Chris Schwarz's Blog

How I Buy Wood & Why I’m Weird

Compared to many of my woodworking friends, I buy wood and treat it a little differently than most.

Many of my friends have a significant stock of lumber on hand, from a garage-full to a few barn-fulls. When they find good lumber, they buy it.

In many ways, this is an excellent strategy because every board is different. If you see a pile of lumber you like for sale, you will never see it again. By the same token, these woodworkers have a good pile of scraps saved away for pens or small projects. Again, a good, non-wasteful strategy.

I have never operated this way for several reasons. One, we don’t have the space – all our storage space is filled with boxes of books. So I have a small lumber rack in my shop that can hold about 100 board-feet of wood. No more.

Second, my methods suit my woodworking methods. When I build a project, I do everything in my power to get all the primary wood out of boards that are from the same tree. In fact, I try to get them out of boards that were flitch-cut.

I do this because it makes it so much easier to get consistent grain and color in the project.

While at Popular Woodworking Magazine, we always had a stock of wood on our racks, and I always found it frustrating to pick through it. There was never enough of a certain species – say white oak or maple – to complete a project of any size. So you had to go buy a few boards at the lumberyard to get enough to do the job. And it was always a pain in the rumpus to match color and the like.

I can remember many long hours just staring at my boards in the shop, wondering how I was going to make it work.

For my own work, I buy what I need for a project and pick the boards based on that project only. So if I have a dresser, I’m going to pick widths based on the case sides and drawer widths. Perhaps I’m just not smart enough, but this is a much easier way for me to work.

And when it comes to scraps, I’m ruthless. I don’t keep narrow or short offcuts. They go into the burn pile (hooray for the family fire pit). It’s too easy to get buried in little bits of wood that will never get used.

All this is not to say that I don’t suffer for my wood. This week I needed to buy some 20”-wide sugar pine for an upcoming project I’m building in Maine next week. Ty Black, a friend of mine, and I spent several sweltering hours in the rafters of an old foundry digging through thousands of pounds of 40-year-old boards to get the three perfect ones I needed.

But I have just enough pine for two chests, with a few boards left over to roast some weenies when I’m done.

— Christopher Schwarz

33 thoughts on “How I Buy Wood & Why I’m Weird

  1. Jim Matthews

    I wish I had come to this realization before my “beginner’s binge” when I bought out three woodworker’s for their wood.

    I have now store more material than I am likely to use (SABLE) Stash Acquired Beyond Life Expectancy.

    Since then, I must force myself not to cruise Craigslist.

    There is ALWAYS someone giving up the hobby or moving to smaller digs where they can’t take lumber.

  2. Bradinsc

    I think after reading your article and many of the posts…. I am the weird one! I have a large supply of wood in my shop, and usually that supply dictates what I am going to make my next project out of! I skimp and save, look for good deals, offer to take “extra” wood from friends who dont woodwork, and raid the contractors dump bins in our being built neighborhood. I RARELY pay for wood.I do have a large amount of pine, but also cherry, oak, and poplar. My FIL cuts Cherry on his camp property in NW PA and has the local Amish board cut it, I stick dry it and WALLAH! Tons of cherry! Guess my shop budget just does not account for buying too much wood. (I do most of my work for free, or a nominal charge for shop supplies)

    Brad

  3. RWL

    Hmm…maybe I will pass on getting built the scrap bin project plan featured in this month’s other wood mag, Fine Scrapmaking, and just throw the stuff out. Nice.

  4. geoffduke

    Hi Chris
    I have just finished reading your book “The Anarchists Tool chest” I loved it. I come from a family of handworkers. My Father and Grandfather were upholsterers. My Grandfather a furniture framemaker as well. I grew up immersed in tools but with the advent of modular furniture in the 70′s my father closed his shop. I became a toolmaker but sort of bridge the hand work /machine work divide because I have never really embraced CNC machining. I particularly loved the chapters on the 3 types of tables as well as the last chapter. I hold down a full time job but in my spare time I build bicycle frames by hand. The last chapter held many parallels with the issues facing almost any handwork. In my opinion, bicycle frames in particular. Keep up the great work of inspiring people to your brand of Anarchism. It certainly struck a chord with me
    geoff
    http://gdukehandmadebicycles.com.au

  5. Marlon1

    Your weirdness makes the best sense for the best looking projects while not being overburdened with senseless oddities of species. Yes, space & time will not be undermined from useless amounts of lumber allowing you to sleep and slumber.

