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How to buy the best pieces of hardwood

Updated: Aug 27, 2023

Ever since I started building and selling custom furniture, the most common question I'm asked is: “Where do you buy the wood”?

Knowing how to buy the best pieces of hardwood to make beautiful furniture is one of the most important steps to any woodworking project. There’s a lot of good practice and terms involved in the process of acquiring your lumber. It’s not the same as buying framing timber like 2x4’s or 2X8’s from Home Depot.

If you’re starting out as a woodworker, or taking a jump into furniture making, this practical guide will help you understand what goes into buying quality hardwood timber.

Finding a Supplier

You'll have to find a retail or wholesale hardwood lumber supplier in your area. It’s not terribly likely you’ll need to go to an actual mill or anything like that. For example, my local supplier in Kelowna, British Columbia is Reimer Hardwoods.


Contacting a Supplier

When you find a supplier, call to see if they have the species you want like white oak, walnut, ash or maple before making the drive. Ask them what thicknesses and lengths they have in stock and take this into consideration for how you’ll get them back to your work space. This is a good time to see if they have a saw to cut the boards down after you purchase them to fit them in your vehicle. Sometimes they’ll charge a couple bucks per cut.

Arriving at a supplier

Let's say you want to make your project out of white oak. When you arrive, head to the sales desk and tell them what you want to buy.


There are some specific terms you need to know about thicknesses, surfacing grades, and different cuts of wood that are detailed in the next section.


If they are okay with you picking out the boards yourself, they will send you to the warehouse to pick out your wood, or give you an order sheet to hand to the warehouse staff who will bring the material to you for selection.


Leaving and Purchasing

When you’re done picking out your boards, tell the warehouse staff. They will tally up your purchase order and you can head back to the sales desk.


Some basic terms you should know:

1. Thicknesses of wood: 4/4, 5/4, 6/4, 8/4, 10/4, 12/4

"Four-quarter" means boards that are 1 inch thick, "Six-quarter" is a board that is 1.5 inch thick... and so on. Hardwood thickness is measured in 'quarters', at least in North America.


How hardwood is measured for volume/sale. A board foot is a wood measurement for a piece of lumber 1ft wide by 1' long by 1" thick. The boards you pick will be tallied up as a total number of board-feet.


3. Different grades of surfacing (how they have been milled)

  • Rough cut lumber is exactly this, it's rough on all sides. $

  • S2S = a board with 2 sides surfaced/milled $$

  • S4S = a board with all 4 sides surfaced/milled $$$$

You should note just because you buy S4S material, it doesn’t mean the wood is ready to make a finished piece. Unless your supplier mills the wood for you the day you order it, it's probably warped and should still be milled to be perfectly flat and square.


4. Cuts of wood (This is a bit complicated but I'll be concise)

  • Flat-Sawn - Figured grain pattern on the surface. Very common on table tops and flooring - Cheaper (doesn't mean it isn't beautiful)

  • Rift-Sawn - Straight grain patterns. More expensive than Flat Sawn

  • Quarter-Sawn - Very straight grain. Most expensive

An important difference between these 3 is wood movement. Wood expands and contracts. Flat sawn moves the most, quarter-sawn the least. That said, for most pieces of furniture, especially smaller ones, flat-sawn is fine.


Some tips and things you should know:

1. Pick straight boards - this is important, take your time doing this.

  • Avoid boards with bends in them lengthwise - you can check how straight a board is by looking down it with one eye

  • Avoid boards that are 'cupped' excessively. A little cupping is OK.

  • Avoid boards that look twisted (at all costs)

2. Watch out for defects

  • Avoid boards with big knots

  • Avoid boards with large cracks/splits lengthwise

  • Little vertical cracks/splits on the surfaces on each end of the board (this can mean the inside of the board has cracks in it because it didn't dry properly)

    • Always check the ends of your boards

  • Specifically with Walnut - avoid 'sap wood' (much lighter in color). A little sapwood is OK, but sometimes it’s hard to tell with rough cut boards and the entire board can be totally blonde.

4. Know what you want and buy extra (always)

  • Take the time to figure out and write down exactly what lengths and widths you need for each thickness

    • E.g. 1 Inch thick boards: 3 X 10 foot boards @ 5-6 inches wide

  • Factor in a 20% loss width per board, especially when you’re starting out.

5. Thicker the board, higher the price

  • That’s right, an 8/4 board will be a higher price per board foot than a 4/4 board.

6. Shorter the board, lower the price (sometimes)

  • This is more specifically if a supplier has very short boards that are 4-6 feet long. You may have to ask for this directly: “Do you have any shorts in stock? What is the price/board foot”

  • From my experience, ‘shorts’ are typically available in 4/4 thickness

7. General good practice

  • try your best to match the tones/grains between boards. It can be challenging but take your time and do your best - this is a skill you’ll get better at over the years.

  • bring a tape measure

8. Boards are usually thinner than the actual stated dimensions

  • A 6/4 thick board will likely be thinner than 1.5 inches, especially if it is a surfaced board like S2S or S4S

9. Patience is a virtue

  • Treat this like a critical part of your project - it should take longer than you expect

  • You’ll thank yourself later when you have boards that are free of defects and easier to mill - a huge time saver

8. Be courteous

  • If you’re diligently going through an entire pallet of full length boards, stack them back neatly when you’re done. You want the warehouse staff on your side. Afterall, they’re the ones that know where the freshly shipped boards are.

Every woodworker went to the lumber yard for their first time. With a little practice you’ll be leaving with the best boards they have.


Each of our woodworking courses and plans start with a diagram showing you exactly what boards you need and how to cut down each board to get the desired yield. This is a major time saver and will give you the confidence to get your first lumber hall right.


If you have questions about our woodworking projects or need help with a project of your own, shoot me an email or message on Instagram. I'm happy to help.


Sam

Hello@cordovawoodworking.com


Some beautiful quarter sawn white oak. The wavy 'shine' is a unique characteristic to white oak cherished by woodworkers across many disciplines.




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