Tips for Buying Lumber for Your Next Project

Get WoodworkingIt’s Get Woodworking week this week. This is an effort, nay, a movement inspired by Tom Iovino of Tom’s Workbench to introduce the craft of woodworking to the huddled masses longing to cut tenons. All this week, woodworking bloggers are writing articles and producing video designed to get newcomers excited about woodworking and to get them building.

Woodworking like any niche area can be a bit confusing and even intimidating when getting started. There are so many shiny tools, foreign techniques, and wood. Lots and lots of wood. Once the novice gets past the tool barrier and forces themselves into the shop to tackle the techniques, the wood specter is still looming.

  • What wood species should I buy?
  • What is a board foot?
  • What grade do I need?
  • Why is this so expensive?

Lumber StacksLumber yards can be a scary experience to the beginning woodworker.  Often the price lists are not published and if they are, calculating board feet on the fly then multiplying by the listed price is not something that the average Joe can do.  If you are not used to thinking in terms of board feet then just getting the right amount of lumber can be difficult.

Even the most customer friendly lumber yards can be overwhelming.  Lots and lots of wood stacked to the ceiling evokes “kid in a candy store” syndrome that will distract the woodworker.

I find that solid preparation prior to going to the yard is important.  Plan out your project ahead of time and visualize the sizes of the pieces you will need.  What pieces are visible and need to be in the primary wood?  What can you make from secondary or less than perfect primary wood? Begin to plan the process of going from rough lumber to ready to assemble parts.  If necessary draw some diagrams of a board and what parts would come from it.  Round up your part sizes to the nearest whole number or even add an inch to account for saw kerfs, wood movement, etc.  This is your shopping list.  It isn’t a cut list but with it you should be able to buy the number of boards needed then break them down into parts prior to milling.

Start with the biggest pieces first.  Will you need to glue up wide panels?  Make a note of that and make sure to find boards that will allow you to assemble a panel by gluing parts together from a single board for best color match. Now translate these pieces into number of boards. ie: I will need 3 boards to glue up a panel for this table top that are at least 6″ wide and 72″ long.

The good news is that most of the lumber industry follows grading standards.  FAS grade lumber (First and Seconds) is lumber that is at least 6″ wide and 8′ long.  At least 83% of this piece must be free of defects.  So usually the average board is a bit wider and longer than the 6″x8′ size to hit the 83% mark.  So even before you get to the lumber yard you can count on the fact that 9 out of 10 boards will be in the 6-8″ wide range and 8-10 feet long.  Of course exceptions to this rule will be found also like longer boards and wider boards but it is best to plan on finding only 6-8″ wide pieces.

Workbench Lumber Pack

It doesn't look like much but this stack will become a workbench

With this in mind I create a plan A and plan B scenario.  Plan A assumes that each board will be 6-8″ wide and the number of boards I need is based off this.  Plan B is the what if factor.  What if I get there and find a 12″ wide board?  Making a case side from 2 pieces is much better than 3 so think about the best areas where a wider board could be used and build that into your plan B.  Head to the yard with the better plan B in mind and seek out these wide boards first.  The same applies to thicker stock.  If 12/4 is needed for sculpted leg then make sure you find that first as the project may be a no go without it or more stock may need to be purchased to glue up a thicker piece.

Inevitably once you have identified what boards are needed for the big pieces like table tops and case sides there will be a score of smaller parts that still need to be accounted for.  Usually these can be covered by the left overs from the boards used for the large pieces.  In building furniture it is rare we need a piece longer than 8′ yet finding 10-12′ boards at the lumber yard is common.  In most cases you will have a 2′ cut off once you have identified your large pieces.  This is the perfect stock for the door rails/stiles, drawer runners, stretchers, etc.  So now I begin to make a list of these smaller parts and begin to fit them in to the cut off pieces. There more parts you can get out of fewer boards the less you waste and the more likely you are to get a consistent color and wood behavior throughout the project.

Finally, I will usually add 1 to 2 more boards to the total.  If you can’t get all your smaller parts from the cut off pieces then these extra boards fill in the gap.  Perhaps you can get the pieces you need but the board you brought home from the lumber yard develops a crack in the end grain as it acclimates to your shop environment.  Now your carefully planned cut list is shot.  This extra board saves the day.

If all goes well and you don’t need the extras then you add theses unused boards to your lumber rack to begin your collection of lumber that you can fall back on in the future.

Now armed with a rough board list with minimum sizes and plan A and B it is time to head to the lumber yard.  Bring your list, a tape measure, and gloves.  This rough sawn stock loves to bite so the gloves will help keep the nasty splinters at bay.  If you are looking for special character lumber for door panels or tops then bring a block plane to expose the grain underneath the rough saw marks.  However, always ask someone who works on the yard if it is ok to plane a small section first.  I have never been turned down in this request but I think it is just plain rude to show up and start planing their merchandise.  Don’t forget a pencil and possibly a calculator to figure you costs once you see price lists.  There are some great smartphone apps on the market that calculate board foot and costs for you that can really help with the whole process.

In the end, ask questions.  The staff on the yard will always be busy but I they are there to help and will be happy to stop what they are doing and help you pick out a board or answer questions about an unfamiliar species.  If they don’t, then you need to take your business elsewhere.  If you are organized and prepared the yard workers will happily help you fill your shopping list.  If you show up and say, “I need some Walnut” and don’t have any specifications then you are setting that employee up for failure as they don’t know what you are trying to build and will have to make guesses that ultimately lead to frustration on the part of both parties.

The lumber yard doesn’t have to be an intimidating place.  Fortune favors the prepared.

2 Responses to “Tips for Buying Lumber for Your Next Project”

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  1. Wade Joel says:

    Lumber is a very good material. You can do a lot of different things with it. I did not know that different species of tree could produce different qualities of wood, I will have to do more research before I get any.

  2. Kenneth Gladman says:

    I would agree that you want to do plenty of research before making a big purchase, especially if you are new to buying lumber. You want to be sure to get the best deal you can for building. Wood is one of the more green and efficient building materials so it is a great option.

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