How to Choose Wood Lumber for Woodworking {7 Simple Steps}

//How to Choose Wood Lumber for Woodworking {7 Simple Steps}

4. LUMBER DEFECTS TO AVOID

Since I do most of my woodworking with antique hand tools, I like my boards to be as easy to work as possible. Wood defects can be even tougher to work with for a hand tool woodworker like me. Some wood defects can be resolved with saws, handplanes, and even epoxy. But if I’m paying for wood I like to find boards that require as little work as possible. So look out for some of these problems:

WOOD KNOTS

Knots can cause problems for hand tool woodworkers, especially when passing your handplane over the top. And knots like to fall out over time. Yes, you can mix epoxy and sawdust to solidify the knot, but most of the time I avoid them all together. But you may like the look of them in a rustic piece of furniture. Just be aware.

SAPWOOD & INSECT HOLES

Some people like the rustic look of sapwood & insect holes. But I don’t. I avoid it, or cut around it. In the photo below you’ll see two boards glued together. The reddish wood is the heart wood. It would be on the inside of the tree. It was dead long before the tree was cut down, so the insects didn’t eat it. The sap would is the white wood with worm insect holes. Insects continue to eat at the sapwood long after the tree is cut down. So I prefer to avoid or remove the sapwood.

WOOD MOVEMENT DEFECTS

When lumber isn’t stacked, sealed, and dried properly it is prone to move in all sorts of strange ways:

WOOD CHECKING

Checking happens when a board dries too quickly or unevenly. The cracks move along the board. So it’s best to avoid these boards. If you are cutting your own lumber from a tree, checking can often be prevented by using a good quality wood end grain sealer (like I mentioned above)…the red stuff painted on the ends of boards in many of the above & below photos. Lumber should also be stacked with “stickers” or spacers of even thickness, with weights on top.

TWIST & CUPPING

When green (wet) boards aren’t properly stacked they will cup or twist. Cupping is when the board turns into a cup shape (see above). Twisting is when board ends twist different ways. It takes a lot of work to plane out the twisting or cupping. I don’t always turn down free wood that is twisted or cupped, but I won’t buy it.

BOWING

Bowed boards are like a bow that you shoot arrows with (see above). To me, this defect is a bit harder to correct for than twisting or cupping. So I avoid these boards…unless they’re free (like the above lacewood board was).

CROOK

Crook is similar to bow, but the wood arcs the other way. This is an easier defect to fix because it only involves jointing the board’s eges…which I do anyway.

 5. LEARN WHERE TO BUY LUMBER

LUMBER FROM LOCAL MILLS OR HARDWOOD DEALERS

For nice hardwoods I like to visit small local wood mills. If I can’t find what I’m looking for there, I expand my search to regional “Hardwood” dealers. You’ll save money and get better quality wood through local mills and dealers. Some of them even carry a few exotic hardwoods. These companies specialize in furniture grade wood, whereas woodworking supply stores & hardware stores do not.

However, even though some woodworkers warn to “stay away from the big box stores” (e.g. Lowes & Home Depot) there is a place for big box stores. While they don’t carry nice hard woods, as mentioned above, you can sift through to find nice wide yellow pine construction boards, from which you can rip out quartersawn boards. These stores also carry nice pre-dimensioned poplar. This is great for people that don’t have the skill or time to dimension all their own boards. Bill Anderson and I have been in Lowes to find 1/4″ poplar for my tool chest’s trays & tills.

LUMBER FROM WOODWORKING HOBBY STORES

If you live in a larger city, then you may be close to a woodworking supply store, like Woodcraft. Their specialty is selling tools & woodworking supplies, but they usually care small quantities of hardwoods. They also carry a good selection of small blanks for wood turners. Lumber can be expensive at these types of stores because they don’t deal with large volume. But if you live in the city, then this may be your least expensive option.

