Garbage Picking for Awesome Vintage & Antiques

Hi there! No matter what you call it: garbage picking, dumpster diving, or curb shopping, it’s all the same thing, and it has grown tremendously in popularity over the past few years. And today, you can add me to the list because I’m talking from personal experience about garbage picking for awesome vintage and antiques.

The stigma against rifling through another person’s refuse has been reduced somewhat, to the point where now it’s actually rather cool. And in fact, several hundred bloggers (maybe more) have written about their experiences with it. 

I’ve also heard several people say that now is a great time to be scouting for good junk because people are using their time at home to purge and clean. A silver lining to the current situation.

Related posts: Why I Love Estate Sales & Why You Should Shop Church Sales

Curbside junk with text: Garbage Picking for Awesome Vintage & Antiques

My Personal Experience with Garbage Picking

My experience as a garbage picker goes back pretty far, to my early twenties when I attended college in Westchester County–that’s the ritzy part of the state, e.g., it’s where the Clinton’s live. I used to walk a loop around the outer edge of campus which happened to abut a nice neighborhood.

On a garbage day that I happened to be out, I noticed a box of ceramic planters sitting out by the side of the road, along with the trash bins. I grabbed a couple that appealed to me and let’s just say a habit was formed, LOL.

As I write this, I realize that I come by this garbage picking skill genetically. My sweet father started me bottle digging at a young age and I’m sure that’s when the bug hit me. It basically involves digging through 100+ year old garbage dumps to find treasures. In fact it’s a sort of novice form of archaeology.

In my late 20’s, after law school, I continued to pick through other people’s garbage, but primarily for furniture. At some point along the way I had connected with a local organization that helped emancipated youth (usually from rough families) set up their very first apartments.

Years later, in my early 30’s when I started my antique business, the practice took on a whole new meaning. I soon realized that keeping an eagle eye out on trash days could result in actual income.

The Curbside Discovery of a Life Time

vintage floral hooked rug on black backgroundOne day, years ago, after dropping my son off at preschool, I noticed a box of magazines sitting on the curb in my neighborhood. I pulled over to see what the box contained and soon noticed quite a pile of “junk”–mostly covered by about 3″ of snow.

Brushing off the snow revealed antique framed prints, hooked rugs (see photo above), and boxes of miscellaneous treasures. No one answered the door when I knocked so I stuffed the entire load of good, clean junk into my trunk and sped home. So many treasures! 

But here’s the absolutely amazing part: Junk continued to be piled there for months and eventually a dumpster landed in the driveway and it too was filled with treasures. Each time I stopped, I knocked on the door, but  no one answered.

A few weeks into this adventure, someone finally answered the door and I learned that the woman who lived there had died. Her family traveled from three hours away once a week to work on emptying the house. They gave me permission to keep picking and even began to set aside items for me(!).

I explained at our first meeting that they were throwing away valuable stuff and should consider holding an estate sale with what remained. They insisted that material things meant little to them, and they didn’t want strangers sifting through their mother’s things.

In the end, I “found” upwards of $20,000 in vintage and antiques, including: Christmas ornaments, furniture, jewelry, glassware, china, textiles, perfume bottles, toys, rugs, artwork, ephemera, and more. Eventually, they let me give them a very small amount of money for what they called “extra special” items, but otherwise, it was all FREE.

CRA. ZEE. Right??

How You Can Begin Garbage Picking

So you wanna be a garbage picker?? Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Learn garbage nights. In cities with municipal garbage pick up, you can learn the pick up days for each neighborhood and go “scavenging” the afternoon/evening before. In suburban areas where home owners typically hire their own companies, each having different pick up days, it’s a bit trickier. In this case, almost any day goes, but you might have to travel further afield to find good stuff since the picking is less dense.
  • Learn yearly large item pick ups nights. Many municipalities designate one or more days a year for picking up large items. Often you can learn what those days are well in advance, for example in a the town of Clifton Park in my area, they’ve done just that.
  • Check FB Marketplace for curbside announcements. Many homeowners post on Facebook Marketplace (and Craigslist, too) whenever they have items at the end of their driveway available for free, whether it’s after a garage sale or simply the result of “spring” cleaning. Message them before going out of your way (unless it’s super close) to make sure the item(s) you’re interested in are still there.
  • Ask friends to alert you. Make sure your friends know you are interested in any piles of “trash” they might see while out walking or driving. If they happen to be standing next to the pile while call you, they may even tell you what’s there and take anything that interests you with them 🙂
  • Check garage sale FREE boxes. Garage sale FREE boxes count as garbage picking in my book. It’s the stuff the sellers think is junk, but on the outside chance someone might want it, they throw it in a box and mark it free. I know some people who are too shy to poke around a good old free box, but you shouldn’t be–free is good! Free is awesome-sauce, so always check them 🙂

