If you’re trying to keep a car running on a tight budget, or if you drive something that’s a little unusual and can’t be serviced with readily available parts, you need to get familiar with junkyards. Also known as salvage yards, boneyards, “pick-a-parts,” “u-pull auto parts,” and other similar names – used auto parts places are excellent sources of inexpensive items for your car. But wading through spilled oil, broken glass, and mountains of trash can be a little intimidating so today we’re going to talk about how to harvest pieces of wrecked cars while being safe and having fun. And yes, if you go in with the right attitude and equipment, it absolutely is fun.

I think it’s fair to say that, eventually, every car enthusiast develops the inclination to visit their local junkyard and rummage around for stuff. Sometimes you can find upgrades among other people’s trash, sometimes it’s just a neat opportunity to see a car you like in a state of partial dismantlement.

I recently visited a southern California junkyard myself, in search of parts for my 1997 Land Rover Discovery and 2014 Mazda 2. I hadn’t been to a yard in something like eighteen years but luckily old dogs remember old tricks, or something like that, and it ended up being a great visit. I grabbed some nice parts, didn’t get tetanus, and didn’t get into a knife fight with a fellow Mazda 2 owner! Here are some things to keep in mind to have a successful visit of your own at your local yard.

Try To Check Out the Yard’s Inventory Online Before You Go

LKQ, the company that owns the yard I visited in beautiful Stanton, California (and many others across the country) has websites for each of its yards where you can search its inventory. It also has a decent, easy-to-use, and free app to do so. Not all yards are that digitized, but it’d be worth at least calling ahead if you’re looking for something specific.

You’ll want to know if the yard you’re going to has the parts you want, of course, but if there’s a specific car you’re looking to harvest you’ll also want to know how long it’s been sitting there. Find a picture of a vehicle with a rare accessory you’re hoping to peel off it? Well, if the car’s been at the yard for weeks, there’s a good chance it might be picked over.

Most yards, even if they don’t have a website, will have some kind of map you can reference near the entrance or front office. This will help you figure out what direction to start hiking in based on what you’re looking for.

How To Have a Productive and Safe Visit to the Junkyard
Image: Peter Nelson

Have Reasonable Goals and Expectations

My goals for visiting the yard were fairly open-ended with the exception of finding a grille for my Discovery. Sure enough, this yard had both a Series 1 Discovery and a Mazda 2 (which I knew from checking the inventory online). The grille on the Disco looked to be in reasonable shape from the photos, so I knew that’d be worth investigating. Otherwise, my goal was to see if anything was still bolted up to these two cars that might have been worth grabbing, which is a reasonable expectation. Things get damaged, mucked-up, scratched, scraped, and such in junkyards. And of course, there’s always the possibility that somebody else grabbed what you want before you get there – if a yard does list its inventory online, it definitely does not update its pictures once a car comes in. You’ll be lucky to get any decent pictures of a car in the yard!

I was stoked on the Disco grille, but unfortunately, once I got to it I realized it was too damaged to be worth saving. Although, as I type this and think about the lofty lumps of cash people are selling them for on eBay, I’m wondering if it would’ve been worth it to buy, plastic-weld back together, and paint.

Two other things to think about ahead of time: Make sure you don’t roll up right before closing, as pulling a part might take longer than you think, and remember that many yards charge an admission fee of a few bucks so don’t forget your cash. You might want to buy a drink or a snack off the taco truck that’s inevitably parked near the entrance, too!

Don’t Forget About “Side Missions”

On one hand, if you stay on task and focus on whatever part you came to harvest, you’ll get in and our of a junkyard quickly. On the other, finding random junk and poking around it can be half the fun of a boneyard visit. Just remember to keep an eye on the time if you’ve got real work to do.

On a related note – remember that many cars share parts across models. If you’re looking for a trim piece but it’s already been harvested from whatever car you’re looking at, see if another one from another make has the same part you might be able to grab.

How To Have a Productive and Safe Visit to the Junkyard
Paydirt! – Image: Peter Nelson

Bring a Good Assortment of Tools

I’m usually the type to over-prepare tools-wise when I go to a track day. However, lugging around 40-50 pounds of tools at the junkyard would be an immense pain in the ass. Well, yards often have carts available to borrow to help port tools and parts around, but still, I don’t want to be too encumbered by my own tools. Plus, digging around in my deep tool bag is an immense pain.

