Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tips from an old pro....

Ok, so I am not "old"...just turned 40 this year....but, I guess after 20 years of doing this for a living, I am a professional picker, really. Been well over 20 years of searching out old "junk", looking for that next treasure. I guess if you count being into "old stuff" since I was of single digit age, it is closer to 35 years of "junking."

One (respected) peer in the business calls me "The best picker in Manitoba." Maybe, who knows. Not really any competitions or a system of measurement out there to determine such things. I'm not well off in the money department from my pickings. Yes, I know, you'd think that after 20 years of this I would be doing ok financially, making wise investments, good profits, and all that. The fact is, life tends to throw you curves, which accounts my lack of financial security.

"The well laid plans of mice & men", as the saying generally goes.

Despite set-backs I won't bother describing here, I'm still picking, and still love the hunt & finding that lost treasure.

It is my drug of choice, you could say.

I have accumulated lots of wisdom when it comes to this business; some things hard learned, others learned by experience, some things learned by accident.

I'm going to share some more of it than usual in this post...some tips, tricks, etc.


So, you are driving through a little town and you drive past this building. Pretty obvious from this picture that it is an old place. However, from your vehicle you may well miss the obviously old second floor. Remember to always take a look up, past what would be in your normal field of vision as you are turning your head from side to side.
This one is on a corner lot, so lets drive down the street beside it and check it out.

This is a view from the back, on the street. Quite an old structure, dating from about 1900, give or take a few years. Pretty obvious that it holds some potential for stuff inside, IMHO.

This one was a second hand store for several years, but one that had the weirdest hours...20 years of trying to catch the owner open I never did get inside the building. The owner also did not live in the country most of the time, just stayed in the area during a brief window of time in the summer, which makes this a tough place to get into. If the owner was local, there are a number of ways to get their contact one in this particular town seems to know how to contact them, however. I'll keep trying....I have a couple other ways to get their info, all legal, of course.

They had an early photograph of the building stuck in the window, and it clearly shows that the place hasn't changed all that much.

Has couple nice lighting rods with hexagon balls and directional arrows on them. Maybe they can be purchased; I guess we'll see.

Ok, that was easy. What would you think about the theatre below?

Crisp, new, clean building, right?


Got to love back are two views...

If you aren't looking for it, you might miss a big clue that this place is quite old, likely as old as the one we passed earlier.

Look past the garage, it is behind the building next door, not the theatre.

You can just see a small patch of old heavily weathered ship-lap siding on one side, then the large chunk of the old wall is visible if you happen to be driving slow enough or happen to stop to look.
Ok, so you can see bits of the old sides...but, did you notice the clue on the FRONT of the building, in the first photo?

Here, look again:

Do you see it yet?

Doesn't that window seem to be oddly placed? With no window on the other side to balance the look?
Not surprising if you are thinking: They REFACED an old building....didn't need the other window, or it had long since been sealed up. This place likely had 3 windows across the front, similar to its neighbor.
I have been in buildings that looked crisp and brand new from the outside. I was able to identify clues to their much older structure, which prompted me to go in and inquire as to what junk was hanging around their basements, storage rooms, etc. Some of those basements turned out to be virtual time capsules. They hadn't been really used in recent time, and some had not been cleaned out for 80 years, as the current & past owners didn't need the basement space, or it was not clean enough for them to use, too much work to clean it out, or a variety of other reasons, including the owner's allergies to dust, fear of spiders & other creepy crawlies, ability/health was not good enough to use the steep stairs, was too damp, etc, etc. Some times it was being used, but still contained relics of a past business. Others were repositories for the cast offs of every business the place had held, and the deeper I went as I mined through the piles, the older the stuff got.

Even those that have been heavily renovated inside may still have a basement full of treasure, or backrooms that are untouched.

Looks can be very deceiving.

And, just because the building is from the 1920s, doesn't mean the contents are even older...ever see a basement inside a basement?

I was in one basement that contained within it an old stone wall, much older than the walls of the rest of the basement. At first I thought it was an old cistern (water reservoir). I noticed a hole in the wall big enough for me to half crawl/half step through.

Turns out it was a basement of the tiny jewellery store/lawyers office that had been built on the spot in the 1870s.

I got some interesting paper items out of it, as well as a little bonus.

Seeing as I had figured out it had been a basement of a jewellery store by the paper and the other contents, I knew what to keep an eye out for. If you know the history of a building, former owners, businesses, etc, you may actually see things you would normally miss.

