Quality counts

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In my earlier blog “Elegant or utilitarian,” Patrick brought up a good point in his comment about judging the quality in a woodworking project that’s not always seen by the viewer. He – and I – was referring to the quality of workmanship, but there’s another area of quality that’s even more basic: the quality of the materials. Fair warning: This may turn into a rant. 

Is it just me, or has the general quality of wood available at the usual “easy” locations gone down? I’m not talking about the stock you can get at the specialty lumber outlets or any of this magazine’s fine sponsors, but rather the ubiquitous big-box stores. For the spool cabinet project I wrote about in Tuesday’s blog I went the easy route. I don’t always need lumber in a quantity meriting a trip to a specialty lumber outlet (I don’t have one where I live in here Middleofnowhere WV), so a local big-box home center is sometimes my best choice, which us where I went this time.

Unfortunately, the quality of lumber from these sources in the last few years has been dismal, and getting worse. I have some things I’ve built over the last decade that are still in my home, made with lumber from these places that look great. For that matter, I even have some scraps that are that old. Place these scraps side-by-side with their current counterparts, and the difference is like night and day. Knots, warping, checking, you name it, none of it is as good as it used to be.

I already had a quantity (the other “Q” word) of oak in my shop rack, but needed a bit more for the project. I did OK for the few pieces of oak I needed – mainly because I took the time to dig through the rack for about an hour to turn up the few acceptable pieces – but was incredibly disappointed with the 1/4" oak ply I needed for panels. There wasn’t a single piece in any size that wasn’t bowed like an umbrella. I went to another big-box; same story. Ditto the third place I tried. I ended up getting the least-warped piece they had, cut out the panels I needed, then propped them on some end supports and weighted them down with gallon paint cans for a couple days to warp them in the other direction to get some flat panels. The trick worked, but I remember a time only a few years ago where that never would have been necessary.

As disgusted as I sometimes get with the declining quality of materials, I don’t really blame the big box stores so much as the general consumer who accepts this type of material as “normal.” If the quick-in, quick-out weekend warrior is willing to put down cash for material of this quality level – and they do, as the racks empty quickly on weekends – why should the big box stores bother to supply anything better? After all, they can get the same price for the poor stuff as they used to get for the good stuff.

I’m sure I’ll still run in to get something if I need it in a hurry and can pick through the racks, but I think I’m going to join the rest of you savvy woodworkers and from now on make the drive to a quality supplier.

Till next time,

A.J.

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