Old Stuff Is Good Stuff

Doug Sisk can’t stand to see stuff — good, solid, reusable stuff — go into the landfill. He knows firsthand that just about anything can be made into something useful. It just takes creative thinking and handiwork.

Like the 40-year-old deck on the circa-1960 ranch house the Sisk family had begun to remodel.

“There was nothing wrong with the deck,” says Sisk. “The wood was clean. It wasn’t warped. It wasn’t full of insects. And the builder was just going to throw all of it into a landfill.”

Not on Sisk’s watch.

Every inch of the western red cedar was salvaged.

“My wife Terri and I pulled out all the nails by hand,” Sisk says.

They ended up with a lot of wood and not any immediate ideas what to do with it. They just knew it could be made into something useful.

When the remodeling project was done, that something useful was obvious.

“The new house was really much bigger than we envisioned,” Sisk says. With soaring ceilings and wide-open space, there was a lot of room to fill. He guides me to a small round glass-topped table that could seat only four comfortably.

“And that was our only dining room table.”

It was dwarfed by the new space. Sisk said ah-ha!

The 57-year-old had no carpentry or woodworking experience. But as the owner of Sisk Auto Body, Sisk says he’s had “a lot of experience with taking rough, rusty, dented stuff and making it look pretty again.” He figured he could apply those skills to the old deck wood.

“I was able to see the finished table in my head,” he says. “But that’s all I had to work from.”

The project challenged the novice furniture maker, but the result satisfied him. The handmade table, made to fit the new space, is close to four feet wide and nine feet long, offering plenty of room to a family of six with a couple of husbands and one grandchild. The old cedar, polished to a warm glow, withstood “40 years of everything Mother Nature could dish out.” It will surely withstand generations of anything the Sisks can dish out.

That table was the beginning of Sisk’s creative reclaiming.

Perfectly Good Trash

Sisk says his mantra is “re-use, re-cycle and re-purpose.” He thinks that pretty much anything can be fixed or recycled into something useful. He likes that things are decorative, but more important to him is that they also be functional. A tour of the Sisk’s newly remodeled home in Holland Point, at the southern end of Anne Arundel County, is testament to this creed.

-Sitting in the corner of the new kitchen is a cupboard made from two old doors and a pair of even older windows, all with the original white paint. Cupboard shelves hold old blue mason jars filled with pantry staples: rice, pasta, sugar, flour. Like the cupboard, the jars could have landed in a landfill instead of the Sisk family kitchen.

Inspired by Rachel Ashwell and her shabby chic decorating style, Sisk, with his wife Terri and daughter Barbara are regulars at architectural salvage yards, estate sales, rummage sales and Craigslist. Sometimes their neighbor’s trash.

“I found a 100-year-old, eight-pane window in a barn,” Sisk reports. I thought it would make a great tabletop, and I just needed legs. I watched my neighbor throw out four perfectly good table legs. I dug them out of his trash can.”

With his new-found carpentry skills — and vision of what former trash could become — Sisk designed and built a six-foot-long table. Under those antique panes of glass is another of Sisk’s passions: sea glass art.

He’s collected sea glass for years. Now he has something to do with it.

A river of pale blue sea glass meanders across the length of the table. Lights placed under the glass bring the scene to life after dark.

Sisk thinks you should never throw much of anything out.

Even old bottles do new jobs. A vintage gin bottle now dispenses mouthwash. Olive oil, vinegar, anything than can be poured can be put into an old glass bottle. The often-missing stoppers are replaced by modern versions found at home and hardware stores.

Old doors and shutters are especially attractive to Sisk.

“I heard that an old Baltimore City tavern was being torn down,” he relates. “I was able to salvage one of the doors.” It was the old bathroom door, still labeled Gentlemen on the original metal plate. It just so happened that the Sisk’s new bathroom needed a door. Now that old door has a new home. It’s not just for looks, though it looks great with its mottled blue paint. It does a job. That’s important to this practical man.

“I don’t want to just collect old things for looks,” he says. “I want things to be functional.”

Back to the bathroom. Through that funky old door marked Gentlemen is a vintage claw-foot bathtub.

“I found it in D.C.,” Sisk says. “A dump truck was getting ready to haul it away.”

Other than a good cleaning, the only thing the old tub needed was some new legs, which Sisk found at Second Chance salvage in Baltimore. It shares the bathroom with a 1940s’ stand ashtray — once ubiquitous in lobbies everywhere — now repurposed as a toilet paper role holder.

More salvaged vintage doors, most with their original paint, are used throughout the house. A pair of weathered green shutters conceals the not-so-pretty metal air exchange for their home’s furnace.

“When we were remodeling the house, we worked with a custom builder,” Sisk says. “But he wasn’t crazy about custom building the house to fit all these old doors and windows.”

A Lot of Life in That Old Deck

The garage is Doug’s “creative zone.” It’s where he stores the smaller things he’s salvaged. On his workbench sit dozens of containers — recycled plastic take-out food containers — full of his sea glass collection.

-“I sit here with a glass of red wine and play with sea glass,” he says.

Bigger things are stored at the family’s business, Sisk Auto Body in Owings. Even those buildings are antiques, now re-purposed. At one time they housed W.M. Thomas Lumber Company, later Tidewater Boats.

Perhaps it’s in the air. W.M. Thomas was more than a lumberyard. The company manufactured doors and windows for local builders. When Sisk moved in almost 30 years ago, he inherited the old woodworking tools. Where new wood was once stored, old wood awaits a new life.

Like that old deck, which is still providing wood for Sisk’s projects. Over the winter, he made some of it into four Adirondack chairs. He made picture frames to enclose his artistic reuse of old sea glass. They’re hung at windows, where the light shines through the mosaic created from broken old bottles, tumbled through the waves and washed up on shore. Each week, a new one appears in the window of the neat office of his auto body shop, where other decorations are old tools and license plates.

“I doubt he’s bought any of it,” says daughter B.J. Chase.

Another life for another’s trash.

“I just want people to reuse, recycle and repurpose,” Sisk says. “Old doors with their original paint, even worn and alligatored, are beautiful. Don’t strip it, don’t ruin it. Love it for what it was, and what is has become.”

Doug Sisk has a challenge for you. He wants you to make his day.

“If I can inspire even one reader who is getting ready to buy something new to instead reuse something,” Sisk says, “that does it.”