Yoav Liberman has been using found materials to create items since his childhood: “If I had a regular cell battery, and it ran out of juice, I’d take the battery apart and keep the part that’s a protrusion to use it for something — maybe a wheel, or a part of a spaceship,” he said.
Now, as an adult woodworker — he’s currently teaching woodworking and furniture design at Harvard University — Yoav is still using found objects, including wood. “It’s natural to me to borrow from what people leave behind or trash. When I visit a friend’s woodshop, I always see what’s going on in the fireplace bin.”
He also finds his materials from other sources, like items left behind by college students when they move on, university discards from the Harvard Surplus Center and trash bins — including the trash behind the Cambridge Rockler Woodworking and Hardware store.
“I was going to buy supplies from the local Rockler store, and I discovered a big dumpster in back with a lot of signage and display pieces that had been discarded,” Yoav said. Since the staff is familiar with him, they knew what he was doing as “the manager and assistant manager came out and saw me picking through the trash,” he said.
Yoav used the 40" to 50" long 3/8"-thick birch strips he found as false drawer fronts on a piece he called a Cantabrigian Highboy. The highboy also incorporated discarded museum specimen trays, sewing machine stand legs and a Harvard University emblem Yoav cut from the back of an old chair.
When working with such reclaimed material, Yoav said, often, “you need to come up with solutions.” For example, “Sometimes a board is beautiful, but it has a distinctive crack. You have to choose what to do: get rid of it? Fill it with colored epoxy?” In those cases, he will often choose to use black pigment as a gap filler — but sometimes he emphasizes the irregularity by putting a dovetail key or some other design element in the spot.
“Sometimes, you just need to work with what you have and improvise. I actually like that. If it’s an item from an old age, in a way it actively participates in the decision-making process.” Such items, Yoav said, “have a say. Ideally, people learn from them, and are inspired to a more cautious, informed way of utilizing our past for our future.”
For instance, one of Yoav’s favorite pieces from the past came from some heart pine beams left over when the larger post and beams had been removed from an old mill building in Massachusetts. “I really look forward to using that,” he said. For hardware, he has tubes and posts from old fireplace sets and brass from old chandeliers. He also has some of the Rockler signage left over — some with decals saying “nuts,” “bolts," etc., that he’s considering using as a visible portion of another piece.
Sometimes, the older materials do present some challenges. For instance, Yoav recently spent some time trying to plane two sides of a trashed Harvard College bookcase he suspects was from the 1920s, only to have it continually clog up his plane. He then realized that the oak finish was probably created with shellac at the time. He dipped a rag in some alcohol for cleanup, which worked fine. “I could have used a belt sander, but I prefer not to use electrical hand tools if I can help it,” Yoav said. “It’s just a lot of noise and dust.”
He does use a planer and a jointer, however — with very light passes. “If you suspect nails and steel in reclaimed lumber, you have to be like an airport detector,” in finding them before ruining your tools, he said.
Still, Yoav said he always encourages his students to at least consider the use of reclaimed items for their projects. “People tell me, ‘I’m inspired by the way you used abandoned material instead of having this stuff end up in the dump,’” he said. “I get positive feedback from my fellow woodworkers and artists. That makes me happy.”