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Buying Lumber

Submitted by Clay Dowling on Mon, 01/30/2012 - 20:27

One of the common questions on beginning woodworking forums is how and where to buy wood, and often enough what wood to buy. There are quite a few places to buy wood, including national retail chains, chain lumber yards, and local mom and pop operations. Of the three, I nearly always recommend using the local mom and pop. This isn't some Norman Rockwell nostalgia thing, but a matter of experience.

For a lot of people just getting started in woodworking, the national home center chains provide a certain level of comfort. They're known brands, they present a familiar retail experience, and you can browse at your leisure. They've also got everything you need to build basic projects, even if you're starting from nothing. They have a large selection of tools, wood, fasteners and finishes. You can get it all in one trip (or so you'd like to think). The problem is that the wood they sell is intended for the burn barrel, not building. It tends to be twisted, warped, cupped and generally resembles an interpretive dance of a storm at sea. Don't buy it. It only looks like buying the wood here is going to make your life easier. *Don't do it.*

The national lumber yard chains may or may not have good lumber. I haven't purchased from them, but I have friends in the construction industry who are generally not pleased with the material they deliver. My current house has a one inch difference in the height of the floor from one joist to the next in my kitchen (or did, a few hundred pounds of self-leveling floor compound can work wonders). You can bet the builders (who were not noted for having the slightest clue about how to build a house) purchased the lumber for the entire subdivision at a national lumber yard chain.

I've bought a lot of lumber from the mom and pop lumber yards though. It's by far the best experience. They don't have a national advertising campaign to draw people in, so they need to rely on word of mouth. The only way to do that is good material and good service. I've found that to be true across multiple lumber yards. If you're comfortable with the normal impersonal retail experience, the lumber yard may be a bit uncomfortable. You don't get to wander around the aisles unescorted to browse at your leisure. Instead you walk up to a counter and tell a man what you'd like. You pay him some money, he hands you a sheet of paper, and tells you where to drive your truck. When you get there and hand the guy waiting there, he selects the wood for you, including discarding any warped or damaged pieces and loads it into your truck. The lumber yard hasn't been designed to look pretty, and lord knows the guys working there aren't nicely dressed retail employees. They're hairy, they wear rough clothes, and by the end of the day they probably don't smell that great either. But they're going to make sure you get good materials at a decent price, and they'll make sure you're properly taken care of.

If you're a woman this might be very intimidating, because this is without a doubt guy territory. There's so much testosterone in the air if I go in clean shaven, I come out with a five o'clock shadow. The good news is that guy territory is open to everybody who comes in with good intentions. If you're open and direct, look people in the eye and speak with confidence in your voice (even if it's confidence that you're not sure what you're doing), you'll be welcome there. Especially if you're spending money.

One last item: lumber yards and anybody else who sells lumber has a saw on premesis to cut your material down. Don't give them your cut list and ask them to cut your material to size for you. It will end badly. If you must have your material cut, have it cut to a size to fit in your vehicle, but no more.


Hi Clay, Im wondering if you can help me? I saw your comments on Ana-White site and I was wondering if you know how to build the cabinet doors for the sink base cabinet that she posted. I am about to build my own cabinets and I know Ana may be on a tight schedule and I would like to get as much info before I begin. Any info is helpful. Thanks in advance

I've built cabinet doors before, but a very different style than what Ana used. I built inset double-valve doors for my bathroom vanity. It was a little intimidating and very fussy work, and completely not recommended for a first project.

You can do a simple slab door with a table saw and some edge banding, and that will look very nice. In fact it's common for high end kitchens, because if done properly it gives a really sleek look. I would recommend something other than oak veneered plywood for it though. The higher end melamine laminates look really good over a cabinet grade plywood.

What Ana built is called a frame and panel door. It's not ridiculously hard to build, but it's not trivial either. There are a bunch of different styles and techniques, depending on your needs. I can't do a tutorial right now, because of my Jefferson Shelves project that is woefully late. But one of the projects that should happen Real Soon Now is workshop tool cabinets, and a frame and panel door is appropriate there.

Thanks for you help and the information given. The plywood that is available in the Virgin Island where I live is called baboon ply. Well I should say this is most economical and widely used here. I see what I come up with and keep you informed. Thanks again

and it may be just the push I need to go to an actual lumber yard. I'm not too afraid of the testosterone (maybe I'll wear my steel toes, ha ha!) but I do have a problem handing over the control of picking my own boards to someone else. I'm a little bit afraid that they may take the attitude that it's "good enough for the girl". Although I will have to admit that I once played the girl card at HD--a male employee was trying to be helpful as I was picking out boards (and taking forever because I'm so picky). He picked out a few that I wasn't happy with, so I batted the eyelashes and said I have to have perfect since I'm such a beginner and I don't have enough experience to make less than perfect work yet.

I'm so ashamed...(!)

That's hilarious. The needing to have perfect isn't just for beginners though. HD mostly sells scrap wood. It's ungraded lumber that a regular lumber yard mostly won't touch.

Every lumber yard I've been to, they actually let you look at each piece. Loading lumber into somebody else's truck is a bit taboo, so what they usually do is hand the lumber to you to load in. If there's a problem you set it aside and they'll grab something different. Plus, if you show up in shorts and steel toed boots, they'll know you're not some wilting thing who can't lift a board.

"they'll know you're not some wilting thing who can't lift a board." I might have to wear the steel toes with the holey jeans covered in dried wood glue (who needs a rag when you've got your jeans?) and various shades of paint smears ;)

What can I expect in price comparisons? I pay about $5 for an s4s 1x2 8' pine board at HD/Lowes. What would that run me (obviously not expecting an exact figure and realizing it will vary)? I hate to walk in there and have no idea.

I honestly didn't save my receipt, and I haven't been to buy pine in a while. I just remember it as being very cheap, especially for the quality of wood that I received.

Well even if it happens to be a little more expensive, I'd rather pay a little more and not have to spend the time it takes to get good boards at the box stores. And even then I've generally had to compromise on quality for a board or two and then have to remember to make sure I use those in a less important part of the project. Now I've got to find a local lumber yard.

From what I've heard, the "Furniture-Grade" plywood is also full of voids and most have Formaldahyde

If you can find the Baltic Birth (or Finnish Birch), it's not supposed to have voids. It's not something I've used though, because my local lumber yard doesn't have it in stock all that often. If you ask for the rotary cut plywood, it should have significantly fewer voids, as well as being much less prone to warping.

I've never paid a lot of attention to formaldehyde. I don't seem to be sensitive to it, and it's considerably less irritating than other chemicals I use more regularly. According to the EPA the telling sign in plywood is the red-black adhesive used between the plys. A clear or yellow adhesive contains significantly less formaldehyde, and is probably rated for outdoor use.

They also said to avoid MDF entirely if you're sensitive, because it has significantly higher formaldehyde containing resin to fiber content than even the worst of the plywoods.

If you put a clearcoat on all of the wood surfaces, apparently it slows down the rate of offgassing to the point that it is unlikely to be a problem, so as long as you work in a well ventilated area you won't have any issues.

I got all of this information from the EPA website, which is a good place to look if you're worried about indoor air quality anyway. Formaldehyde should be pretty low on the list of things that woodworkers worry about. It will take a very long time to kill you. There are finishes that will get you a lot sooner.