This should be a photo of a little red wheelbarrow.

Transformers: Revenge of the Useful


WE’VE been tied up getting elevations and site plans drawn, taking measurements and reading books. I’ll actually do a post in the next week about the books that Sheryl and I have found the most useful and inspirational in this first step of our little home-building journey. But wanted to keep posting, so here’s one about trucks, wheelbarrows, roll-offs and a dude who will take your scrap metal away for free. If you’re pressed for time, you can probably skip this one, but don’t go crying if someone at a party asks you where to get the cheapest wheelbarrow in Pasadena or if you know anyone who will pick up rusty pipes so they don’t end up in a landfill. Seriously, this knowledge can make you popular. But, like I said, feel free to skip this one.


IF you’re building, demolishing, restoring or improving, the first and most useful tool you should consider is a pickup. (If you already own a pickup, please proceed to the next section.) There is no investment that will save you more money in a DIY building project than a used truck. My first truck in California was a beat-up salvaged Chevy Luv. My friends still talk about it because it was uglier than the economy and carved into its doors were the phrases “Check Yo Self” and “Pump Yo Breaks”, which might seem frivolous, but was actually great advice when driving a 20-year-old pickup that came from the dump. It cost $900 plus a new fuel pump and ran trouble-free for years. It probably paid for itself three or four times over and when I thought I no longer needed it, I sold it for almost as much as I paid. Last I heard, it was hauling surfboards in Ventura. My “new” truck is a step up. A 17-year-old Ford F-150 complete with extended cab, alloy wheels and a funky smell that I’m sure will go away. All that for about two grand. I also have an old Dodge Dakota 4×4 in Pennsylvania. Point is that it doesn’t have to be pretty and it doesn’t have to be expensive, but you will need a truck.

If you buy used, be realistic, but inspect carefully. In LA County, I noticed a big difference in what you get when you jump from the $1000 range to the $2000+ range. That’s not to say that you can’t find a good truck for $900, they just go fast. I’m no mechanic, but some things I look for beyond the cosmetic:
– Pull the dipstick to check the level and quality of the engine oil. Should be clear, amber to brown, and not sludgy. Feel the oil, should feel smooth, not gritty at all.
– Do the same with the transmission fluid. Should be transparent, usually red, not dark; should not smell burnt.
– Visually check the engine for anything that looks worn or missing — I got screwed once not knowing to check the California smog equipment diagram, usually on a sticker above your radiator. A back-yard mechanic had removed some of the pieces that our state requires and, though the truck ran fine, would not pass smog without some work.
– Feel the belts (seems obvious, but make sure the engine is not running), squeeze the hoses. They should be supple, not cracked or brittle. Same goes for the rubber on the ignition wires that connect to the plugs.
– If you have time and the tool, pull one of the plugs to check for excess carbon or unburnt gas, both could indicate a problem.
– Crawl under the vehicle with a flashlight to check for leaks, holes, etc… a little gunk caked on an old engine is normal, but should not appear wet or excessive.
– I also, with the engine running, hold my hand over the tailpipe. You should feel serious pressure and, if you hold your hand tightly enough, the engine should almost stall. This is a crude way of checking compression and the integrity of your exhaust.
– Finally, of course, test drive it. Listen and feel for squeeks, grinds and shimmies.
Or skip all that and take it to a mechanic. What is this, Cartalk or something? Moving on…


COULDN’T you imagine a Transformer that turned into a wheelbarrow? It’d have skinny, wooden stick legs and a round rubber head, and probably be kind of clumsy with an annoying voice, but when Shia LeBeouf really wanted to get some work done around the house he sure as hell wouldn’t be calling Optimus. So I was running errands in Pasadena and shopping for a second wheelbarrow. My first (above) was pretty beat up from mixing cement and we were going to need at least two to haul moldy drywall and busted-up concrete. I’m pretty cheap, so the idea of paying $80-$120 for a simple wheelbarrow was not sitting well. I was at True Value on Fair Oaks almost ready to plunk down four twenties when I remembered that I hadn’t checked my local Ace Hardware on Woodbury. Well, what do you know, $49 for a new 6-cubic-foot (standard size) wheelbarrow! Plus, unlike several of the other places, theirs were assembled. So, I don’t know if they have many left, but Master’s Building Supply (Ace) on 370 E Woodbury Rd in Altadena has wheelbarrows at 1990 prices. I’ve always found the people at that store to be very friendly and helpful, too. It’s a little dusty and faded, but much more of a neighborhood vibe than your Home Depot or OSH-type places.

Looking for the corporate endorsement.

Man, I’m long-winded. Thought I could wrap all of this up in one post, but will continue tomorrow and tell you about roll-off dumpsters in Pasadena and a door-to-door scrap metal salvager who helped me out.


So spring brings flower, allergies and apparently a new crop of wheelbarrows! Have seen some good sales recently, but the best was a sturdy 6-cubic-foot version at True Value Hardware for forty bucks. May have to grab one.