Like many legendary lumber tales, our story begins with a farmer and an old barn out in the middle of nowhere.
You see, there was this farmer out in the middle of nowhere, and about 25 years ago a storm blew down the biggest walnut tree on his land. The farmer had a friend at a sawmill cut up the tree, and the old guy put the wood in his barn to use someday.
Someday never came. The farmer died, one of his relatives called us and we went out to this secluded hamlet with visions of 24″-wide clear planks in our heads.
But like many lumber tales, ours ended when we scaled up to the barn’s hayloft. Up there we found a mound of moldy, rotting, bug-infested, unstickered wood that wasn’t even good enough to burn.
Finding lumber off the beaten path has both risks and rewards. For every time we’ve bought black cherry for $1 a board foot (kiln-dried but ungraded), we’ve probably had three or four times when we came up empty-handed. Or worse, we bought wood that looked good to us as we loaded the truck, but it turned out to be junk.
Because we can’t always rely on foraging for wood, we’re also regular customers at commercial lumberyards. Sure, the price can be a bit higher, but the lumber is graded, so you know what you’re going to get. And the supply is more predictable than hunting for the old barn in the woods.
No matter who you are, unless you own a sawmill, finding the best material for your projects is going to be a challenge. Even professional cabinetmakers are constantly foraging for new sources for wood.
But it is possible to find quality lumber — no matter where in the country you live. To verify this, we tracked down several woodworkers from relatively hardwood-deprived states such as Florida, Arizona and Texas (all of whom belonged to a woodworking club by the way). According to these wood scroungers, it is possible to find quality lumber. You just have to know where to look.
And when you do find some wood, you need to figure out if it’s worth buying. This means you have to get familiar with the lumberyard lexicon. There are lots of terms you need to know so you can ask for (and get) exactly what you need. To help you on that point, we’ve included a glossary of the common terms and expressions you’ll hear at the lumberyard (“The Language of Lumber” on page 53).
Once you’ve boned up on the lumberyard-ese, it’s time to start your search. Here are the strategies we use to keep the racks in the Popular Woodworking shop (and at home) full of good wood.
Believe it or not, you might not be aware of all the lumberyards that carry hardwoods in your area. Some are small family operations that rely more on word of mouth than marketing. Your first step should be to check the Yellow Pages (look under “lumber, retail”) and visit the WoodFinder web site (woodfinder.com), which can help you find suppliers within a 200-mile radius.
Some lumberyards deliver even small loads, and others are worth the drive, so don’t discount the stores that are out of town. If you’re still not having luck finding basic hardwoods such as red oak and poplar, call a local cabinetshop and nicely ask where you can find hardwoods locally.
And don’t forget to look for lumber mills if you live near hardwood forests. Some of these mills sell direct to the public, and the prices can be pretty good.
Wood by Mail
It might seem nuts to buy lumber through the mail, especially when you consider that you’re buying it sight-unseen and have to pay for shipping. But many of the big mail-order lumber suppliers actually are quite competitive in price, and the wood is of a high quality.
Editor Steve Shanesy recently visited Steve Wall Lumber Co. (walllumber.com or 800-633-4062) in North Carolina and was impressed by what he saw in the racks. Wall offers special 20-board-foot bundles of lumber in 3′ to 5′ lengths that ship via UPS. Here are some recent prices for 4/4 S2S lumber: mahogany for $5 a board foot, cherry for $5.50, soft maple for $3.95. And those prices include all shipping costs.
Woodcraft (woodcraft.com or 800-225-1153) sells domestic and exotic woods by the board or in bundles. Paxton (paxtonwood.com or 800-325-9800) sells wood by the bundle, and so do many other large lumberyards. Woodfinder (woodfinder.com) lists many other mail-order companies, too.
Join the Club
Of course there are ways to make the search easier. Perhaps the best way is to join your local woodworking club or guild.
Almost every club seems to have a resident wood scrounger who is more than happy to point you to places that are off the beaten path. Some clubs even organize purchases of lumber for their members — buying in volume drives down the price. And if you’re looking for a small quantity of a particular species, it’s likely that one club member will have a few extra board feet of that species to sell. They’ll probably offer it to you at a great price, too.
Don’t know if there’s a club in your area? Go to betterwoodworking.com/woodworking_clubs.htm to find one near you. We highly recommend joining a club.