Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Steampunk Bargain Shopping: Yard Sales and Thrift Stores

I know this blog has been all about the corsets recently, but that's what I've been working on, so that's what I have to share.  But I did manage to get out of the house to do some serious thrift store and yard sale shopping this past weekend.  I thought I would share my strategy for looking for items with steampunk potential.  All photos are of things I got in one day of shopping.

You can't guarantee that any given trip to a thrift store or yard sale will yield anything good, so the way to find the good stuff is to make thrifting/yard saleing a regular habit.  My husband checks the local ads every week for yard sales and tries to visit whatever ones he can during his Friday lunch break (since locally sales run Friday-Saturday.  This varies by region.)  Whichever day is the first day of the sale, that is when you are likely to find the best stuff.  But that doesn't mean you shouldn't go looking later in the day or on the second day.  I only get to go on Saturdays on rare occasions, but you can still find good stuff, if you know what to look for.

So what SHOULD you be looking for?  Well, let's break that down.

The first thing you will see at yard sales and especially thrift stores is clothing.  Most yard sales don't
really yield great steamy clothing finds as most of their clothing tends to be childrens or very cheap items.  Still, you never know what you'll find and it's possible to run across nice coats and jackets, shirts, pants, etc.

You can find good hats sometimes, especially at estate sales where we sometimes find "old lady hats" or "church hats" that can be fixed up.  Around here you can always find cowboy hats; I imagine you might find other styles of hats elsewhere.

At thrift stores, I start with the formal clothing and look for any cheap, nice formals that can either be modified into steampunk clothing or used as a fabric source.  Unfortunately I've noticed the cost of nice dresses has risen at thrift stores recently, so it's not always the best deal.  Next I look for Victorian styled women's blouses, men's and women's vests, striped or checked pants, and finally I hit the linen section.  The linen section has been the source of my best thrift store finds, as I've found gorgeous window panels, sheets, and tablecloths to use as fabric.  The window panels especially can be a great buy.  I've gotten silk blend panels for $2.

Belts are a good item to look for.  Everyone needs a belt and you may find one really cheap while thrifting.  You can also use belts for straps for other steampunk projects, such as goggles, harnesses, or as straps for large guns.  You should also check out the shoes to see if you find anything in really great shape that would work for you.

Finally thrift stores are great sources of leather, whether that comes from purses or jackets or other leather garments.  Today I bought at pair of leather pants for $2 and I will be cutting them up to use for various projects.

This is where you can really find some great stuff.  Most yard sales are just tables and tables of random junk.  Often I wonder why people go to the trouble of having the sales just to sell such crap.  Except for crap made from brass.

Ok, maybe not just brass, but mostly you are looking for metal items.  Buy any brass candlesticks you find, so long as they are cheap.  Typically I will just continually pick up items and turn them around to see if I think they would make good gun parts or additions to other steampunk gadgets.  You don't want to buy anything really cheap that will easily break (unless you want to break it) or which the finish will rub off.

Decor Items
Sometimes I pick up random pieces of decor that I find looks steamy, like a wooden painted pocket watch I found at a yard sale and which now hangs on my wall.  Sometimes you may think of an alternate use for these items.  I also tend to buy picture frames at yard sales for about 50 cents.  I always repaint them, but I use them for all the random steampunk art prints I buy.

Lamps are another good source of parts to make guns.  Look for brass lamps, or other interesting metal lamps.  Of course if you're looking for steamy decor, you might want a lamp to be a lamp.  It's amazing how an old lamp can transform once you clean it, paint or polish it, and add a new shade.

Then there are clocks.  Every time I see a clock I get excited and 98% of the time they are battery powered and I am disappointed.  I grab clocks and quickly check for battery compartments over and over.  It's rare in my area to actually find real clockwork clocks at these kinds of sales.  You might find some bell-topped alarm clocks, which are work it if you get them cheap enough.  But in the modern ones many of the gears inside are plastic.  But there are still nice brass bits on them and a few nice gears.  Today I went to an antique sale in a tent and everything was horribly overpriced, but they broke my heart with a whole table full of nice, small, old clocks, all of them way too expensive.  But I really wanted to tear them apart!  

