Lusting for Lumber
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.
There are, of course, thousands of board feet of lumber outside every window. And whenever Mother Nature is roused, the downed trees in your neighborhood are a potential gold mine of wide, clear stock. It’s just a matter of first moving the “bole” — the straight part of the trunk below the branches that yields clear and stable wood. Moving the bole is perhaps the most difficult task.
Then you have to find someone to mill the logs into suitable thicknesses for drying. Luckily, this is pretty easy. Wood-Mizer Products Inc., which manufactures portable band-saw mills, maintains a list of sawyers who perform custom-cutting. Contact Wood-Mizer at woodmizer.com or 800-553-0182. In addition to Wood-Mizer owners, there are probably other sawyers in your area who will do the job. Check with your local woodworking club (another good reason to join).
Finally, you have to learn how to properly sticker your green wood for seasoning. It’s not rocket science, but there are some rules to follow. For the basics, check out the “Select Articles” area of our web site.
Farmers with Barns
There are farmers out there with barns full of lumber. And there are garages stacked high with premium wood left behind by deceased woodworkers. But how do you get your hands on it?
Basically, it’s a matter of putting the word out among your friends, relatives and co-workers that you’re a woodworker and on the prowl for wood. Tell enough people, and you’ll eventually hear from the friend of a friend who wants to dispose of some boards. Sometimes you get lucky. We once bought a garage full of impressive lumber that one woodworker (who could not take it with him to the afterlife) had amassed over several decades.
Classified Ads, Auctions + Offcuts
There are a few somewhat surprising ways to find wood. Believe it or not, wood shows up pretty regularly in the classified ads of the daily newspaper and local free shopping papers.
And while you’re poring over the classifieds, keep an eye out for auctions at farms and cabinet shops. When these places go under, there can be good deals on wood (and machines). Bear in mind that haunting auctions is both time-consuming and addictive.
Some people buy lumber through eBay.com, an online auction web site. Shipping can be a real killer ($1 a pound), so tread cautiously and do the math before you buy from online auctions.
Finally, for the true bottom-feeder, there’s always the waste stream. Find out if there’s a pallet factory, furniture manufacturer, veneer mill or construction site in your area. Their waste might be perfect for your woodworking.
We’ve cut up pallets made from mahogany, ash and other desirable species. In fact, most of the projects in “Building the Perfect Tool Chest” (Popular Woodworking Books) were built in our shop using wood discarded from pallets. A cabinet shop that built a lot of face frames once sold us their falloff, which was the perfect size for chair spindles. All you have to do is ask.
And speaking of asking, make sure that when you climb up to that hay loft to check out that wood in the barn that you ask if there are any hornets’ nests waiting up there. There’s more than one way to get stung when hunting for lumber.
Fancy (And Free) Firewood
Three years ago in Moscow, Ohio, Steve Koller and his father, Eugene, were loading a pickup truck with odds and ends from a pallet company — wood they would use to heat their homes. Steve began noticing the dark color of some of the pallet wood. So he took a piece of it to his shop and cut it in half. At that moment Steve realized he and his father had just brought home an entire truckload of walnut. While there were some small pieces, others ranged in size from 18″ to 24″ long, 6″ wide and 3″ thick.
The next week, Steve and his father went to the pallet company for some more firewood, only to discover they had brought home a pickup truck full of cherry. But their luck soon ended. According to Steve, since then, the pallets have been the norm: oak and poplar.
A Log in Every Port
Donald Boudreau and his wife sailed this sailboat around the world,
collecting tropical hardwoods in Central America, South America and the South Pacific.
In 1992, Donald Boudreau and his wife, Carol, sold everything they owned, bought a teak 49′ sailboat, named it Domicile and began fulfilling their dream of sailing around the world.
While in Rio Dolce, Guatemala, Boudreau wanted to make a cutting board that also would cover the top of his stove. A local gave him some wood to use for the project. Later, Boudreau realized it was goncalo alves (tigerwood). It was Bourdreau’s first experience with exotic wood. He soon began collecting exotic wood wherever they docked.
