Step through the rusty repurposed gates of a salvage yard, and you'll find yourself in a design time machine. Carnival ride seats lean against a towering Buddha; paint-chipped strike plates for door latches line shelves; pastel-colored bathtubs, sinks and toilets create a porcelain rainbow. In a one-click world where new home-decor offerings are predictably universal, salvage yards offer unique possibilities.

A few years ago, salvage yards were primarily seen as resources for homeowners and builders looking to restore historical properties or for artists seeking inexpensive materials. But Vermont-based designer Joanne Palmisano says salvage dealers now serve a far wider range of customers.

"Salvage yards are really expanding their offerings," says Palmisano, a designer for cable TV's DIY Network and author of "Salvage Secrets: Transforming Reclaimed Materials Into Design Concepts" (W.W. Norton & Co.). "Along with all the interesting architectural details, you'll find everyday salvage components like bricks, pressure-treated wood, plywood panels, piping and tiling. My salvage sources tell me that stained-glass windows and beautiful old sinks with big aprons are flying out the door right now."

Palmisano says she's long had an affinity for a staple of salvage yards -- old wood. She's salvaged wood pieces to repurpose as signage, countertops and floors. A recent find of 25-inch-wide wood planks from an old rectory has inspired her to draw up plans to panel one wall of a bedroom and create a matching headboard for the bed.

"I'm going to carve the word 'dream' into the headboard when I'm done," she says. "Won't that be wonderful?"

Katherine Davis, owner of Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, says today's customers are interested in finding unusual objects that both fit a need and tell a story.

"Salvage materials and objects are rich with character and personality -- they're just much more interesting than mass-produced items," she says.

Davis, who took over running Ohmega Salvage after her husband, Steve Dobrinsky, died last year, is fairly selective about the items she stocks, preferring materials that are at least 50 years old and American- or European-made. She acquires inventory from builders who want to recycle products, customers looking to sell or trade items, and buying trips around the world. She is not averse to looking close to home either.

"On my day off, I'll stop by Goodwill -- that's fun for me," she says.

Ohmega customers Josh Stenzel and Steve Kopff recently purchased an 8,000-square-foot Victorian near Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland. In order to reclaim the Ellen Kenna house as a private residence (it was most recently the headquarters for a nonprofit organization), they're visiting salvage yards to replace original items like chandelier crystals and glass doorknobs that have gone missing.

"We could buy reproduction items ... but we prefer to shop at salvage yards like Ohmega to find objects from the actual time period," says Stenzel, who is blogging about the remodel at http://thereagainoakland.blogspot.com. "Salvaged items feel different. There's a little extra something that a reproduction piece can't reproduce."

San Francisco designer Carolyn Day likes to scour salvage yards for unique items that can become focal points in her clients' homes -- even if they have a more contemporary bent. For a young couple soon to be married, for example, she found two whitewashed, ornately carved chairs at Ohmega that were comfortable and worked well with their contemporary design aesthetic but also spoke to their Philippine heritage.

Katherine Davis, owner of Ohmega Salvage, looks through some newly acquired objects waiting to be cleaned and restored before being put on sale at the
Katherine Davis, owner of Ohmega Salvage, looks through some newly acquired objects waiting to be cleaned and restored before being put on sale at the store, Tuesday, March 12, 2013, in Berkeley, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron/Staff) ( D. ROSS CAMERON )

Day also found a long, black resin countertop embedded with bamboo -- likely from a commercial bar -- that she had cut into two pieces. One piece now functions as an eating counter in the bride's apartment. Once the couple is married and their households are combined, Day plans to reunite the two pieces to make a workstation.

"I'm very much about sustainability and flexibility," she says. "Salvage materials offer both."

Another benefit of shopping salvage is that materials are often less expensive than if you'd buy them new.

South Bay resident Aaron Castle is building a "tiny house" -- a 196-square-foot structure perched on a trailer -- almost completely out of salvage materials. For Castle, the opportunity to use these materials offers the chance to own a piece of history while using resources that otherwise would have to be added to a landfill. It also allows him to save a significant amount of money.

"The multi-ply paneling we're using would have been $2.50 a square foot had we bought it new at a lumber yard. Buying it from Whole House Building Supply in San Mateo cost us 35 cents a square foot. We've saved thousands of dollars using salvage materials," says Castle, who blogs about his tiny-house project at http://canander.com.

Salvage-yard customers also tend to see the artistic potential in the materials they find. San Francisco garden artist Veronica Sykes first started haunting salvage yards when she was a landscape design student at UC Berkeley. She now creates vertical succulent gardens using old window frames. After applying a heavy mesh backing and sphagnum moss, she creates "living art" within the window's framework. "Salvage yards are like alternative hardware stores for me," she says.

For a first visit to a salvage yard, Palmisano suggests going without a plan. Just wander around and take in all that yard has to offer. "Look in every nook and cranny to see what they carry. Explore!"

On subsequent visits, try two approaches. The first is to come with a detailed plan and accurate measurements for a particular project you'd like to accomplish. That way, the people working at the salvage yard can better direct you to what might be appropriate for your project.

But Palmisano also encourages people to go with an open mind and see what inspires them. "I often go in looking for one thing and come out with something entirely different. That's the fun of shopping at salvage yards."

Should you come up with a terrific idea for an old piece of wood or a fragment of stained glass but don't have the expertise to make your dream a reality, ask the staff for help, Palmisano advises. "They'll know craftsmen and artists who frequent their shop for the same kind of materials, and can direct you to them," she says.

Perhaps you're on the other side of the salvage equation, and want to sell or donate materials you can't use. San Francisco architect Ravi Anand does a lot of remodels of historic properties. Though he likes to reuse materials whenever possible, he can't reuse or repurpose everything. He initially tried to work with contractors to learn what was worth salvaging. Over time, he came to rely on salvage experts such as Steve Meyers at Ohmega to walk through a project with him and tag what can be saved and what can't.

"That way, there is less going into the landfill, and we reduce the project cost -- both by selling items to the salvage yard and obtaining credit to buy materials that work better for the new design," Anand says.

Paul Gardner, owner of Whole House Building Supply, helps homeowners and contractors determine what materials can be salvaged for a "deconstruction sale." He advertises these sales in his own newsletter, which you sign up for at the business or via www.driftwoodsalvage.com.

"This can be a real boon for someone because homeowners are willing to give a lot away," Gardner says. "And, in turn, they may get a tax write-off as well as keep a lot of materials out of the landfill."

Still not sure about how to tap into the potential of salvage yard decor? Palmisano suggests you pick up an object that appeals to you and think about 10 possible ways to use it. "Practice, practice, practice seeing the potential in things, and you'll be amazed at what you can dream up."

Kathryn Loosli Pritchett writes about design topics at www.thingselemental.com. Contact her there or at features@mercurynews.com.

Area Salvage Yards

Building Resources: 701 Amador St., San Francisco; 415-285-7814, www.buildingresources.org
Capitola Freight & Salvage: 1575 38th Ave., Capitola; 831-465-6990, www.capitolafreight.com
Ohmega Salvage: 2403 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley; 510-843-7368, www.ohmegasalvage.com
The Reuse People: 9235 San Leandro St., Oakland; 510-383-1983, www.thereusepeople.org
Urban Ore: 900 Murray St. Berkeley; 510-841-7283, www.urbanore.org
Whole House Building Supply: 1000 S. Amphlett Blvd., San Mateo; 650-558-1400, www.driftwoodsalvage.com