This is Part 1 of a series of two articles, in which Ben “C. B. Gitty” Baker shares some of what he has learned about buying cool old vintage items (ie: junk) for making homemade instruments.
I am pretty much a newcomer to junking, picking, thrifting, yardsale-ing and the like.
Though I grew up poor and most of my clothes and toys were secondhand, it is only since getting into making cigar box guitars and other handmade instruments that I have begun to appreciate the value of junk stores, thrift stores, yard sales and to a lesser extent antique stores.
Once you realize how many different things you can make musical instruments out of, it isn’t long before you realize that second-hand buying is the best way to get the best stuff at the best prices.
So it is only within the last couple of years that I have really gotten into the world of second-hand buying, and only in the last six months that I have really gotten serious about it. So you may ask, isn’t that a bit soon to start writing a guide telling other people how to do it? In short, yes it is – but I am learning
as I go, so I wanted to share what I have picked up so far. I am sure veteran yardsale-ers and thrifters will have a lot they could add to this, and that’s fine – for me, it’s still a work in progress.
Keep in mind that I am talking purely about buying stuff to be made into instruments, not about buying to resell or buying to collect. There are plenty of guides out there already for that sort of thing.
What I Look For
First, a list of the sorts of things I am looking for when I go out junkin’. This list is not all-inclusive, because you never know when
you’re going to run across something you’ve never seen before, and in a flash of insight you realize you can make a guitar out of it. There is no requirement that you know what something actually is, or what it was used for – but of course that helps. So here it is my “watch list”:
- Smaller Tins, cans and canisters of all types:
tobacco tins, beer cans, flour tins, oil cans, gunpowder tins, spice cans, random kitchen/houseware tins, modern decorative tins, candy tins, etc. An awful lot of household wares used to come in metal containers, before cardboard and plastic took over, so there is a LOT of this sort of stuff out there. Even metal mugs can be used as canjo
resonators. I haven’t gotten into using the larger gas and oil cans yet, since making instruments out of these larger items presents unique challenges.
- Miscellaneous smaller metal pieces that can be used as resonators: license plates, hub caps, mail box doors, can lids, badges, machine parts, motor parts, gears, saw blades, etc.
- Small metal decorative items: reclaimed architectural salvage like door knobs, hinges, latches, catches, and the like. Old bolts/lag screws/etc that show their age. Any smaller metal pieces that can be glued or screwed to an instrument to give it some extra visual appeal.
- I personally am always on the outlook for old reclaimed wood, particularly if the story of where it came from is known. It sure is easier to buy a bunch of old wood than it is to put it to use though.
- Cigar boxes, smaller crates and boxes, anything with dovetail or box-jointed corners, especially if it has readable lettering on the panels. Unfortunately these have been very “hot” lately and finding a good price on them is hard.
- Random cool stuff. This is where you get into trouble for dragging home too much rusty old junk. If there is one thing I have learned so far, it’s that it is an awful lot easier to accumulate piles of stuff than it is to actually figure out how to make instruments out of it.
Where to Buy Stuff
Now that you know the sorts of things I am on the lookout for, here is my working list of tips for effective junkin’.
- Get as close to the source as possible –yard sales. The closer you get to the source (the actual people who own the stuff, not people who are trying to resell it for a profit), usually the better the price you’ll get. There are a couple of exceptions to this (see #2 below), but usually yard sales, garage sales, estate sales and that sort of thing are the source of the best bargains. Of course some people research what all of their stuff is worth and try to get full retail for it, but for the most part people just want to get rid of what they see as their junk. And a lot of it will in fact be junk. You have to be willing to walk by a lot of junk, and make quite a few stops where you don’t buy anything at all, to find the good stuff.
- Donation-based thrift stores and Free Clean-Out services. Donation-based thrift stores can be a great source of parts for making musical instruments. So can “yard sales” set up by the folks who drive around the trucks with “We’ll clean out your stuff for free” on the side. Usually thrift stores and free clean-out people are just looking to make a few bucks on stuff that they got for free, and they rarely do much research into what things are worth. Some thrift stores might be a bit more savvy about researching actual values of things – you’ll have to get an idea of where the best bargain potentials are in your area.
