Vol. 13: One Man's Junk, The Same Man's Treasure

Meet the Junk Brothers: they filch people's curbside castoffs, transform them, and give them back.



+ Downloads & Extras:

Complete Interview

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 are not 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 kitchen sink would make an interesting grandfather clock? Or a pair of broken-down bikes could become a gleaming 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 Kelley. "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 that kind of 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.

What 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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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 2x10s. 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.

Image

What would kids learn if you were teaching shop class?

SK: I would grade on a curve that was based more on effort and not so much on the finished product. Not everybody is just naturally handy, but a lot of people who are fearful of trying this stuff don't realize that they could get a lot of enjoyment out of it. But I have three girls and I couldn't get them into any of this stuff.

JK: What they would learn is, just go for it. Don't let people say you can't do it. Don't let people say it's a bad idea or whatever. Don't be afraid to fail, because everybody's failed. If you don't try, you're missing out.

Image

What's one lesson you want people to learn from your show?

SK: Use your imagination and don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.

JK: The biggest thing is that we are losing a lot of our craftsmanship and time and ability to be creative. Right now, everything is becoming a box, a very plain-Jane assembly line product. Whereas, even back in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, the creativity was there. The thought process was more individualized. We are losing the value of things, especially furniture. Back then you had to save up to buy the piece that you really wanted. You didn't just go find one off the store shelf. It was made with quality, it was made with precision. Today they are made with cheap materials.

Image

What's the strangest reaction you got from a target?

SK: We dropped off these chairs that we turned into a lounge, and the gentleman who owned the house was sitting on the porch, sleeping. We didn't want him to know we were there, so we're waiting. We're waiting a couple of hours. He doesn't have a clue what's going on but his neighbor thought we were dropping off garbage. He's cursing at us. He calls the cops. When he realized what we were doing, he didn't even ask the original owner, he took it and put it in his own garage. The whole thing was one big catastrophe.

JK: We dropped off this fireplace screen. It was made out of a railing and there was colored glass. It was beautiful. We brought it up, rang the doorbell and took off. We went, "Wooh! This is cool. This is going to be great." We had it wired with a mic[rophone]. She thought it was a bomb. She grabbed her child and said, "Oh my God, it's a bomb! It's a bomb!"

Why are so many people intimidated by woodworking and shop work?

SK: The number one intimidation is the saw. People are afraid of power tools, and you know what? People should be cautious. But if you take the time and you educate yourself and you start with something small, you can learn how to do it.

JK: They don't want to take the chance of going for it. You don't want to do something and have people go, "Ehh, I could have done a better job." People are nervous about having that failure.

Image

What's the weirdest thing you saw on the curb and didn't take home?

JK: If it's weird, we'd have a hard time not taking it.

SK: I don't know if it was the weirdest thing, but we have seen a number of toilets. I considered taking one. I thought it would be a really cool wall-mounted water feature, but I wanted Jim to do the project and he didn't want anything to do with it.

Image

Is there a piece of furniture that shouldn't be saved?

SK: Sometimes it's not worth it. If you find things that have particleboard or water damage, that's really hard to fix, you might put too much time into it and not get what you want out of it. It just swells up like a balloon; you wouldn't make a boat out of particleboard.

JK: I would say toilets. I think they are ugly to begin with, and there's nothing that you can really make out of them. I'm not going to plant anything in it. I'm not going to put it on the wall. I just don't want to go there.

Join the conversation -- every MAKE article has an online page that includes a place for discussion. We've made these RSS and Atom feeds to help you watch the discussions: subscribe.