Old Technology
You never know what you'll find!  You will probably see everything from genuine antiques (radios, typewriters, sewing machines, etc) to simply things that are a few decades old.  Typically you don't really want to be buying things for their intrinsic value, since chances are they aren't really worth as much as you or the seller thinks, if they are really old.  But if the prices are reasonable, think about what you could do with the item or pieces of it.

Today we bought an old CB radio for $2 because the microphone it had with it looks really cool.  The actual CB itself is probably worthless to us.  But for $2?  Plus, the man selling it said, "Wait, I'll throw in an old amp I have sitting around the corner, and gave up this little box amp that is AWESOME.  It has a great aged brass screen, some cool switches, AND VACUUM TUBES INSIDE.  And we got it for free!

You never know when you'll find vacuum tubes.  We once got a big box of them for $2 at a yard sale that didn't even look worth stopping at (and wasn't except for those.)

Crafting requires tools, and steampunk crafting sometimes requires heavier tools than other kinds.  So keep your eyes open for great deals on tools you could use.  Today we got a working Dremel tool for $5.  But you may find simpler tools like pliers, vices, clamps, etc that you will eventually need.

Craft Supplies
It's possible to hit the motherlode of craft supplies at yard sales and thrift stores.  If a crafter is unloading their stash, watch out!  Fabric, yarn, vintage patterns, sewing machines, jewelry making supplies, you could find any of it.  I've gotten some great deals on whole boxes of buttons that someone collected for decades, gallon ziploc bags of elastic, bags of various trim.  Make sure that whatever you're buying is quality, i.e. don't buy a large amount of Wal-Mart brand thread (because it's basically trash you should never use) or similar.  But if you keep your eye open you can save a lot on these kinds of basic craft supplies.

The thrift store I went to today was new to me because they usually aren't open on weekends and they have a WHOLE FABRIC SECTION.  They sell lots of small amounts of fabric for $0.80-1.00, which is a great deal.  I got some cotton duck for corsetmaking, plain cotton for linings, and some nice moire taffeta that will probably become cravats.

Most of the useful steampunk toys you find will be Nerf guns or similar.  Yard sales are where you can score the really expensive Nerf guns really cheaply.  So it's always worth it to check out the toy section.

What are the best things you ever found at a yard sale or thrift store?  The niftiest, the biggest bargain?


  1. Great post - am very jealous on your printer's drawer find.
    I completely agree with your comment about thriftstore linen. Victorian-esque skirts take so much fabric - so much - And $2 curtains are ideal.

    So far the best single item I've found is a metal Roller foot for my sewing machine, the type that allows you to sew leather and thick fabrics. It was in a box filled with bobbins, machine feet and other nifty gizmos, $5 for the lot. Bargain!

    1. Yeah, my husband has been looking for a printer's tray for a long time and when we saw one (sitting randomly with nothing else like it) he pounced on it when the lady said $10.

      I'm jealous of your sewing feet. I really need some more.

  2. Pretty much my entire wardrobe is accumluted from years of second hand shopping, and I always get compliments. It's mostly Victorian inspired modern items. I have also got a gorgeous quilt cover that will make a beautiful jacket, although I don't think my sewing skills are up to it yet. There are some curtains I would have had to pay $45 for and didn't get, only to later realise material like that is about $30 a metre so I would have saved a lot. Oh well. I had some fabric scraps I was worrying were too small, but I think I can make some Regency mini jackets.

    1. Yes, it's always those things you pass on that you later find out were a bargain that you regret.

      When I have small remnants of nice material they either become corsets, vests, or cravats.

  3. What's the thrift store with a fabric section, and where is it located?!

  4. Tamseer- I haven't gone thrifting specifically for steampunk stuff yet. I did find an awesome pair of brown leather heeled shoes that should make decent looking boots once I get some spats made for them at a Goodwill.

  5. I am familiar with thrift stores as I make/sell the upcycled sweater coats. www.etsy.com/EarthCoats.
    Anyway, I was looking for sweaters the other day and came across a man's full length black leather coat in a 2X. It was $25, so a little high for a thrift store, but I will be able to get a witch hat and a corset out of it and lots of leftover scrap. :) I am about to start making a Steampunk Witch outfit for the NOLA Witches' Ball in November. By the way, you look very familiar so I am sure I have seen you at TRF. Also, my friend and her daughter from Orange do Dickens on the Strand every year. I have been enjoying all of your blogs! Thanks for sharing.