  6. David Keller

    You’re not the only one that’s ruthless when it comes to burning scraps. I don’t burn ebony (too useful for screw hole plugs), but I do burn scraps of mahogany, cocobolo, and other expensive exotics in the woodstove to heat the shop in the winter. It’s simply not worth the floor space to keep the inevitable “I’ll use that for something someday” pile.

    But, there’s an alternative, hybrid strategy to yours – when I run across 15″ wide tiger maple boards (which is once in a blue moon), I just buy them all. That avoids the “I just need one more board to complete this project,,,” syndrome. ;-)

    1. gumpbelly

      I like hybrid too. Big barn, and buy piles plenty big enough to do whole pieces at a time if needed, bought when you see the deals. Buying like Chris talks about is how a person has 2K in a chest of drawers, just for wood.

  7. kaptain_zero

    I can’t believe what I just read. You are going to ruin a good weenie by roasting it over *pine*?!?!?!? Hope you enjoy the flavor of pine pitch!

    Regards

    Kaptain “Oak or Cherry wood for me, when it comes to cooking” Zero

  8. Steve_OH

    Chris,

    You explained how you buy wood, and you explained how, in fact, you are weird, but contrary to the title of your post, I can find nothing that explains _why_ you are as weird as you are.

    -Steve

    P.S. Self-storage lockers are an excellent place to keep your lumber.

    1. Christopher SchwarzChristopher Schwarz Post author

      These were from Midwest Woodworks in Norwood, Ohio. I’ve written about them before. There is plenty more there…

      1. tjhenrik

        I was in that same pile of sugar pine a few weeks ago. Finished my traveling tool chest with the fine stuff. I just with I knew about the place before I started! Another trip to Norwood will be step one if I start the full size chest.

  9. John Hutchinson

    Hi, Chris.

    After the Great Storm of 6/28/12 that roared through Virginia, West Virgina and Ohio, I’m wondering how many million (billion?) board feet are now on the ground. Where will it all go? And what about all the ash that fell prey to the ash beetle? Is there any use for that departed wood? I jokingly asked the foreman for the tree service company that’s here to clean up the carnage if he went to church on Sundays and prayed for natural disasters. He looked up from his calculator, smiled, and winked.

    1. Steve_OH

      As a participant in that Great Storm in southeastern Ohio (actually 6/29/2012), I can report that two trees are down in our yard, one 18″ DBH bigtooth aspen and one 10″ DBH red maple.

      From the look of things around here, most of the downed trees were already compromised by disease, etc., so the amount of good lumber is probably not as high as one might think.

      As for ash, the big problem with that is the quarantine against movement of wood; most people don’t want to go through the hassle of certifying wood as beetle-free in order to move it from one county to another. Given that the quarantine has been pretty ineffective against human-assisted spread of the beetles, I’m not sure that it’s worth the effort.

      -Steve

      1. robert

        I too live in SE Ohio and have seen the massive trees that have gone over. You are correct, most are compromised in some regard. However, there are some really interesting species of ornamentals that where blown over that have some cool wood for turnings, small projects, etc. As you know, not everything is all about board feet.

      2. John Hutchinson

        Hi, Steve.

        I noticed the incorrect date after I submitted my comment. I figured that if someone brought it to my attention (like you, thanks a lot) I’d say that I live north of Columbus and the storm hit us LONG before it reached southeastern Ohio.

        Thanks for your take on the departed tree issue.

        John

  10. watermantra

    I do it this way, too, Chris. I have some wood left over from other projects, but it’s mostly White Oak or Maple that I keep around, because the white Oak I’m using as a strong utility wood, and I find Maple easy to match to other maple. I also am ruthless about getting rid of wood I haven’t used in a while. Builders would scoff at my wasting of 2x4s for home projects that have started to grow roots. I’d rather have a clean shop than wood like that on hand.

  11. GunnyGene

    You’re not weird, Chris. Well maybe a little. ;)

    I’m also a little short on space for wood storage. Right now I’ve got about 120BF of red oak (50cents/bf rough) drying in the garage for a small staircase, and 5 large birch logs (free) waiting to be cut in the lean-to next to the shop. I don’t have many sources down here in MS, other than what grows on my or neighbors land, so I tend to buy logs or harvest a tree occasionally and get them cut to my specs by a local fella with a bandmill. I rarely buy retail, unless mail-order for exotics ( I’m retired, so I have far more time than money :) ). Doing it this way you always know where the wood came from, and there’s some considerable gratification going from tree to end item.

    I guess I’m a little weird also.

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