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Buying hardwoods

Seeking, inspecting and buying the right lumber can be a tough task. Here's how to simplify the job

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Working with wood is a tough way to earn a living these days. Business is down and most related costs are up. But if you shop for your wood carefully and thoughtfully, maybe you can cut a couple corners and save a few bucks.

Finding reliable and trustworthy sources for your lumber is a critical element in the success of your business. This is the raw material; this is what you work with every day, so it's important. We often hear about chefs who seek out the best produce. They travel for miles to remote corners in search of the best and freshest produce. The best ingredients are necessary in order to produce memorable meals. So it is for woodworkers. The quality and variety of your raw material is critical to the success of your end product.

What are your priorities?

By what criteria do you select your wood? Personally, I buy the best I can find and the price is secondary. If I'm going to invest blood, sweat and time in building a piece of furniture, the cost of beautiful wood is money well spent.

Rare or special cuts: The way wood is sawn, then managed and stored can make a big difference. Quartersawn, figured, flitch-cut and book-matched boards are prized and can transform a simple piece into something special.

Domestic "exotics": This term describes domestic species that exhibit unique color or characteristics. Sometimes the most beautiful woods can be the result of unusual growing conditions or accidents.

A sawyer once showed me an incredible pair of book-matched ash boards, measuring more than 18" in width and more than 8' in length. Right down the center of each board was this "smoke," a wisp of bright red, swirling up the center of each plank. After several guesses as to what might have caused this condition, he told me the tree had been cut down behind a garage. For years, the car mechanics routinely tossed old transmission fluid behind the building and, over time, the tree's roots absorbed the red liquid, sending it up into the tree's heartwood. They were a spectacular pair of boards. I would have paid almost anything to obtain them. So much for smart shopping.

Some "local exotics" like ambrosia, bird's-eye or spalted maple are sought after in the Pennsylvania and New Jersey area.

Economy: Is your goal to save money and produce a piece within a small budget?

On some jobs and certain applications, shopping on the basis of price can be effective. Lesser grades of wood or more common species can be used for non-critical or hidden parts of your work. In the Philadelphia area, poplar is both plentiful and inexpensive, averaging around $2.10/bf.

Variety: Using uncommon species of wood can give your work a unique look, making it stand out. Woods such as sapele, pearwood, hickory or beech are woods with distinctive character, unusual grain patterns and color.

Where to find it

Finding a local source is the way to go. Someplace nearby will allow you to easily visit the yard, look through their inventory, and take it home if you like.

A nearby source is also conducive to building a relationship, which is the key to obtaining good wood and good service at a good price.

Of course, you can order online or from yards farther away, but this can prove to be inconvenient at best and often expensive when you calculate trucking or shipping costs.

Lumberyards: They come in all sizes and their services vary widely, too. Some are simply retailers reselling lumber from large mills; some sell everything from hard and soft woods to sheet goods (plywood and MDF) to hardware. Others completely process wood; harvesting, sawing, drying and stocking a full range of premium furniture-grade woods. You'll pay about $5.30/bf for cherry, $3.20 for red oak and $5.25 for walnut.

Sawmills: Sawmills are a favorite source of mine. Generally, they're smaller, friendlier and cheaper. Sawmills don't stock a wide variety; usually it's whatever was cut locally. However, I've found some spectacular domestic lumber at sawmills that would never have made it to a larger lumberyard. And small sawyers will often custom-cut logs for you. There's a local sawmill (Spacht's) that specially selects, cuts, and quarters oak logs for my Windsor chair classes. That's service worth paying for. Typically, wood is about 15 to 25 percent cheaper than at commercial yards. Expect to pay about $4/bf for kiln-dried oak, $4.75 for maple, $2.75 for poplar and $6 for walnut.

Box stores: These days, the large DIY retailers stock a limited range of wood. Generally, I stay away from these places. The wood is always thicknessed to 3/4", but liable to warp and twist over time. You don't know how long the material has been knocking around the store. When you get it back to your shop, you'll probably lose an 1/8" trying to get it flat and straight again. You'll pay about $7/bf for red oak, $4.50 for poplar and $4.50 for maple.

Woodworking stores: These specialty stores usually have a good quantity and a wide selection of domestic and exotics on hand. The choice boards can be hard to resist, but the high prices can make it a lot easier. The typical cost of red oak is $6/bf, $8.50 for walnut and $6.70 for maple. Some of these stores also offer wood blanks for specialty and bowl turning.

Classifieds: Ads placed by other woodworkers can be a great source. Woodworkers leaving the business, hobbyists taking up a new hobby, or a shop simply trying to unload some excess inventory, can mean good material at a great price.

A few years ago, Alan Turner of the Philadelphia Furniture Workshop answered an ad in a local paper offering the contents of a recently deceased woodworker's shop for sale. The widow really just wanted the shop cleared out and wasn't asking much for the wood. So he did her a favor, helped clean out the space and ended up scoring some of the most amazing slabs of exotic and domestic wood. Years later, he's still building furniture out of the mahogany he got. And some of the gorgeous 3" thick slabs line the hall wall of his woodworking school.

Contacting the source

After locating a source, give them a call and ask:

  • Do they sell retail or wholesale?
  • Do they deliver?
  • Do they have specific times for pickup of orders?
  • What species do they sell and at what price per board foot?
  • Is the wood kiln- or air-dried?
  • Do they execute special orders?

What to look for

Grades of lumber: Wood is a natural material and it often grows while manifesting all sorts of characteristics and flaws. There's no way of knowing what a tree might contain when it's standing, but once it's sawn, its wood must be sorted and graded.

The most widely recognized rules for grading lumber are issued by the National Hardwood Lumber Association in Memphis, Tenn. They publish several guides that explain most of what you need to know about grading.