NOTE: Before you begin garbage picking, check your local and state laws to make sure you don’t break any of them.

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What Equipment You Need to Pick Garbage

box, blanket, gloves, ropeEvery hobby or business practice requires proper attire along with necessary equipment. Here are a few things you’ll want to have with you before you head out garbage picking:

  • Bring gloves and/or hand sanitizer. Since you don’t really know what you might encounter when picking through someone else’s garbage, it’s always a good idea to have a pair of gloves for protection and hand sanitizer to kill any germs.
  • Leave a box in your car for smalls. To make life simpler and avoid getting the interior of your car dirty, keep a box or two on hand. You’ll thank me when you find that awesome rusty thing-a-ma-bob or soaking wet doo-hickey. Into the box they go.
  • Blankets to protect your car and your new-found treasures. On the off chance that you come across mountains of curb-side finds, have a blanket or two on hand to protect any particularly valuable or delicate item. Use them also to protect your carpet should any really dirty items be bigger than your box.
  • Rope and/or bungee cords. Just in case you need to tie down your trunk or rear van door, or alternatively, to tie something to your roof. It pays to be ready, LOL.
  • Bring a driver so you can focus. I highly recommend bringing your driver with you, because then you’ll be completely free to keep your eye out for any good-looking garbage. Seriously. Bring your driver.

The Proper Curbside Shopping Attitude 

As with any practice in life, there are certain do’s and don’t regarding behavior that should be kept in mind. Some are basic to life, others are specific to the action. Here are a few of my suggestions:

  • Don’t be a scaredy-cat. If you’ve never picked through someone else’s garbage, I completely get why you might hesitate about jumping in. I recommend that your first venture into the activity be made outside of your own neighborhood if you’re concerned about “what others will think.” 
  • Be courteous to the home owner.  Since you’re engaging in a let’s call it an “unusual activity” in or near someone else’s property, it makes sense to conduct yourself with the utmost courtesy. For example, I almost always knock on the garbage-owner’s door first to touch base and confirm that I can take items from their trash. And for goodness sake, leave things as you found them, i.e., don’t leave a mess(!). I know you would never do that.
  • Keep the peace. If you start poking around a pile of junk without touching base with the owner first, and they come out and start yelling at you, just leave. Don’t get into an argument. Don’t defend your actions. Just leave. Ditto if questioned by a police officer.
  • Be courteous to others who spotted the goods before you. If someone got to the treasure pile before you, they kind of have “dibs.” I recommend acknowledging their presence with a “Hey there,” and then “Do you mind if I take a look at what you’ve already seen?” Or something like that. Any issues? Just drive away.
  • Be courteous to the neighbors. Don’t even think about blocking traffic or driveways with your vehicle. 

How to Stay Safe While Picking Garbage

Use wisdom and common sense when it comes to maintaining safety while picking through the garbage of people you don’t know. That said, I’m going to list a few thoughts since one can never be too safe. Most of them will seem obvious, but they are worth emphasizing:

  • Follow the attitude rules above to avoid trouble with owners and/or police.
  • Wear gloves and use hand sanitizer.
  • Handle everything with care.
  • Be extremely cautious, slow and careful when opening a bag, box, or container since you have no idea what’s inside.
  • Avoid sharp and/or rusty things.
  • Don’t attempt to pick up items that are simply too heavy.
  • Avoid food items of any kind.
  • Don’t climb into dumpsters (do as I say, not as I do, LOL)

What Sorts of Things Can You Expect to Find on the Curb?