What I saw was an old, very rusty 1 gallon tin can sitting along side a wall.

I looked in the top, and saw about 1/4 of the back of what I recognized as a pocket watch.

I tried to lift the can, which fell into a million tiny rusty bits.

So, I had in front of me a pile of rusty tin pieces, mud, green verdigris, and the odd bit of brassy & white colors.

I grabbed a box, as I had a pretty good idea what I had in front of me, and I knew I had to gather up all the dirt and debris that had been in the tin.

So, I scooped up the muck and bits of metal, and dumped it into the box.

It would take an hour or so to go through the stuff at home, so I figured I'd just buy the box of muck on spec, though did see a couple things that revealed themselves from the pile, which allowed me to pay $25 for the box of what I can assure you looked like absolute valueless trash. Pretty much looked like compost with trash mixed in, to even the most seasoned antiquer.

What was in the pile?

Well, it was a tin of old pocket watches that the jeweller had likely kept for parts.

Yeah, I know, with the damp, the movements would be seized solid, and pretty much trash. I had realized that.

But, after sifting through the contents at home, washing away the lighter mud, like panning a stream, there were a a few couple enamelled dials that appeared, some of which were salvageable. Though, I did only get 2 dials that were worth anything significant, about $30, total.

$5 profit is not a great amount, I know.

That didn't matter, because it was the two 18K gold pocket watch cases which I sold for scrap gold that were the profit.

Why did I suspect there could literally be gold in that junk?

Brass turns green with exposure to moisture (verdigris), gold does not.

Now, that said, I still was taking a risk. If the cases were just "rolled gold" (essentially an old style of gold plating), or gold electroplate, they would be a gold color, also, except where there was brass showing through due to wear, which would have shown as chunks of green corrosion, due to the dampness.

Remember, you have got to think outside the box....sometimes way outside the box.

I call these educated, but risk purchases "Lottery Tickets".Unlike the lottery, if you have knowledge behind you, the odds of winning are far better, unlike the ten million to one odds of winning the jackpot in a government run lottery.

Say, how many places have you passed by because the owner has said he/she has sold "everything" to some other picker(s), or passed on places because they had been supposedly "picked"?

They would have all been a waste of your time, you say?

Tsk, tsk.

Get some further info....keep talking to the owner.
Well, read on...
I was headed to visit a cousin of mine, who lived in a town about 3 hours from the city. I was driving a 4 door Chevette, which had an amazingly roomy interior...that is, with the back seats down...and in which I could fit lots of cool, dusty old junk. I had hauled a gas pump, a 12 foot long Texaco sign, among other assorted rather large items, all with success. I'm sure the various loads I'd had sticking out of the back of that car turned a few heads on the highways.
The plan was to pick on the way a little, but mainly do some picking around the area & town she lived in. Essentially I'd work while she was at work, and we'd hang out & visit when she was off work.
I made a stop in a little town, not more than a half hour away from the city. I had heard of a junk shop there, and wanted to check it out.
I pulled up in front of an old wooden building.
There was stuff piled up everywhere, tables stacked with boxes, assorted debris everywhere.
Well, maybe not quite heaven. The owner was the guy who, at country auctions, would buy all the boxes, piles, (etc) of stuff the auctioneer could not get a bid on, or that went for a buck or two. He also tended to inherit the stuff other buyers left behind from their purchases.
Still, it held possibilities.
I rambled through the place, dug into a few boxes of assorted junk, and came up with a few nick knacks, a glass 3-chain light shade and fixture and a few other minor things. Nothing wonderful.
The Harley Davidson t-shirt clad, white bearded biker/Santa Claus figure who owned the place sold me my little pile for a couple bucks. I inquired if he knew there was any junk in the basement or the attic.
No basement, and there had been some guys through who had already bought the good stuff out of the attic.
Damn, it had already been PICKED!
I put my purchases in my car, then strolled next door, to an old gas station. There was still old signs on the building, on the pumps, and lots of cool stuff visible in the building once I wandered inside.
An inquiry about selling anything was met with a solid, not-a-chance-in-hell-style "NO."
I wandered back to the junk shop. In talking with the friendly owner, I learned that the guy next door was the sort who refused to sell anything. He'd been offered lots of money for various things over the years. "Stupidly", in the junk shop owner's opinion, the guy had never sold a thing.

So the NO I had gotten was pretty standard.
In our conversation I learned that the main part of the building was built in the 1880s, and had been the tiny town's general store.

