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:
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:
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.
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 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:
In addition to eBay, here are some online lumber sellers that are reported (by other woodworkers) to have a good reputation:
- Bell Forest Products
- Steve Wall Lumber, Co
- Constantine’s Wood Center
- Hardwood Board Source
- Hardwood Store
- Northwest Timber
- Hartzell Wood Stock
- West Penn Hardwoods
- Groff and Groff Lumber
- Hearne Hardwoods
- Gilmer Wood Company
- Woodworkers Source
- L.L. Johnson Lumber Mfg. Co.
- Exotic Lumber Inc.
- Downes & Reader Hardwood, Co.
- Foster Lumber Yards
- Ganahl Lumber Company
- Jones Lumber Company
- Bristol Valley Hardwoods
- Highland Hardwoods
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:
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.
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:
- DVD: “The Woodworker’s Guide to Wood: How to Buy it, Cut it, Dry it, Grade it, Work it.” By Ron Herman
- BOOK: “Understanding Wood: A Craftsman’s Guide to Wood Technology” by R. Bruce Hoadley
- DVD: “17th Century Joined Chest with Peter Follansbee“
- WEBSITE: The Wood Database
- WEBSITE: Wood Magazine’s great “wood species guide“