Six years and many islands later, the couple was in New Zealand with an expensive wood collection and grandchildren waiting for their return back home. So they sold the boat and shipped the wood to South Florida where they planned to make their new home near Ft. Lauderdale.
Once in Florida, Boudreau put his exotic wood collection aside and spent three years building every piece of furniture for their new home. With the home furnished, Boudreau began building award-winning boxes using the exotic wood he purchased on his trip and has since been collecting.
At any given time his shop is filled with 50 to 60 different species of wood totaling several hundred board feet. While he has found several Florida dealers who import Latin American wood, Boudreau says he also buys 4/4 hardwood flooring, shops on the Internet and, when necessary, hops on a plane to make a purchase.
Duncan Alldis (now retired) and a friend had a workshop in Croydon, Surrey, England. One day, a friend of his son stopped by and asked if Alldis would be interested in the parts from an old three-flight mahogany staircase. The young man had been hired to remove and dispose of the staircase, and he thought Alldis might like to buy the parts he salvaged from the job.
Alldis often used mahogany in his shop. So he calculated its value and told the (now smiling) young man how much he could offer.
The next day the young man arrived at Alldis’s workshop with a pile of stairs. Alldis took one look at the wood and knew it wasn’t mahogany. Closer examination verified this fact and the young man, noticing Alldis’s frown, asked if he still wanted the wood.
Alldis said he would take the wood but also said that the price would have to be recalculated. The young man told Alldis that any money would be appreciated. You can imagine the young man’s surprise when Alldis handed him the original payment and told him he would need a few days to work out an additional payment.
Once cleaned, each of the handmade staircase’s treads amounted to a beautiful 2″ x 8″ x 32″-long piece of 100-year-old Burmese teak. The “mahogany” staircase quickly became the most glorious stack of Burmese teak Alldis had ever seen.
Hardwood Lumber Grades: the Basics
When you buy wood at a lumberyard, it has been graded — essentially separated into different bins based on how many defects are in each board. The fewer the defects, the more expensive the board. Grading hardwood lumber is a tricky skill with rules set by the National Hardwood Lumber Association. (Grading softwood is different; these rules do not apply.)
Here are some of the basic guidelines graders follow as they classify each board.
FIRSTS: Premium boards that are at least 6″ wide, 8′ long and 91 2/3 percent clear of defects.
SECONDS: Premium boards are at least 6″ wide, 8′ long and 81 2/3 percent clear of defects.
FAS: The two grades above are typically combined into one grade called FAS, or “firsts and seconds,” which must be at least 81 2/3 percent clear of defects.
FAS 1-FACE: One face must meet the minimum requirements of FAS; the second face cannot be below No. 1 common.
SELECTS: While not an “official” grade, this refers to boards that are at least 4″ wide, 6′ long and with one face that meets the FAS 1-FACE requirements. Essentially, these are good clear boards that are too narrow or too short to fit in the above grades. This and the FAS grades are good choices for nice furniture.
No. 1 COMMON: Boards that are at least 3″ wide, 4′ long and 66 2/3 percent clear of defects.
No. 2 COMMON: Boards that are at least 3″ wide, 4′ long and 50 percent clear of defects.
NOTE: There are exceptions to these rules. For example: walnut, butternut and all quartersawn woods can be 5″ wide instead of 6″ wide and still qualify for FAS.
Twenty five years ago Gene Nurse, from Darmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada, went to the lumberyard on his lunch break to buy some wood for a mahogany desk he wanted to build. When he arrived, the man who usually worked the desk wasn’t there and a young teenager was in his place.
The sticker price on the pile of undressed mahogany indicated that the lumber was a typical $3 (Canadian) a board foot. Nurse said the young man, not knowing the difference between dressed and undressed lumber, said that the sticker “must be a mistake for that crappy stuff. They must have meant 30 cents a board foot.”
After trying to dissuade the guy several times, Nurse loaded up his truck with 500 board feet of mahogany. Price: $150.
Feeling guilty, Nurse went back and explained what had happened to the man who usually worked the desk. The man thought the story was funny, said it was their mistake and let Nurse keep the wood. But next time, the man said, Nurse should deal with him personally.
— Kara Gebhart