Their guidelines carefully prescribe the requirements for each of several grades, which are FAS, FAS1F, Select, No. 1 common, No. 2 common, and No. 3 common.

However, furniture and cabinet makers rarely use anything other than FAS (firsts and seconds). This grade describes wood that is a minimum of 6" wide by 8' long. Firsts will yield at least 91 percent clear material. Seconds must yield around 81 percent clear.

Of course, how the rules are applied will vary from one yard or mill to the next. But there is often room for "discussion," if you feel a particular board will not provide sufficient or reasonable yield.

Rough or planed?: Lumber can be purchased rough-sawn or planed on two sides. Lumber in the rough requires less labor to process, so it's going to cost you less. Another small advantage is that sometimes the lumber is sawn heavier than its stated dimension. So after planing (in your shop) you might wind up with slightly thicker material. One disadvantage is that you can't clearly see the grain or color; you could be buying boards blindly and hoping for the best. Buying rough-sawn boards is a good reason for bringing along a plane and some denatured alcohol to get a better look.

Check the end grain (flat sawn or quartered?): Most yards charge a premium for quartered lumber, but some don't. Quartersawn wood is generally more stable and certainly more attractive than plain-sawn wood. By examining the end grain, you can identify quartered wood.

Inspection kit

When shopping for wood, it's a good idea to bring a few items that will help you determine the quality and characteristics of the wood you intend to purchase. Most of these items can be found in the shop or home, or can be purchased at any hardware or variety store.

Gloves: Protect your hands and allow you to pull and flip boards all day long, without worrying about pinched fingers or splinters.

Tape measure: Allows you to quickly size up your intended purchase and estimate board footage.

Camera: After a while, all boards will look the same. Being able to record specific boards you might want to purchase will refresh your memory once you return to your shop and start planning your job.

Flashlight: Can shed light into dark corners where overlooked "treasures" might be found.

Block plane: Will enable you to take small, discreet shavings in order to get a better look.

Pliers or Vise Grips: For removing staples and other annoying fasteners lying in wait for the unsuspecting woodworker.

Moisture meter: Being stored in open, unheated sheds, wood moisture levels could vary considerably. A meter will provide precise information.

Denatured alcohol: This quick-drying, non-reactive solvent will reveal important info about a board - how it will look when sanded and finished.

Clean rags: A good idea, no matter what you're doing or where you're going.

Chalk: For marking your boards for easy identification or for highlighting imperfections and natural flaws that could affect the cost.

Figuring your tab

Wood is generally sold by the board foot. This is a unit of measure that equals 1" x 12" x 12". So if a board measured 1" x 12" x 48", you would pay for four board feet. You would pay the same price for a board measuring 1" x 6" x 96".

Board footage is strictly a volume measurement and has nothing to do with the useable amount/percentage of wood contained within the board or its quality. To calculate how much volume is contained in a particular board, multiply (in inches) the thickness of the board by the width and then the length. Next, divide that total by 144 for the board foot total. For instance, a board measuring 1-1/2" thick x 6" wide x 120" long figures out at 7.5 board feet.

The lumber rule: Yardmen at a sawmill or lumberyard don't measure boards with a conventional shop ruler; they use a Conway-Cleveland lumber scaling rule. One end often has a bulbous walnut handle and the other, a hook-like steel headpiece. Sawyers and yardmen wield this unusual ruler to quickly tally the board footage of your intended purchase.

The standard ruler has four lines running along its length; each representing linear values (12'-10'-14'-16'). When the length of a board is established, the hook of the ruler is placed against one edge of the board. A NHLA bulletin says, "The number corresponding to the board footage is then read from the rule at the point where the edge crosses the ruler. This board footage reading is taken from the scale corresponding to the length of the board." For information, visit

How much to order: Typically, I order about 15 percent more than I figured for the job. This generous margin allows for knots, sapwood, end checking, and cupping or twisting. Sometimes I'm able to figure some of the excess into the cost of the job and what I can't include in the budget, I put into inventory. I'd rather wind up with a little extra wood than have to make another trip to the yard.

Return/exchange policy: Although I usually travel to my supplier and select my own lumber, there are times when I phone in an order and arrange delivery sight unseen. I don't care how careful the yard is with my order. There's bound to be a few boards that have been included in my order that never would have passed my inspection.

Find out how difficult it would be to make an exchange or get a credit. Ask if there are any restocking charges or penalties for returns. I've never encountered any problems with returns, providing I didn't cut the material to a size that would be difficult for the yard or supplier to resell.

Lumberyard etiquette

Remember, you're a visitor to a place of business and there are certain common-sense rules to follow and courtesies you should practice. You would expect the same of any visitor to your own shop.

Bring your own stuff (flashlight, gloves, tape measure, etc.): If you borrow something, it might inconvenience one of the yard men. Coming prepared to do business shows you're serious and worthy of their time.

Park out of the way: So what if you've got to cross a muddy yard or walk a few extra yards? Parking your truck carelessly could foul their loading schedule and annoy others.

Be polite to everyone: A friendly smile and a sincere salutation won't hurt or cost you anything. You never know if that kid you blew off might be the owner's son/nephew and one day he might be running the yard.

Replace lumber you pull and don't select: Many yards will allow you to go through the stacks with the rule being: "You pull it, you put it back just as you found it."

Some, like Spacht's Mill in Quarrysville, Pa., prefer that you not put it back. They're very particular about the arrangement and storage of their lumber and would rather restack it themselves.

Pay your bill: If you maintain an account, pay it in a timely way. I've always found that paying a bill promptly will earn you a place as a special customer, worthy of special considerations. n

Mario Rodriguez is a furniture maker and teaches classes at the Philadelphia Furniture Workshop.

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue.

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