How We Salvage Joists

Deconstruction, Salvage
In an earlier post, we employed a barrage of cringe-worthy puns to explain the role of the humble joist: along with its brethren, a joist offers support for ceilings, floors, and walls. It’s a pretty important piece of wood.
Now we’re going to walk through the process of salvaging them from Eager Street.
1. Remove all material resting atop and/or below the joist itself. This involves removing the flooring that is nailed into the top of the joist, and removing the plaster and lath that was originally fastened to the bottom of the joist to act as a ceiling. In the houses on Eager Street, the joists supporting the first floor had no plaster beneath them because the basements were originally made without ceilings. The basement “ceiling” was actually just the underside of the first floor flooring.

Josh and Rodney take a break from pulling down the old plaster and lath; it can be messy working exposing joists.

NOTE: When removing material from atop joists, make sure that you’re not removing anything that might be structural. For instance, it would be a mistake to remove a bearing wall on the first floor while weight was still resting on it. The rowhouses on Eager Street feature very simple framing, with joists running across the width of the house into pockets within the brick walls. The joists do not bear on anything within the interior of the house, so we’re free to expose them without fear.
2. Cut wires, pipes, ducts, and any other materials that might obstruct joists during removal. Joists do more than just hold up floors, ceilings, and walls- they often serve as perfect places to route utilities. You’d be surprised how much resistance a century old electrical wire can give; snip ’em before attempting to remove the joist.

A view up towards the second floor joists- before we even removed the flooring, we cut away old knob and tube wiring. The newer wire still needs to be cut.

3. Give yourself a clear view of the exposed joists and come up with a plan. The old saying goes, “measure twice, cut once.” With joist removal, we can tweak that to “if you cut joists from the wrong side of the building you’re going to get stuck in the basement with no way out, cut once.” We always make sure we have a game plan for cutting the wood, sending it out of the house to be processed, and sending ourselves out of the house once we’re done. In our houses, we start from the rear of the house and work our way towards the front door. Because the joists do offer some measure of support to walls, we generally leave a couple joists in place.

A clean view of the second story joists with all obstacles to harvesting removed.

4. With spotters in place, make your cut at one end of the joist. We use a Sawzall to make a quick, clean cut. There are a few ways you can make your cut: cutting straight down won’t free the joist completely because it will rest on the chunk left in the wall. Starting close to the wall and cutting back towards the joist will allow the joist to rest right in place. Starting a few inches back towards the joist and cutting towards the wall will cause the cut side of the joist to fall straight down. No matter which way you cut, have spotters on hand to catch the joist as it becomes free.



Damon makes his cut while Rodney spots.

5. Rock the joist out of the pocket opposite the cut side. By lifting up on the cut side, the joist should break free from its pocket, leaving you with as much salvageable material as possible. Once it’s totally free, make sure you have a few sets of hands to handle the joist and send it on its way to be processed.

Rodney and Ronald rock the cut end of the joist, allowing it to ease out of the pocket on the opposite end of the house.

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