Over the years I have rescued many, many wonderful things from the garbage. Here are just a few:

aqua bottles, toy stove, brass lion head drawer pulls

  • The vintage aqua bottles were rescued on the last day of the World’s Largest Garage Sale in Warrensburg (NY) a couple of years ago. I sell them in sets of three for $12-15 from my booth.
  • We happened to see this toy oven just as it was being set out on the curb, and had a lovely conversation with the owner who was happy we were rescuing it. I sold it on Facebook Marketplace for $30.
  • The brass lion head drawer pulls came off of an antique desk that we picked up on the side of the road on our way to Bennington (VT). We loaded that monster into the back of the van and continued on our way. The drawer pulls sold for $18.67 on eBay.

billiard balls, bottle brush trees, jewelry box

  • I found the billiard balls in a bucket at the end of a town-wide garage sale. I split them into two sets and sold each set for $15 from my booth.
  • The antique bottle brush trees were found in a cardboard box tucked into a rather large pile of junk in a local Schenectady (NY) neighborhood. I sold the large trees for $10 each and the small ones for $5 each from my booth. They would each have sold for quite a bit more if in better shape.
  • Remember the desk from Bennington? I took it apart and gave a lot of the wood to my father who’s a carpenter. He made several jewelry boxes for various family members with the Cherry wood. (Isn’t it lovely??) I use the desk drawers regularly for display, and I kept the top for some future as-yet-to-be-determined project, LOL.

scrap wood, vintage suitcases, Wade animal figurines

  • I found the scrap wood in the same pile as the bottle brush trees (above).
  • We did an emergency U-turn to retrieve the three vintage suitcases. The one on the far left sold recently for $15 from my antique booth. 
  • About forty of the Wade animal figurines cried out to me for rescue from a “FREE” box at a garage sale a few years ago. I sell the common ones for $2 each at my antique booth. I always have a bowlful of them for sale.

My Most Recent Garbage Picking Experience

Pile of garbage by the roadA couple of weeks ago, on one of our Saturday drives out into the country, my sweet husband and I happened upon this pile of vintage and antique goodness. The piece of cardboard on the far right exclaimed “FREE,” so we didn’t need to bother anyone. We just scooped up anything that looked good. Here’s what I grabbed:

vintage barrel, shovel head, metal rack

  • A heavy cardboard “barrel” that I’ll use to hold scrap wood in my garage. In the past I’ve sold similar ones for $20.
  • A shovel head that I discovered is marked “D & HRR” for Delaware & Hudson RR, so a RR collector might be interested. I originally planned to use it as a garden decoration, maybe with “garden” stenciled on it, similar to this one.
  • A metal rack that I thought might (or might not) be useful for displaying earrings that I sell at the Shaker gift shop.

message board, old drawer, earrings on a metal rack

  • A large, very heavy message board (from a church?) with a glass door.
  • An old drawer–great for displays in an antique booth.
  • A close up of how the metal rack (above) could possibly be used to display earrings.

You can check out the video I took on this recent garbage picking adventure, and I would SO appreciate it if you’d pop over, give me a thumbs up, leave a comment, and/or subscribe to my channel. Thank you!

I hope you enjoyed seeing some of my vintage and antique finds that I picked from the garbage. If you’re not a garbage picker yet, perhaps now that I’ve given you some insider tips you’ll give it a second thought?? If you in fact are already a seasoned picker, then I’d love to hear about your adventures in the comments!

P.S.: I think you’ll enjoy Things I Find in the Garbage, a blog written by a fellow named Martin who lives in Montreal. He literally lives off the things he finds in the garbage, and he follows my personal philosophy of diversification, i.e., selling from multiple venues since selling from one alone doesn’t work well these days. Tell him Adirondack Girl sent you 🙂

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  1. Hi Diana, I’m SO glad I found your blog! I’m a dealer in an antique mall too so I can relate to much you write about. Also I have learned a lot from you. One of our favorite pastimes, especially right now, is driving around to see what people are throwing away. We’ve found some amazing things! And spotting a low dumpster you can just look in? Yay!