I had some time, and I had not had an attic fix in awhile. So, I asked if it was possible to check out the attic anyway, which he indicated was just fine with him.

He showed me where the door was, and as it turned out, was accessible from an adjoining room with an extra tall ceiling, which had been built on to that side of the store somewhat later. There was a man size door, but hinged at the top, its bottom edge level with the ceiling of the room on the other side of the wall. The attic had been a walk-up type! BONUS! Walk-up type attics were much easier to store stuff in...thus tend to accumulate far more items more than attics accessed by trap doors in ceilings. The easier the access, the more stuff gets stashed there.

I climbed up on a chair, then a stack of boxes beside it, then on the top edge of the door for the entrance to another room. It was jammed against the wall by boxes of Reader's Digests, and assorted debris. Still a little shaky, but solid enough.

I lifted the old tongue and groove attic door, bending over sideways to make sure I did not sweep myself off the narrow door edge I was balanced on.

With nothing to prop the door open (not a broom anywhere!) I leaned in to what I saw were 3 steps up into the space, and allowed the door to lean on my back. I pulled myself up. To my chagrin, and slight pain, exposed screw tips scraped a racing stripe pattern down my back, through my shirt.

I was now sitting on the stairs. I had my flashlight clicked on, and shone the beam around a bit. There was definitely stuff there...not empty, which was not a bad sign. Maybe the last guys missed something.

In panning my flashlight around, I noticed a light socket on the wall near the stairs, and it still had a bulb in it...and a short pull cord dangling underneath.

I gave it a pull, and it came on...dim, with dust of many years on it. I brushed the dust off, which improved the lighting, but it was still dim enough around the surprising large space that I kept my flashlight on.

Everything was covered in a thick layer of fine dust, which surrounded me like a cloud every time I stepped or moved anything. The dust also obscured the identity of most things.

I walked around, poking, turning over larger objects.

Several wood crates, most with DOMINION RUBBER around a beaver logo on the side. Not valuable, maybe cheap decorator items,but most were too big to be practical.

A curved glass counter showcase...with no glass in it.

A butchered chunk of a counter display that had been built in downstairs at one time, but with no real value.

Pile of rags, solidified with chunks of paint or old tar.

Boxes of receipts. "DAVEY BROS." across the tops on the inner pages, dates from the 1920s & 1930s, and no newer. Well, helps date the time the attic fell into disuse, but of little value. Maybe I could sell them for a couple bucks each as a novelty.

At the floor level, I could see some daylight, where the eves were open on one side of the building. Amazingly, no birds or other vermin were present.


Dust was heavy in the air. Decided I should consider wearing a dust mask in these sorts of places.

Walked up to a dusty metal cabinet sitting on its side, glass broken out of the three doors and saw partial painted graphics of lilies, with what I made out to be BENSON & HEDGES CIGARS...but the graphics were scraped up pretty good, and somewhat rusty. Wiping the dust off the other side, it appeared to be in decent condition. Good, found something at least. Those major condition issues would be why it got left behind. Some guys start to get fussy when they are picking up lots of really primo stuff, and leave behind things they normally would grab.

Picked up a foot tall plaster statue, missing a substantial chunk, easily a 1/5th of the head and a shoulder of the seated figure.

A quick brushing away of the dust across the bottom edge revealed the words "JAP CIGARS". A wicked piece, valuable, IF it had been intact. Oh well, might as well snag it. Might be worth $10 or $15 to someone, who knows. Worth restoring, but expensive to get done properly. I put it by the door, under the light.

Wandered around for a bit, flashing the light around, walking on & kicking what seemed to be scraps of cardboard on the floor.

Wait a minute...

I flashed the flashlight on one of the "scraps" of cardboard.

It had a well defined, die-cut was not a flap torn off some box, or the insert from some shirt.

I flipped it over, and saw the crisp bright graphics of 1930s Wrigley Gum sign grinning up at me. It almost seemed to greet me...."HELLO THERE!"

I started flipping over the scrap bits of cardboard strewn about...

Most of the cardboard bits on the floor were intact 1930s signs!

In all there were a half dozen cardboard signs, with the two best being late 1920s/early 1930s Wrigley Chewing Gum easel back signs.

Now energized, looking differently at the piles of dusty debris, I started to do some more dusting....

I made a pretty healthy pile by the attic door after the two hours I spent digging with renewed vigor.

Once I had gathered together a batch of what was some really cool stuff, two of the more interesting, smaller wooden crates, and a couple boxes of receipts and such, several pair of rubber slip on shoes with Boy Scout logos on them, and other bits and pieces the dust gave up to me, I shimmied out the attic, adding to my collection of racing stripe abrasions.

