The secrets of scrap

by Erik Beerbower

When I need inspiration I go to the scrap yard. When you choose to live your life by the means of your art you must be creative, resourceful and thrifty. That requires a lot of inspiration and motivation. When I need an inspirational kick-start I go to the crossroads, DH Griffin, where used metal gets a second chance at a new artistic life.

Mondays and Tuesdays are great days to go to the scrapyard. I love starting off my week at DH Griffin’s on Hilltop Road in Greensboro.

One person’s scrap is another person’s art. I don’t see scrap metal as garbage; I see it as shapes, lines and forms that can be combined and integrated to create meaningful pieces of art. The key is to visualize the layering of the scrap to help create the work. For me it’s like clicking the imaginary mouse on the sprocket and dragging it over to the hoops and sprinkling a little pipe in there, welding it together and calling it art. By allowing the forms to inspire me it takes away the pressure of conceiving the work from a blank page and has increased my productivity. Plus it is an economics issue: The less money you put into materials the more you get to keep. It keeps the overall cost of the work down and allows you to sell it at a more affordable rate, which can encourage sales.

A few tips to know before going to the scrapyard: First, always bring cash. Checks are frowned upon and they do not accept credit or debit. Scrapyards make their money moving metal. Buy low, sell high and sell fast. I have been there to drop off metal to sell and came back the next day to see it squashed into neat 4′ x 4′ cubes ready to load on trains. Cash talks at yard sales. There is definite room for negotiations at yard sales where you buy random steel. Remember no matter how much they ask, it is still cheaper than buying it new. However, in the weight room there is no room for bargaining; this is a separate building where you buy your metal by the pound. It is designated for copper, aluminum, stainless steel and other unique boutique metals. In this area you better know what you need. Last time I bought stainless it was a $1.50 a pound, and stainless is not light.

Second, never wear nice clothes and shoes; scrapyards are dirty and muddy places by nature. Griffin’s is huge; it has to be well over 10 football fields, so be prepared to walk. I also believe that there is a strong correlation between how nice you look and what they will charge you. Case in point: It was an average day for good finds at Griffin’s when off by the pipe racks were two fellows dressed in Buda garbs looking at various size pipes. The first thing I thought was, “Kenny’s going to make some money on them.” Kenny is the yard salesman; he has a good eye for rookies, and must be respected. My buddy DJ, who frequents there often, recommends wearing the clothes you worked in yesterday.

Third, don’t be afraid to get dirty; some of the best finds require searching through mountains of metal and taking apart larger objects to get at the parts you need. So bring some tools. You will need a wrench, some screwdrivers, rope, gloves and a tape measure. You never know when you might need to dismantle something, measure it to make sure it will work and then lug it through rough terrain to get it to your vehicle.

Concentrate on things you can physically carry and be prepared for a workout. Junkyards are not for the weak. The rope is for securing objects to your vehicle. On this note, my buddy DJ recommends making sure you bring a spare tire, because scrapyards are littered with tire-popping metal shards. Watch where you drive.

Fourth, be as vague as possible when describing your finds to the yard salesperson. Your knowledge and enthusiasm add value to your stuff in their mind, and value will cost you. Their job is to get as much money as they can for the scrap. The more detailed your description, the more it must be worth to you. They don’t care what you are going to do with it, so don’t waste your time telling them about this amazing piece you are going to be making with their stuff. It is a straight-up business transaction, so make it quick and simple. When asked what you have, my buddy DJ recommends using “just some metal and plastic,” and go from there.

Last but not least, have fun and be safe. Think about all the sweet art you’re going to build. Get your art on. And get your tetanus shots updated.