    1. I’m so glad you did too, Carolyn! It blesses me so much to hear that you’ve learned a lot from me–that means I’m doing my job 🙂 I’d love it if you’d share some photos of your finds over in the Facebook group (Your Vintage Headquarters) if you get the chance–

  2. Pickings have been slim lately. A few weeks ago I found a sturdy antique dresser which I’ll redo for one of my booths. Last night was pretty dismal but my husband found a Honda lawnmower and a bike-those are his things which he’ll repair and sell on craigslist. I only found a well made low box with sliding lid. I’ll probably use the lid for a sign and make a faux crate with the box by stencilling it. Love the story of your $20K treasure heap!

    1. Sounds to me like you’ve scored some pretty good finds, Melissa! I’d love it if you’d share some of them over in the Facebook group (Your Vintage Headquarters) 🙂

  3. I’ve been picking garbage since I was a little girl. My parents owned a trailer park and once a week we took everyone’s garbage to the dump. I looked for treasures while they emptied the bin. An elderly man lived next to us on other property and he let us dig through the ditch where garbage had been dumped for 100 years. Now I love the curb shopping during the large item pickup days in our little town. I also have a Friend-in-Trash who alerts me to things she sees on her daily walks. I can fill up a truck in no time! I can’t keep it all but will pick up many items for our church rummage sale, as well as an organization that helps new refugees with things they need when they move here. I also used to collect items for homeless veterans who needed items for their new apartments. It feels good to help others and keep things out of landfills. And it fills that place in me that wants to find treasures! One of my favorite first blogs to look at was by Karen Berg, she was my dumpster-diving hero ! I also look through the trash piles at estate sales. I found a HUGE crock that they weren’t selling because it was damaged at the bottom. I could sit in that thing!! I think I gave them 4 bucks for it. I also found an old mirror in a pile because the frame was damaged. You just never know! I love the hunt, and I love the find !!

    1. You could have written this post Patty! You got the bug early in life, didn’t you?? I’ll be adding your “check the garbage at estate sales” idea to the post ASAP–thanks for that! Wish I could see that crock with you sitting in it, hee hee 🙂

  4. I really enjoyed your post. It’s not antiques, but you never know what you’ll find on college campuses when the kids go home at the end of a semester. I worked on a rather large one before I retired and one semester we found futons, lamps, microwaves and one person even found a small stash of foam core board that was able to be used for a presentation she did when the new freshmen same in the following September. The campus paper even did an article one treasures found in the dorm dumpsters. One student even found a laptop that just needed a minor language adjustment. I love the prospect of a trash hunt as I use what I find in my craft business. On my way to work one morning I found this wonderful old dining room chair (at least I think that’s what it is) on the side of the road which I plan to turn into a plant display.
    The hunt is fun but the find is better, isn’t it.

    1. Hi Mary-Camille! An excellent point about keeping your eye out for end-of-the-school-year treasures on and near college campuses. Sounds like it was very lucrative for you 🙂 Would love to see how you end up repurposing that chair into a plant display–are you a member of my Facebook group (Your Vintage Headquarters) yet?? It would be a great place to post a before and after–

      1. Diana

        Hello again!
        Never thought about posting a before and after picture of the chair. I’ll have to do that.
        Happy hunting!


  5. I’ve been following Martin for a long time, and I really appreciate what he does. Here in southeastern North Carolina, our garbage is deposited into a bin, rolled out to the curb and dumped into a big truck that comes around. Martin seems to have everything laid out for him…not as much work since he doesn’t have to dig around in a big smelly bin. I love the stuff he finds and how he gets “rid” of it. Yay! Martin!

    1. The stigma of garbage picking has been removed – it is now quite fashionable to rescue items destined for the landfill to reuse or repurpose. I’ve been picking for years – like 30! I’m a sucker for furniture, especially from the 40’s era. So well made and solid wood. When we bought our house in 1989 we couldn’t afford anything new; we relied on hand me down furniture and curbside finds. I could never understand people throwing out such good vintage furniture to replace it with new stuff, usually made with particle board and laminate. Their loss, my gain!