After telling the owner I had found some stuff I wanted, he came and helped me take the stuff out of the attic. I handed him down item after item from the time capsule, dust floating down on to the boxes of Reader's Digests and other junk below.

He carried it all out front, into the sunny summer day, the first time this stuff had seen daylight in easily 75 years.

I got down out of the attic, hacking from inhaling a field's worth of dust. I went up front, and quickly realized that the $350 I had brought with me to spend could well be only a third of what I may be in need of. No cash machines around for many miles,either. Wouldn't have mattered anyway, the $350 was all I had; money I was doubling to make rent and buy groceries. Had room on my Visa for gas & food for the trip.

I asked him about what he wanted for the stuff, and he said he would think about it and started loading my car...

All the while we were loading, I was contemplating having to unload all or some of the stuff because I could very likely not afford to pay for it all.

We got it all loaded, right to the roof, including the front passenger seat to just above the window. I could barely see my side mirror from the driver's seat.

I prepared myself for disappointment, and the task of going through it to reduce the price, piece by piece. I again asked him how much he wanted for it all.

He looked at the stuff in the car, and said:

"Is $27 too much?"

I handed him $40 and told him to keep the change. He started to protest.

I told him that as far as I was concerned that was still one heck of a deal. He said, "good", and wished me luck with the stuff. To him it was just old junk, and he made that clear. He also made it clear that if I had not bought the stuff, anyone else could have bought it from him for the same amount. He was definitely well aware of the score.

Turns out the last pickers had bought all the metal signs, and a few other things.

I have been to his place many times since Sadly, someone torched the building some years later. Was likely someone in the area who did not approve of his enterprise, and the junk stacked around it. He rebuilt the business, in a dirt floored steel building that the insurance paid for. I have bought all kinds of junk from him since. His prices were good enough that if you needed a part of something you could buy a whole item for one part. Am going to drop by and see if he is still in business later this summer. Will likely blog about it!

Now, I bet you are wondering why the other pickers left so much good stuff behind? They came through back in the early 1980's ...easily 15 years previous to my showing up there. Interests, trends and values change quite a bit in that kind of time. Cardboard signs, slightly rough stuff, things in need of work, just didn't have much value then.

If I had been told up front the other pickers had been through only the week before, would I still have asked to get into the attic?

Maybe, maybe not. But, now I would, and I do.

You see, everyone knows something different. You may spot something they missed. You may have a buyer for something they don't. Some picker may have bought all the old signs...but they left the new/old stock vintage clothing untouched on the shelves.

That big stack of old window frames over there they left behind? Well, maybe you have a decorator who pays you $20 each for them.

I did go back into that store's attic...twice more. I bought all the crates and a few other boxes of paper the second time....overpaid, but happily! Gave him about $125 for that load.

I used the crates as display in my store for a few years, and eventually a movie company bought most of them for props for some western program being filmed in Alberta at the time.

I finally went through the paper stuff about a year later, and realized that there was much more than just receipts & junk paper in some of the boxes...lots of 1920s pamphlets from John Deere equipment & tractors, many other assorted products, cool letter heads from the 20s and 30s, and all sorts of really interesting, and some fairly valuable paper items. I went back and bought every box of paper in the attic, roughly 20 boxes. Some wonderful stuff came out of those boxes.

The letter heads & some other papers actually ended up revealing a few local leads, as well. I love paper stuff. You can find a real gem, and it might be sitting amongst the worst pile of crappy books.

I once purchased a box of pre 1850s books, my first foray into the world of "antique" books. The box contained some encyclopedia volumes, religious texts, and a couple dictionaries.

Lesson I learned was that the $100 I paid for the box was all they were worth on a wholesale level, and pretty much top dollar at that level, also. I decided I had better wholesale them to a book dealer I knew & trusted, who gave me a quick crash course in antique books. General mixed subject encyclopedias...most worth little.....most regular dictionaries, same thing.....majority of religious books, ditto.

I quickly realized I'd have a tough time selling them out of my store, and gladly turned most of them over to him for my cost.

I licked my wounds. I did keep one, a dictionary from the Victorian era, which looked cool, but had little value.

One day, in flipping through the dictionary, I came across a bookmark.

A silk, woven bookmark picturing Queen Victoria, dating from the 1880s, in pristine condition.


At the time, about $125.

I have flipped through many an old book since then.

