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Recycled material, furnishings, and wood workshops at Rebuilding Exchange

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It's a common aphorism that 'one man's trash is another man's treasure', and that's particularly true in the city of Chicago. In alleyways and urban neighborhoods, there's an informal system of recycling, where unwanted furniture, devices, and tools are left out for others to take for themselves. Freelance scrap collectors in pickup 'junk' trucks roam about, picking up abandoned wood and metal to deliver to recycling plants.

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'One man's trash is another man's treasure' is also the basic premise of the Rebuilding Exchange, located on 1740 Webster Avenue. This warehouse/supply store/workshop takes in used building materials and furniture from various contractors throughout the city, from the detritus of construction projects and demolition jobs, and sells them to creative customers who want to recycle this material into new application.

And there's a huge variety of goods in the cavernous warehouse, each seeming to tell their own story of where they came from. Coffee bags stacked on shelves, the aroma of their contents still hanging around them. Grey, aged wood from an old grain-silo elevator floor, an elevator that used to be the biggest in the world. A 1940s wooden radio case, interior gutted, with only the speaker remaining.

(A red sticker marked 'Sold' indicates that someone bought it. Who? And for what?)

Kitchen machines and furniture, some recycled, others built by employees and volunteers from the scrap wood available all around them.

Needless to say, there's lots of sawdust about. But that's not a problem for staff member Alex Enarson. “People like sawdust,” he says with a chuckle.

When asked, he shared some more details about how Rebuilding Exchange got started. It was initially sponsored by the Delta Institute, a non-profit group that sponsors environmentally conscious small businesse ventures. From the beginning, it's emphasis was on providing recycled supplies for individuals and groups interested in DIY woodwork. “We added workshops last year,” Alex related. “The workshops spread the word, and are pretty popular.”

These DIY workshops, either 'Lecture-style' events with a $10 admission fee, or one-day wood-shopping classes for $65, vary widely in topic and scope. “We have lots of DIY workshops whose topics change every month.” staff member Meegan Czop clarified (escorted by a three-month old pup named Steve Queen).

As of January 2014, there are upcoming workshops in basic woodworking, hand tools, mirror-making, belt tote manufacturing, and even Aquaponics, a synthesis of hydroponics and fish farming taught by members of the Plant, an urban farming project based in an old Meatpacking factory on Chicago's southwest side.

For hobby woodworkers, small-time contractors, and people looking for job training in wood shop skills, the Rebuilding Exchange offers lots of opportunities for the new year.

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