If you know your vehicle’s common socket sizes, bring those. Otherwise short and long screwdrivers, a good assortment of open-ended wrenches, a rubber mallet, a big and small adjustable wrench, pliers, flashlight, piece of pipe to act as a breaker bar (if you plan on removing stuff like wheels, axles, etc.), are all great. A can of PB Blaster is a good idea too, for loosening up bolts that might be fused by rust. One thing I wish I’d had was a selection of short open-ended wrenches in sizes 10-17mm; I would’ve been well-covered to pull some clean-looking power steering lines from the yard’s Discovery. But alas, I couldn’t get two of them out no matter how many nearby, under-the-hood accessories I removed; my small adjustable wrench was too big.

I’m quite familiar with the Mazda’s bolt sizes, so I knew having a 10mm, 14mm, and 17mm socket on-hand would be a good idea. And it certainly was!

Wear Protective Clothing

I wore a thick long-sleeve flannel shirt, sturdy pair of shoes, jeans, and had my mechanics gloves on the ready. I couldn’t imagine visiting a yard without the gloves; the Mazda 2 I pulled parts from was a jagged pile of exposed, sharp corners. Had I not had gloves on, I surely would’ve severed my wrist while working on a 17mm bolt in the Mazda 2’s hatch when the socket slipped.

Obviously weather is a thing, so thick, long-sleeve shirts aren’t always the best idea. I lucked out; it was overcast, 60 degrees, and slightly windy. Cars weren’t scorching hot, and I wasn’t boiling in my flannel. It’s hard to both plan for the weather and protect yourself against getting maimed by a jagged, crunched-up Japanese hatchback. A thick long-sleeve isn’t always the most protective either; jagged metal is really sharp. But I’m a fan of being safe than sorry. Heck, even something like a thick welding shirt might be a good idea.

Eyewear can also be a good call – if you’re going to be fighting rusty pieces, flakes might go flying.

How To Have a Productive and Safe Visit to the Junkyard
That MPV though! – Image: Peter Nelson

Follow the Written Rules

Junkyards have rules to abide by. Each company and yard generally have the same kind of rules, like examining your tool bag at the entrance and exit (to make sure you aren’t stealing parts), don’t purposefully damage cars, don’t parkour all over the place, and so on. They usually list their rules nice and clearly on their website, as well as at the entrance, so take a second to make sure you’re on the same page. Then go have fun!

Follow the Unwritten Rules

What I mean by this is common courtesy. I don’t know if there’s an unspoken code among junkyard visitors that’s held to a high standard, with various verses symbolically tattooed across various appendages, etc. Frankly, I don’t wanna know. But be courteous. I don’t start poking around and pulling parts off of a car if someone else got there before me and is currently doing so. If you do, just ask what they’re after and make sure you aren’t snaking anything from them. Also, keep your tools out of peoples’ ways, don’t block the row with your cart full of parts, keep your dog at home as there’s broken glass everywhere, stuff like that. Essentially, don’t be dick.

The most essential piece of junkyard etiquette I hope you’ll follow: Try not to wreck the parts you remove but don’t need on your way to getting something you want. Let’s say you need a window switch, and the door card it’s nested in is in great shape. You’d be doing your fellow car enthusiasts a real solid by taking your time to remove that door card carefully enough as to not damage it – maybe the next person in wants that piece!

How To Have a Productive and Safe Visit to the Junkyard
A whole mess of Mazda 2 interior parts, paid for and loaded up into the Disco. – Image: Peter Nelson

When You Pay

When you go to settle up, keep it honest, and also consider bargaining a little. Being the honest midwesterner that I am, I put all the hardware I grabbed on the cashier’s table, even though they didn’t seem to charge me for it. But otherwise, make sure everything’s nice and clearly shown to the cashier. My dad has a story of going to a junkyard years ago in Chicago and witnessing a group of burly men on the verge of clobbering a dude who tried to steal stuff.

There’s no harm in trying to bargain a tad at the junkyard, just be polite about it. I had four pieces of Mazda 2 hatch trunk panels, a door panel, and some hardware, all in very clean condition. The cashier initially gave me a total of $130 after tax, I politely asked if he could go a little lower than that, and he brought the total down to $103 after tax. That’s a good deal in my book; I’ve seen Mazda 2 door panels alone go for around $90 shipped, pre-tax.

Keeping these points in mind can help ensure you’ll have a fun and successful day at the junkyard. If you’re a regular visitor yourself, what else would you recommend to newbies?