Nothing as neat as the bookmark has surfaced since, but there has been small sums of paper money, photographs, coupons, oodles of newspaper clippings, some nice old bookmarks, recipes, letters, notes, grocery lists, etc, etc. Some things worth money, some worthless.

An auctioneer once related a story about an estate his little company cleaned out.

There was tons of pure junk, including a a tremendous number of old paint cans in the garage. Only the rare one shook with any sloshing, but most were heavy, so there was little usable paint, so on to the truck they went, destined for the dump.

They hauled one load of the cans to the dump, as paint was not considered "hazardous waste" at the time, so old paint was dropped off to be buried with everything else.

While loading for another trash run, with only part of a half-ton load of paint cans to go, his helper dropped one of the paint cans, and the lid popped off as it hit the ground.

Then he noticed it wasn't full of dried of paint....inside was rolls paper money, jammed in to the can, filling it to the outer edges.

They opened the rest of the cans and found several of them also jammed full with bills.

Yes, I know, how much cash went to the landfill?

Ever since he related that story to me, I now no longer just discard or push aside old cans that have some heavier contents...or, without at least thinking "I wonder...".

You never know.

If you are a fan of old advertising, you might already be aware of this, or, actually, if you have been reading my blog, you may already know this, but I will review it anyway, in a little more detail.

Some metal signs are done with enamel. Now, I don't mean enamel paint. I mean porcelain. Fired on enamel. The stuff that chips off of things like washing machines and bathtubs when you drop some heavy object on/in them.

The beauty of enamel is that is impervious to things like paint stripper. So, if there is a sign with paint spattered on it, and it is an enamel sign, you can pour paint stripper on it to remove the paint, and the sign will be just fine.

So, if you are able to recognize things like even hole patterns, rounded corners, assorted shapes, etc, on buildings, doors, in scrap piles, fences, ceilings, etc, etc, you might be able to buy a good piece for very little.

Signs got painted over for various reasons. Sometimes it was laziness, other times it was because the store quite carrying the product advertised on it, and yet other times it was starting to look too scruffy for the liking of the store owner, and the spot on the door or wall it was covering was actually even in worse shape. Easier to paint the sign over. Also, in later years, some companies opted for using big stickers, and would stick their decal over the old sign. Sometimes those signs were those of their competitors, as well.

Again, these sorts of things are "Lottery Tickets". Sometimes you win, sometimes you loose. Sometimes the sign will be in wonderful condition under the paint. Other times you will find it scratched and heavily chipped, faded, with screws buzzed through it across the middle, etc.

There are two porcelain signs I did recently, with the pictures showing "before" and "after" stripping. One is a Star Weekly sign with a more modern era Star Weekly advertising sticker on over it. I bought it at an auction for $17, where pretty much all the other advertising signs sold for well over retail prices. The other is one of 4 Olgivie signs I found nailed around the foundation of an old store building. This one was the roughest, and I have had it kicking around awhile, so I figured it was time to strip the paint off & get it ready for sale. You will notice it has sun faded red letters on the end that was not painted. Still have some work to do on it, still has some paint I missed hitting with the paint stripper. It is just an example, anyway.

Painted over signs are not the limit to this tip...think pottery, crockery, glass, bronze statues, and anything else with a surface that will resist paint stripper, or other paint removing processes.

That painted over crock is actually a salt glaze crock, displaying a parrot in cobalt blue fingerpaint design, signed by the folk artist.

Maybe that old statue in that garden over there is not concrete....but a signed bronze!

The vase done in a horrible fleck-tone spray paint is actually a shape Weller or Roycroft used, and hides a beautiful arts & craft era piece of quality pottery.

That white vase in the shabby chic store is actually a painted over piece of Tiffany that the store keepers bought at an estate sale where everyone passed on it due to its stark white, oil painted finish...and it is still sitting unrecognized...until you came along.

It does happen, you just need to keep your eyes and mind wide open to the possibilities, and use your knowledge to your best advantage. Plus, keep learning! Use your curiosity to discover treasure!

As I write this, it is getting late, and I have lots to do tomorrow, so I am packing it in for tonight. Hopefully you find these tips of value. With some effort on your part, you should be able to use some of these tips to score something that everyone else around you has missed, get a deal at an auction where things are selling for retail prices, or just open your eyes to the possibilities that out there, which before you may have missed.

Happy pickin'!


  1. Great post! Am so glad I have stumbled across your journal. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and tips! I look forward to future entries.

  2. Thanks! LOTS more to come!