Dirty aluminum
Treated with disdain by the yard grunts: Their attitude is, “Well, there’s aluminum in there somewhere, but it’s a pain in the ass to clean it up.” The disdain is, for the most part, well-deserved. It’s the category of aluminum that also includes “cast, with brass bushings and/or steel bearing races still in place,” though, which means there’s always potentially something useful.


This is industrial-gauge aluminum wire with a steel reinforcing core; comes clad or unclad. They don’t pay much for it, don’t charge much for it, and any prospective usage has thus far escaped me.

As mentioned, there are likely other common metals around somewhere — ask a yard grunt. Despite my previous caution about the availability of exotic elements, don’t be afraid to ask about them, either. On a given day, the grunts in a scrap yard have no idea what’s gonna come through the gates on the back of a truck, and you may get lucky. The thing about scrap yards is that there is huge turnover of inventory on a weekly basis, and being a regular is the only way to grab the good stuff before it gets crushed into a bale and shipped to the Pacific Rim.

Regular steel and iron is priced either by weight or by item, if you’re buying. Most yards salvage common steel and iron items like angle iron and rebar when they come in, but demand is high and it seldom lingers on the racks for long. The real treasure trove lies in the bins of steel yards accumulated through “courtesy disposal” for clients, which often contain spectacularly cool artifacts you will feel compelled to own. Accessing the bins and recovering the goodies is an adventure often fraught with peril, and requires powerful scrap-fu.


The Way of Scrap

To understand the Way of Scrap, think of a scrap yard as an semi-organic mechanism tasked with sorting all the crap that gets hauled in through the gates into the aforementioned categories. When enough of a certain flavour of metal accumulates and the price is right, they ship it upstream in the recycling hierarchy to a metal broker and turn a reasonable profit. There’s a place for everything, and everything gets to its place eventually — ask the guy at the scale where stuff is. To you, it’s an invaluable component in your next build; to them, it’s just metal to be moved around. Despite my referring to them as grunts, on’t make the mistake of assuming that these guys are clueless. They spend their workday dealing with a mind-boggling array of mechanisms and materials (and the people who use them), and they pay attention. The collective knowledge and experience of a scrap yard crew gives ’em an unparalleled ability to spot the good stuff from whatever technical discipline they happen to be dealing with.

Treat a trip to a scrap yard with the same attitude as a trip to a technical consultant: assume that (at the very least) they are as knowledgable as you are regarding whatever it is you’re looking for.


Earn extra points by asking for what you want with reasonable, but not extreme specificity: one surefire way to annoy yard staff is to come through the gate and say “I need leetle piece metal” while holding your index fingers in the air demonstratively. Another way is to ask for ” / ” polished aluminum checkerplate 14 / ” x 29 13/16″ . . . I can go as high as 29 15/16″, but you’ll need to knock a buck or two off the price.” (These are verbatim requests I have personally fielded during my time as a yard grunt at North Star recycling.)

Once you’re pointed in the right direction, proceed with caution and keep your eyes open. A yard is full of pointy metal, large weighty things on forklifts, and unnaturally strong men carrying heavy loads. Having your path intersect any of these things will invariably result in injury. In a scrap yard, you’re gonna be faced with containers of metal. Really big containers. The stuff you want is likely on the bottom. Ask before climbing in, and put back everything you displace in the process. A lot of metal in a yard is moved by hand, and making more work for the previously noted unnaturally strong men is generally not a good idea.

Bring your dimensions with you, and bring a tape measure and/or calipers. Scrap yards may have such things available, and they may let you borrow them, but it’s a sign of professionalism if you come prepared.

Bring a few useful tools with you, in case you discover something worth harvesting. I can get by with a multiscrewdriver, adjustable wrench, locking pliers, and wire cutters. Your needs may vary. Whatever you do, do not just start taking something apart. Show the guy at the scale what you’re interested in, explain what you’re planning to do with it, and negotiate both permission and price. Because these things get priced on the fly 99% of the time, the way you relate with guy at the scale directly determines both the price and the possibility of you getting clocked on the head with a baseball bat for being an asshole.

Finding the stuff in the first place is dependent on your relationship with the yard grunts. The owner/manager/guy at the scale may handle the money, but the guys in the yard move the goods around and know exactly where it is. Be polite, become a regular, and show them proper respect. The occasional box of Krispy Kremes wouldn’t hurt, either. If you’re on good terms with the staff and you come in frequently, they’ll often keep an eye open for stuff on your “gotta get” list.

It’s worth the effort. Stuff I’ve come across at yards recently, over and above the now-legendary UroView 2500? A full set of ding- and crack-free Zildjian and Paiste cymbals, 1500 LCD862 PIC controllers, rack-mounted HP EEG and ECG monitors, otherworldly cast aluminum casings from mid- 50s microscope projectors, a belt-drive dental drill, a surgical electric scalpel/cauterization instrument, and a metalbending tool set that looks like it came from Fred Flintstones’ garage. I spent less than 60 bucks Cdn.

I have the lift mechanism from a dentist’s chair, currently poised to become an in-workbench hoist system. Now go, and practice your scrap-fu. Practice relentlessly, with great power. Bring your village great happiness.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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