- Flea markets. These can be a crap shoot, and you never know what you are going to see. Flea markets can range from the lowest of low-end yard sales, to more or less professional cadre of slick dealers looking for full retail prices. You never know what you might find though… a few cigar boxes, some decent tins, some old beat up guitars that can be used for parts, who knows! Be ready to haggle – that is part of the flea market experience, and if you pay the first price that they throw out, you’re probably paying too much.
- Junk and second-hand stores. These are a step or two down from antique stores – but that’s a good thing! Personally, the more piles of rusty junk out front, the happier I am. These sorts of places seem to be harder to find these days, but they’re still out there. You have to be willing to dig through rusty junk, squeeze through packed semi trailers, get grease, mud and random gunk on your hands. You have to dodge wasps, step over bumblebee nests, tiptoe around ticks, keep up with your tetanus booster shots, and watch out for broken glass. You never know what you might find in that next semi trailer or outbuilding.
- Antique stores. These are tricky. Usually antique store owners know what all of their stuff is worth, and they price it at the high end of the scale. It is possible to find antique stores out there, usually on the lower end of “antique” and upper end of “junk”, where the owners don’t really keep up with current prices and you can get some good deals. I have learned that the magic phrase “I don’t do anything online” can mean good deals.
- Scrap Yards. These can be a tough nut to crack. Scrap yards tend to be busy places, and the people there tend to be… rather gruff. When your day to day job is moving tons of scrap metal around, having to deal with somebody wanting to wander around and buy a few trinkets can be pretty annoying. So be ready for that if you’re going to go in. I personally have only tried to make inroads into one local scrap yard, and it has been hit and miss. I managed to get 13,000 beer can tops at just over the scrap metal value from the owner, but a few months later the same guy had no idea who I was and was too busy to even deal with me. So there you go.
- Other. Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to ask. Take a page out of the American Pickers playbook. If you’re out somewhere, where stuff wouldn’t usually be considered to be for sale, and something strikes your eye, go for it. Sometimes it just doesn’t hurt to ask. If you’re polite, the worst thing that can happen is you’ll get told “no”. Tell them you want to make a musical instrument out of it. Describe other stuff you’ve built, or show them a picture. Tell a story, pique their interest, and it just might work.
Check out Part 2 of this guide for more tips and advice!
This is Part 2 of a series of two articles, in which Ben “C. B. Gitty” Baker shares some of what he has learned about buying cool old vintage items (ie: junk) for making homemade instruments.
In the Part 1 of this article, I discussed the sorts of things I look out for when junkin’ and pickin’, as well as the sorts of places I go to do it – the What and the Where. In this part of the article, I focus more on on the “How” – the way I go about picking. They are still under development, but they are working for now. I have never been a big fan of negotiating prices and dickering, but I have been working on it – so that affects some of these general thoughts. Everyone is different and these methods may not work for you, but I hope some people are able to gain something from it.
- It’s OK to pay full retail sometimes. Some stuff can be old, and still not be high-dollar. I always approach it by thinking of what I can reasonably sell an instrument for. So if a dealer wants $10 for a very cool tobacco tin, I have to think of what I can reasonably charge for a canjo made from it. $25? $40? If you are building it for yourself, go wild… but if you are building it to resell, you gotta think about costs. A coffee tin from the 1920’s might be worth $50 to collectors… but a canjo made out of it probably isn’t going to be worth $100 to very many people. Remember that making instruments out of stuff usually damages or ruins the collectible value of a piece (unless you go to great pains to not do so, but that takes time and time is a cost).
- If they give you a great price, don’t try to talk them down. Usually I try to negotiate a lower price for stuff, especially if I am buying a pretty good-size pile of it. But sometimes, a seller will throw out a really good price, and I know I am getting a great deal. In those cases, I don’t even try for a lower price, I just pay the money and know I did good.
- Don’t be shy about letting them know what you’re looking for. You can make up a written list of the stuff you’re interested in if you want, but just telling the owner the sorts of things you want can save you a lot of time. Sit down and make a list of what your main items of interest are, and then memorize it so you can rattle it off clearly and confidently when asked. Don’t get too laser focused in on a limited list though – always keep your eyes open for new stuff that you might not have known about.
