Beyond Home-Center Lumber

Knowing how and where to find good wood can save you loads of money.

After tools, the wood itself typically takes the biggest bite out of a woodworker’s wallet. Home-center lumber proves a hard-to-resist temptation because of the convenience. But that premilled lumber, especially hardwood, sells at a premium price, compared with buying it roughsawn or partially milled. Starting from the log, every handling and machining step that’s done before you buy it adds to your cost. So the closer you get to the log, in most cases, the more you save. You’ll also have to do more of those machining steps, but you can, over a few projects, save enough money to pay for a jointer and planer, two machines crucial to dimensioning rough lumber. You can also find a greater selection of sizes and species by shopping at businesses dedicated to selling wood. Let’s look at the options.

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Most hardwood retailers offer short boards and sample lots at reduced prices. Take advantage of those to try working new wood species without much risk.

Woodworking retailers

These businesses specialize in all things woodworking: tools, machinery, bits, blades, hardware, glues, finishes, and, yes, some kiln-dried wood. For example, Woodcraft and Rockler sell selections of S4S hardwood boards, veneer, and natural-edge slabs. If you live near one of these stores, you’ll save money by not paying for shipping, and gain the ability to sort through the boards to find what you want. Some stores will cut boards to shorter lengths.

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Find exotic wood species at retailers that specialize in hardwoods, such as Woodworker’s Source, shown here.

Hardwood retailer/wholesaler


Companies that specialize in selling kiln-dried wood, such as Jewell Hardwoods, Woodworker’s Source, Hearne Hardwoods, and Talarico Hardwoods, buy (or mill the wood themselves) in great enough quantities to offer competitive pricing. The wood from these sellers usually comes skip-planed just under its designated thickness. For example, 4/4 lumber (starting at 1") might be 78 " thick. You can plane away any slight warping that might occur after the wood stabilizes, and still get 34 "-thick boards.

Unless you can visit the business, most times you have to trust their selections without seeing the boards. Shipping costs can quickly eat up the savings of lower-cost lumber though, so shop around and compare; a retailer located closer to you will likely have lower shipping costs. Check with trade groups, such as the Hardwood Distributor’s Association, to find nearby retailers.

When shopping for lumber online, you might be able to view specific boards, but more often will be “buying blind” and simply getting what the retailer sends. Also, unless stated, you won’t know the moisture content of the wood and how it will react to your environment. Be sure to check the company’s return policy for wood. You might get a break on shipping costs by buying in greater quantity or price. Some retailers offer online shopping, where you can see and select specific slabs or lumber lots, complete with photos. And many of these businesses also sell high-quality sheet goods in a wide variety of hardwood veneers.

Sawmill/custom sawyer

Purchasing from a local sawmill or sawyer often proves one of the best values in lumber buying. These mills typically buy logs from within a few hundred miles of their locations. So your choice of wood species will be limited, compared with national retailers. If the mill has its own kiln for drying lumber, expect to pay more than for air-dried boards. Air-dried lumber will likely measure about 12–15 percent moisture. (Ideal working moisture is 6–10 percent; that figure varies by climate.) This wood will typically be roughsawn; to work this lumber you’ll definitely need a jointer and planer.

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If you have your own logs, a sawyer with a bandsaw or chainsaw mill can often bring the mill to the logs, or you can take the logs to the mill. Either way, you pay for the sawyer’s services, but keep all the wood. Some sawyers discount their fees if you help cut and stack the lumber. Also, you can direct how the sawyer cuts the log. An experienced, skilled sawyer will typically cut logs for maximum yield with the least amount of time and effort. This results in more plainsawn lumber (above). To get more quartersawn or riftsawn lumber, you’ll get less yield and pay more for the extra labor. As soon as you’ve cut the wood, stack it to dry (shown below) in a barn, shed, or anywhere out of direct weather.

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Stack fresh-cut boards to air-dry with narrow spacers (called stickers) between each row. Let the wood dry for at least one year per inch of thickness.

f you prefer, you can buy your own bandsaw mill (below) or chainsaw mill (2nd below) and saw your own logs into lumber. Entry-level bandsaw mills start at around $4,000. Many chainsaw mills sell for less than $1,000, but you’ll need a hefty chainsaw (another $800 to $1,300 plus ripping chain) to power it. Most chainsaw mills require a great deal more physical labor in milling logs, compared with a bandsaw mill. 

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A bandsaw-mill operator will custom-cut logs to your specifications. These mills cut the thinnest kerf, wasting less wood.

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A chainsaw mill has the added benefit of being the most portable, letting you cut a log where it fell, eliminating the need to drag or move the log.

Other cost-saving options

  Auctions. Many farm and estate auctions include stacks of lumber, sometimes including gems, such as walnut, cherry, or white oak. Auctioneers typically sell this lumber by the stack, and often at bargain prices. When assessing a stack of lumber, determine the species, quality, and approximate board footage. If possible, scrape a few boards to get a peek at the grain. And beware of potential pitfalls: The lumber could contain nails, nail holes, splits, cracks, or worm and insect damage. Armed with this information, bid accordingly. Also, be sure you have a way to transport the lumber—most auctions require you to take your prizes home that same day—as well as a dry place to store it.

  Craigslist.org. This online buy/sell site can be both a gold mine and a junkyard, so browse and shop with a discerning eye. To make it easier to see and get the wood, search only the area within driving distance. Ask for details, such as board sizes, condition, and moisture content. Always look over the wood in person before handing over money! Inspect and measure the boards to make sure you’re getting the correct species and amount advertised. 

■ eBay. Like craigslist, this online buy/sell site reaches nationwide, but you can limit your search to postings that originate within a certain radius of home, using the “advanced” search option. When buying boards from a seller too far away to drive, expect to pay shipping costs. Wood on this website tends to involve specific boards or slabs, or unusual pieces, such as burls. Always check the seller’s rating: 100-percent positive feedback helps ease worries about buying something sight-unseen. And you can, in most cases, readily return items purchased on eBay—something not possible with craigslist or auction sales.

  Club links and discounts. Woodworking clubs or guilds might provide members with discounts at local retailers. Many clubs also provide links and contact information for trusted retailers along with sources for wood and other supplies. So that club membership might pay for itself in savings available only to members. And, club members tend to share information about sources, and even sell their own lumber at times.

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