ONLINE / MAIL ORDER LUMBER

Because I have a lot of lumber near me, mail ordering (or online ordering) lumber is foreign to me. Heck, my neighbors see me dragging fallen oak, beech, and poplar logs from the woods behind my house and riving boards out of them! However, even though I’d like to eventually experiment with online lumber sellers soon. Make sure you order exotic hardwood from a higher rated eBay lumber sellers like these. It’s important to be careful to choose eBay lumber sellers who have a high number of sales and a high positive feedback percentage:

eBay-lumber-sellers

In addition to eBay, here are some online lumber sellers that are reported (by other woodworkers) to have a good reputation:

6. LEARN THE LANGUAGE OF THE MILL & LUMBERYARD

Most beginner woodworkers don’t know what to look for when they visit a mill, a lumber yard, or an online lumber store. After reading the above advice, you should now understand how to identify great stable wood. But how do you avoid looking like a moron when you go to buy wood?

LEARN ABOUT BOARD THICKNESS

The first consideration to keep you from feeling stupid at the lumberyard is to understand that lumber people speak of wood thicknesses in “quarters”. For example, in the United States:

LEARN HOW TO CALCULATE “BOARD FEET”

How do you calculate board feet? Take your tape measure and calculator to the lumber mill because in the United States most lumber suppliers calculate the price of their wood using a very simple “board feed” volume calculation:

wood-lumber-board-feet-formula

When I go to the lumber yard I like to take a small tape measure, like this pocket-sized Stanley 12′ tape measure (longest you’ll need for a board), but you can use most any tape measure.

MOISTURE METERS

It’s a good practice to also carry a lumber moisture meter with you when you buy rough lumber. This link shows some highly rated, yet affordable moisture meters. I purchased this General Tools moisture meter and really like it. I think it was around $25-$30.

Below I’ll discuss the debate about moister level and acclimating lumber to your workshop.

7. ACCLIMATE YOUR LUMBER TO YOUR SHOP

THE WOOD ACCLIMATION DEBATE

Most woodworkers agree that lumber moisture needs to be under 10% for building furniture. That’s my general rule of thumb. However, in this Popular Woodworking Magazine discussion Glen Huey said that if your moisture meter registers 22% or lower, then you should buy the hardwood and there won’t be much need for acclimating the wood to your workshop’s humidity level before shaping the wood.

He experimented to come up with this claim. However, I think I’ll err on the side of using dryer wood, because I’ve had plenty of semi-dry wood move on me overnight.

If your lumber isn’t as dry as you would like when you purchase it (over 22% in Glen Huey’s opinion…probably over 10-15% in my opinion), then it’s a good idea to let it acclimate to your workshop for a couple weeks. It’s a good idea to use “stickers” between your lumber while it acclimates to your shop, even if it seems dry, to keep the boards flat. The “stickers” (thin sticks) should have a uniform thickness. I prefer plywood because of it’s uniform thickness. I just cut a plywood sheet into a bunch of small strips.

I hope this guide was helpful! If it was, please leave a comment below.

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT LUMBER? ADDITIONAL RESOURCES ABOUT WOOD FOR WOODWORKING:

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2017-10-19T20:45:05+00:00

About the Author:

Joshua loves mixing his passion for traditional hand tool woodworking with his ability to teach in a simple manner. He lives on a small farm in Earlysville, Virginia with his wife and four children, and builds furniture in his workshop / woodworking school.

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KIMBERLEY CARREONVivianLiviuJoshua FarnsworthDan Ford Recent comment authors
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BillyDvd
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BillyDvd

Thank you for taking the time to put this out there for us newbies and forgetfulls :)
Great article and it is booked marked so I can come back to it!

paulmarcotte
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paulmarcotte

Great post Joshua! Thanks for the links and and I’m looking forward to the follow ups.

Shannon Rogers (@RenaissanceWW)
Guest

Great job Joshua, lots of information in one place. It is startling to me how little many woodworkers understand about the materials we use so thanks for the great effort to add some clarity to a pretty cryptic industry.