- If prices aren’t marked, form a sample pile and get a price on that. I have found that in junk stores, and some less fancy antique stores, there might not be any prices on individual items. This can make it tricky to know whether you want to buy specific items. In these cases, I have found it useful to do a lap around the place (noting where the good stuff is) and gather up a few different items to present to the owner and get a price on. This can let you know whether it is worthwhile to gather up any more stuff. Let them know that you’ll be diving back in for more if the prices are friendly. If they are firmly set on high prices, you might want to move on.
- Tell them you don’t want anything that’s of high collectible value. If you’re looking at a shelf full of 20 oil cans, 3 of them might be $50 cans, 8 might be $10 cans and the rest might be $5 cans. Unless you are trying to meet a specific customer request , it probably won’t make your creation more saleable or valuable if it has a $50 oil can on in instead of a $5 oil can. I make sure the seller knows that I am not really interested in anything that is rare or higher-dollar. I am not afraid to put stuff back on the shelf.
- Take a page from the Frank Fritz playbook – bundle! If you don’t know who Frank Fritz is, he’s the short chubby bearded guy on the History Channel show “American Pickers”. If you’ve never watched American Pickers, start with episode 1 season 1 and watch them all – you’ll learn an awful lot about antiques, buying, negotiating and shenanigans in general. But anyway, bundling is buying groups of items at the same time, instead of one at a time, in order to get a better price on the group. It seems like it would be so obvious that it wouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Put one old oil can on the counter, and the price might be a firm eight bucks. But put 5 up there and offer $30 and it might just fly. That’s $6 each, or 25% off the price on the single. Sure, you had to buy more stuff and spend more money, but if you wanted all of them anyway, you got a good deal! If they won’t budge on the price, see if you can add something else. “If I give you the $25 you want on this, will you throw in that?” It actually works.
- Show and talk about what you are going to make out of the stuff you’re buying. Bring a couple of your instrument creations along with you on your picking adventures, or at least bring some pictures. If you have a card, give them a card. Tell them about the stuff you have made. I am not saying it will get you better prices, but it can make an impression, spark an interest… and it can get you into areas that “normal” customers aren’t allowed to go – the packed basement, that extra semi trailer off to the side, the unpicked, unsorted, unwashed “good stuff”.
- Work on forming relationships. If you plan on doing this sort of thing for a while, I recommend that you work on getting to know the people in your area who set up booths at flea markets, run junk shops and antique shops, run “free clean-out” businesses, etc. If you get to know these folks, they might look out for specific items for you, cut you better deals, etc. If you really get into it, consider making up a watch list to leave with people so they know to contact you when something good comes along.
- Be open to trade deals. If you follow suggestion #5 above, and bring a few finished instruments with you when you go out junkin’, you might run into a seller who offers to trade stuff for one of your creations. This can be a good way to establish a good relationship with a seller, even if you don’t come out too far ahead on that specific trade. Some might even offer to take something on consignment and try to sell it for you. Whether or not that’s something you want to do is entirely your call – managing consignment sales is a whole other article or two.
- Try to have fun with it. Personally, I love finding more or less rusty old stuff and giving it new life as musical instruments. Whether it’s a cigar box being re-lifed into a guitar, an old oil can or tobacco tin being made to ring and twang as a canjo, for me this crazy hobby is fun. For me, getting good deals on neat old stuff to turn into the instruments is almost as fun as making the instruments themselves. If you find that it stresses you out, then stick with eBay or other less direct means of procuring materials. Life’s too short to spend time doing stuff that makes you stressed and unhappy.
- Don’t get too carried away. It is a lot easier to accumulate piles of rusty old stuff than it is to actually make instruments out of it. Don’t strain your finances and personal relationships by endless accumulation of stuff. It’s easy to get carried away… as attested by the ever-expanding pile of stuff in Gitty HQ. I have to admit I’m not very good at following this particular advice point. – but I do try to keep it in mind.
That about sums up what I’ve learned so far about the fascinating hobby/obsession of junkin’ and picking. When you venture out into this rusty, dusty and fascinating world of stuff, the whole long history of American (and world) manufacturing lies in front of you. Sometimes you have to dig for it a bit, but the dig is worth it.