    2. Yes, he definitely seems to be able to “access” the good stuff fairly easily. Our garbage pick-up here in the suburbs is similar to yours in NC. He’s in the city so that makes it easier I guess. His posts are always fascinating 🙂

  6. Glad to know I am not the only one who loves to find a good treasure in the trash! I love your blog. I love the hunt as well and my mom’s dad was a garbage man so I would say it is in my blood.

    1. Ha ha fellow trash-diggers!! Thanks for taking the time to let me know that you love my blog, Dawn–that means so much 🙂

  7. Gosh, I would love to get to dumpster or landfill dive, but it is not allowed around here – and I rarely see much put by the curbside with a free sign. 🙁

  8. Hi Diana,
    Awesome topic and I totally agree, I myself am a strong believer in the old saying: “One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure.” Here in Southern California, we come across some great finds at the outdoor swap-meets
    (aka flea markets); vendors are always throwing items away and simply leaving good stuff behind.
    Definitely 👍.

    1. Hi Elaina! “Another Man’s Treasures” used to be my old business name 🙂 When I created my blog, the name was already taken so I had to change it 🙁 I’ll have to start staying to the end of a flea market or two and see what I can find! Thanks for sharing–

  9. You have had some wonderful curbside finds, Diana! We had one where they were cleaning out an estate and throwing everything in a dumpster…they were happy to let us pick! It’s a lot of fun!

    1. So similar to my experience, Linda! Hard to believe that people would part with such treasures, but I guess convenience outweighed the value. Whenever I see a dumpster now, I want to take a peek just to see…maybe it’s filled with goodies, LOL.

  10. OMGosh, I loved this. My girlfriend and I, I would say 15-20 years ago, were going to some sales and passed a house with so much out for garbage pickup. We got so many nice items, we couldn’t believe it. One item in particular was a vintage round mirror vanity tray that is beautiful. I have it in my guest bathroom. Love it.

    I babysit my two adorable grandchildren during the week, but when I go home this weekend, I would love to share a photo. Love your blog posts, Janet

    1. I’m so glad you enjoy the blog, Janet 🙂 I’d love to see a photo of the mirrored vanity tray. Are you in the FB group (Your Vintage Headquarters)? That would be a great place to post it and everyone would love to see it, too–

  11. Oh this was so much fun to read. I love digging through piles of “free” stuff left at the curb, especially if I’m feeling brave. In our early years my hubby and I would drive to the small town where grandma lived to visit. There were a few times we came back with curb finds. One, an old, small dining table, sits in the corner of our living room. It fits perfect and has a nice weathered finish to it that came from what must have been a long time spent outside.

    The cardboard barrels made me smile. There were four of them in my brother’s big walk in closet, in the house I grew up in. Mom stored out of season blankets and quilts, along with I don’t know what else. I just remember it seemed special when she opened the barrels and sorted thru things. When she moved to her retirement condo last year, I got two of them. My husband wanted them to go out in the shed when I brought them in. Huh, no way! They are too special to be in a dirty old shed. I realize that sounds a bit ridiculous, but I couldn’t help it. Some day when I can organize my basement, they will have a place, regardless of what I store in them.

  12. It doesn’t sound ridiculous at all Kathy! To you those cardboard barrels were precious; you have a deep appreciation for them and I can so relate to that 🙂 Thanks for sharing your stories with us. You always make me smile!!

  13. Diane, We used to live in a large apartment complex. The dumpsters for our building were parked right outside our spare room window. At first I thought this was not so good, but we had been on a wait list and it was the first available unit.
    What I learned is this; people throw out absolutely amazing things when move out time comes. My entire Christmas tree is now decorated in pristine vintage ornaments that I scored from boxes near the dumpster. I have vintage fabric, furniture… old and new from near the dumpster.
    I alerted my nephew and he would ride around the dumpsters on end of the month/beginning of the month days and he made several thousand in the few months he did this by picking up furniture and reselling. Then we moved and he moved and I lost my source.

    just thought I would mention this very overlooked source of wonderful things I kept from the landfill!!

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