Matt hill
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Joshua,
Another good job clear and to the point. Keep up the outstanding work!

Matt Hill Cobbs Creek Va

Garrett
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Garrett

Great read!
If you are ever in the market for some furniture grade Beetle Kill Pine in or near Colorado, try (website address blocked)

Boris
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Boris

Suppose you you were in possession of, as I am, four Cherry logs ranging in size from 18″ to 24″ diameter by 12′ to 16′ in length and you need to instruct the sawmill how they are to be cut. Also suppose that you are a novice woodworker who intends to use the resulting lumber in undetermined woodworking projects. How would you instruct the mill to cut up the logs?

larachan
Member
larachan

Very helpful information. Thank you for taking the time to explain this all. I’d like to know more about how to calculate how much wood one needs for a project and how to translate the knowledge at a lumber yard.

johnsreply
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johnsreply

really awesome explaination! Thanks –
I would like to enter in the clamp giveaway –

comment image

Dov
Member
Dov

Wow, good to know :) Now I know that I made some mistakes along the way…should have read this before.

Burt Silver
Guest

Thanks for the tips on choosing lumber! I have some projects I want to get started on at my home, and I need to choose the right wood for the job. Thanks for mentioning to choose vertical end grain. I guess that will make the wood look more uniform and be more stable!

Annika Larson
Guest

I am looking to buy some wood to build a swinging bench for our backyard. For this project, I want to make sure I find the right wood that will be durable, especially with all the different outdoor elements it will be facing. I didn’t realize that wood expands in width with humidity, but we will certainly have to look for stable lumber. Thanks for sharing!

DIYFan
Guest

This is such a great article! Choosing the right hardwood or softwood can make a huge impact on your project.

Harper Campbell
Guest

It’s good to know that when it comes to choosing wood to buy that there are somethings that we need to take into consideration. I like how you mentioned that one thing we need to consider is whether we need it to be hard or soft for the project we are needing it for. This is something that we will have to look at and do more research on to make sure that we make the right decision.

Jim M
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Jim M

Thanks Joshua I really learned a lot it is not often you can get free but great information like this. Thanks.

Samil Kahraman
Guest

Thank you for great content. May i translate to my native language and share in to my website with your links ?

Deb Pearl
Guest

My husband recently got into woodworking, and he has been wondering how he can choose the best lumber to work with. Thank you for all the tips on how to choose. I think that is a great idea to make sure you choose the most stable wood possible.

George
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George

Thanks for the video. In it you mentioned you would share more info about moisture meters and something else (I forget what it was) in the accompanying blog. I wasn’t able to find that. Would you please provide a link or tell me what I’m not doing that i should be doing to find it? Thx.

Dan Ford
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Dan Ford

Great information. Thank you for the effort.

Liviu
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Liviu

Very informative, thank you for sharing this!

Vivian
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Vivian

Excellent helpful description. I am in UK so I do not think we talk in 4ths. ( Yes I know most of have to deal in metric now- argh!! However I think timber at a mill/merchants is sold by cubic foot – which would mean bit extra maths so take a calculator for speed. I am jst looking into making hardwood clocks – been too busy through life until now!

KIMBERLEY CARREON
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KIMBERLEY CARREON

Really informative for this newby here! Thanks!!

Jason Hammond
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Jason Hammond

The Amish here in Ohio use a nifty wooden rule for calculating bd. ft. It has a brass football shaped hook on the end and they’re about 2′ long. Three columns of numbers run down the length of stick. These columns are the length of stock say, 12,14,16 foot. Within these columns, bd. ft. has already been calculated and marked. For a 16′ bd. the hook is placed over one edge and a reading of bd. ft. is taken from opposite edge from the 16′ column. “Audels Carpenters and Builders Guide #1” pg. 146, shows a good example. They call… Read more »

Doug Hitchcock
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Doug Hitchcock

I used one of those for over 15 years and broke many too

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