Where to Find Scrap Metal (Cheap or Free)

Buying new steel for small welding projects can really start to add up.  If you are building on a budget, you may be wondering where to find scrap metal for small (or maybe even large) projects.  Fortunately, it isn’t as hard as you think.

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Pros and Cons of Scrap Metal for Projects

Before looking for scrap metal, think about your project’s requirements.  Is scrap metal suitable for your project?  Is this going to be a show piece, or are some dents, dings and blemishes going to be ok on the finished product?

If you are making tools, shelves, hangers, and other practical things, it should be fine. If you are making a coffee table base, blemishes may not be acceptable.

Scrap metal is great because it is cheap or free. You can find some material or pieces you may not otherwise find at a steel supplier. You can’t go to a steel supplier and find a tractor seat that would make a great stool, but you might find one at a salvage yard.

Using scrap metal is also environmentally friendly. Upcycling scrap into useful items or art pieces is better than filling a landfill.

Second, does the project have flexibility when it comes to materials?  Does thickness, strength, shape and size matter?  If they do, you may have to hold off on building the project, or buy new metal to get the job done.  When looking for scrap metal, you can’t always predict what you will find.

One last downside:  Cleaning and Prep.  Scrap metal will require more cleaning compared to new metal.  It may be rusty or have paint on it that needs to be removed before welding.  If you wish to have a certain finish, all of the paint and rust might need to be removed before you can finish the project.  The trade off is that it was cheap (or free).

Pros and Cons of using scrap metal

Where to Find Scrap Metal

The Curb

The first place to look when thinking about where to find scrap metal is the curb the night before garbage collection.  Get in the car and drive around after most people have their garbage cans out by the road.  Remember to think outside the box.  Try to imagine what pieces make up whatever it is you find.

For example, a metal bed frame is usually made of steel angle iron (actually very good steel to use).  A metal chair may be made of square or round tubing.  Lawnmowers have handles made of tubing.  Washers and dryers have sheet metal panels that house everything.  If you think this way, you can better understand what is worth stopping for and dragging home.

When on the hunt for scrap metal, carry an electric screwdriver with an assortment of bits.  This will allow you to take off panels and pieces of things that don’t fit in the car.  Just remember to leave the area clean and don’t drop any screws.  You don’t want to leave the homeowner with a big mess or flat tires.

One thing to remember is that you will be competing with the regular scrap guys who are looking for their pay day, so be sure to go out early and find your treasure.

Machine and Fabrication Shops

Wondering where to find scrap metal that won’t require driving around at night?  Check fabrication and machine shops.  Oftentimes they will have a bin for scraps (called drops) that they sell or recycle.  Walk in and ask if they sell their drops.  There are three outcomes.  Either they say yes and let you know how they price it, they say no but allow you to take some scrap anyways, or they say no. 

Don’t get discouraged, there are more shops around to check.  It may help to tell them a bit about what you are doing.  Try saying “Hi, my name is (Name). I just started welding and want to know if you sell your drops, I have a few projects I’d like to make.”

Before going this route, make sure you know the current steel prices to ensure you aren’t overpaying.  Prices will vary by location, but you will usually get a much better deal than new steel.  One plus to buying drops from a shop; The metal will usually be clean aside from some oil or cutting fluid.

Machine shop scrap

Garage and Estate Sales

This “where to find scrap metal” destination will once again require thinking outside the box.  You aren’t likely to find a pile of steel sitting at a garage or estate sale (although it does happen on occasion).  Here you will be looking for items made of steel that you can break down into usable pieces.  Think washers, dryers, old bikes, shelving units, chairs, and so on.  

A lot of communities have a designated garage sale weekend to get better turnouts for the sellers.  This also works out great for you, the buyer, because you can stop at a bunch of garage sales in a short amount of time.  

You may want to go to the sale on the first day to see if there is anything really good so you don’t miss out, however you will get the best deal towards the end of the last day.  Remember, they have to put all the stuff they wanted to get rid of back into storage.  Another good tactic is bundling.  If you can find a few items you want, offer a lower price for buying them all. It is also a great opportunity to look for used shop equipment like a drill press.

If you are into scrap metal art, be on the lookout for boxes of nails, cans of nuts and bolts, silverware, and any other small metal bits you can buy in bulk.  These are a gold mine for details on sculpture projects.

Bonus tip:  Many times after a town’s garage sale weekend, they will plan an unlimited garbage day.  That is the holy grail of garbage picking.

Where to find scrap metal art

Scrap Yards and Salvage Yards

This one may be obvious when pondering where to find scrap metal, but not all scrap yards are created equal.  Many scrap yards exclusively take in metal for recycling.  However, some scrap yards are true salvage yards.  These yards will have an area where they put any steel that they see as usable.  Oftentimes if a fabrication shop sends their drops off to be recycled, they will end up in the salvage area of a scrap yard before being recycled.  Pricing will be based on current metal prices and may fluctuate day to day.

A downside to salvage yards is that the metal is stored outdoors.  This means the longer it sits, the more it will rust.  If possible, try finding out if the drops look like they are coming from a shop.  With enough detective work, you may be able to get the drops from that place before they make it to the scrap yard, resulting in a better price and cleaner material.  

salvage pile

Second Hand Stores

Second hand or thrift stores may not be the first thing that comes to mind when asking yourself where to find scrap metal, however they can be a decent source.  With second hand stores, you will once again be looking for things made of metal you can break down into usable pieces. 

Some thrift stores may be independently owned and open to offers on items.  Typically, corporately owned thrift stores will not take offers on items in the store, but oftentimes they have specific days where a discount is automatically available.   Other times, certain items or color coded price tags will be on sale.

Scrap metal artists may have the best luck at second hand stores.  Things like silverware, décor pieces, lamps, and other household items are plentiful and cheap.  These items can all be cut apart into small bits of metal that can be incorporated into metal sculptures.

Friends and Family

Our last idea on where to find scrap metal is: friends and family.  Tell people what you are doing. Let friends and family know you are looking for metal you can repurpose into your metal projects.  If they are going to throw something away, give them your phone number and have them call or text you to let you know. 

The key here is that you need to be reliable and respond quickly.  You don’t want to tell someone that  you’ll take something and leave it sitting in their garage for weeks before you get there.  They want to get rid of the item and are being kind enough to save it for you, so you need to make it a priority to take it off their hands.  Make sure you are clear on what you are looking for so you don’t end up with unusable items that you then have to get rid of on your own.

If you get the word out, instead of asking where to find scrap metal, the scrap metal may come to you.  Think of people you know that work in a field that uses metal.  They may be able to save drops, old machine parts, nuts and bolts, and any other metal they use on a daily basis.

Final thoughts

If you find yourself wondering where to find scrap metal, think outside the box and talk to people.  You never know what might become your goldmine for scrap metal.  

Over the past year I have found a source for 7 ft long pieces of 3/16” thick angle iron.  I can consistently get these pieces and can plan on using them in projects.  I also have access to large truck frame cut offs from an upfitter.  They cut down chassis to put on truck bodies and discard the cut offs.  These pieces are 5/16” thick and 10” wide, so they are pretty stout.  A piece of this channel makes a great base for something, and you can cut out some thick pieces of plate.  

Always be on the lookout and be ready to jump on an offer, and you may become somebody’s go to person for getting rid of their unwanted metal.

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