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NB I am in the UK. The situation could be significantly different in other countries.

I currently want to build some simple bookcases. I loathe MDF and want to make these from solid wood.

Many years ago I tried to do that: I bought some Parana Pine. This appears to have been about the worst choice I could have made! Yes, it warped horribly and the shelving was a piece of cxxp. So depressed was I by this experience, and apprehensive about warping and twisting of any wood I might buy from timber merchants, that on the two or so occasions since then that I have put up shelves I instead ordered some "shelving assembly system".

So just now I've started looking around to see what the situation is currently (NB I am in South London). But I find it very difficult to know how realistic it is to expect solid wood to have been properly dried and then sawn/milled, making it fit for purpose. And yet there must be 000s of skilled carpenters in the UK who do manage to obtain properly prepared wood.

One site with branches local to me is championtimber.com. The following are examples of prices:

  • Softwood: 21 x 215 mm (finished) £21.30 per metre inc. VAT
  • Meranti/Seraya 20 x 220 mm (finished) £36.95 per metre inc. VAT
  • American White Oak: 20 x 220 mm (finished) £55.44 per metre inc. VAT

What are the chances that I won't find these boards twisting horribly in the days and weeks following delivery? At those sorts of prices I don't want to make mistakes!

Cheaper: at buildingmaterials.co.uk I am slightly shocked to see that they are selling 25 mm x 225 mm (nominal) pine for ... £7.14 per metre! Is cheaper likely to mean more twisty/warpy? I have no idea whatsoever.

How can I increase the chances of ordering non-warping, non-twisting wood for my little project?

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  • Because there are multiple ways wood can warp almost all wood can warp in specific circumstances. While it is possible to minimise the potential for warpage by being selective in what you buy (this is wood buying 101) it's often (but regrettably not exclusively) mishandling/mistreatment that leads to warping of some kind; these subsequent problems can happen with anything. For example what seems like (and kinda is) a perfectly stable board can be milled in the workshop, then left flat on the bench and within hours it will have a nice cup. That's simply due to the nature of the material.
    – Graphus
    Feb 3, 2023 at 12:55
  • Now re. your Question, one question per Question. And anyway we have one or more previous Q&As about aspects of drying that I'm fairly sure will amply cover your first query. "How can I order wood which won't warp?" There's your first problem, since you won't be able to select your boards yourself you get what you get — and trust your first instinct here, as a rule you will be given whatever first comes to hand when they're making up an order, unless the supplier is diligent (unusually so), or you're a highly valued customer, maybe both. This is the reality of wood ordering... [contd]
    – Graphus
    Feb 3, 2023 at 12:58
  • ...this was (rather shockingly IMO) highlighted for me in a recent video from 3x3Custom - Tamar on YouTube who made a point about plugging the wood supplier.... who might wish she hadn't. She'd ordered white oak for a project, but there was a nearly unbelievable colour variation amongst the boards she got, so much so that the one panel she had to make up (a headboard, it would be the same issue with a tabletop) there was just no way to make an attractive, aesthetically pleasing arrangement — it was so pronounced it looked like they'd delivered three different species, honestly it was that bad!
    – Graphus
    Feb 3, 2023 at 13:04
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    So anyway all the above aside, you know it's much easier to make bookcases from plywood? If you largely build from plywood you avoid most or all issues with wood movement (natural expansion and contraction, not warping), and this is a distinct problem in the UK because of the possible wide swings in wood moisture content from a damp summer to a dry winter with the central heating going full blast some of the time. In addition, using mostly plywood construction could be substantially cheaper.
    – Graphus
    Feb 3, 2023 at 13:10
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    @Graphus I know you don't care about points, but please make answers out of these massive comment sets! Frankly if you're at 4 comments, it really needs to be an answer...
    – FreeMan
    Feb 3, 2023 at 19:16

2 Answers 2

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How can I increase the chances of ordering non-warping, non-twisting wood for my little project?

Find a reliable local hardwood supplier and build a relationship with them. Instead of ordering online, visit the supplier in person. I don't know if hardwood suppliers work the same way in the UK as they do here in the US, but in my experience being able to look through the stacks of boards to find the ones that suit you is invaluable, and the supplier should be able to help you find a species that will work for your project and fit in your budget.

If you're able, buy rough sawn lumber and mill the boards yourself. If you don't have the equipment for that, the dealer should be able to do it for you for a fee.

Narrow boards are a lot less likely to cup and twist than wide boards, and they're usually less expensive per unit volume too. The tradeoff, of course, is that if you need wide stock, you'll have to spend more time joining two or three narrow boards.

If you're really worried about warping, plywood tends to be much more stable than solid wood. I understand that you "loathe" MDF and would prefer solid wood, and that's fine, but woodworking is all about tradeoffs, plywood is a very different product from MDF, and again, plywood can provide a degree of stability that solid wood can't.

And yet there must be 000s of skilled carpenters in the UK who do manage to obtain properly prepared wood.

It's a good bet that they're working directly with a trusted supplier rather than ordering online. They might or might not be selecting the wood themselves, but either way they're probably buying often enough and/or in sufficient quantity that the supplier wants to make sure they're happy. And if they're working with hardwoods they're probably milling the stock themselves.

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  • Thanks... this was helpful. Plywood is more acceptable than MDF, certainly. And your tips about solid wood are also extremely helpful. Feb 7, 2023 at 18:37
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Ideally you would let the wood acclimatize to the environment it is going to be in after the project is finished before using it. This may take a few months depending on the species and thickness.

That way any warping will happen before you plane the wood to thickness and make your cuts.

Yes, this will mean having a pile of wood for pending projects in your woodshop. Or more realistically a pile of wood that you pull from for your projects that you refill regularly but then let those new pieces sit for a few months before they are eligible to be used.

After the wood is properly dried for the environment then you can refinish the wood and getting it straight again.

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    This, of course, means that you then have to have the tooling necessary to flatten warped boards. Also, you must purchase thicker lumber and plane it to the desired finished thickness to allow for the cupping to be taken out. It seems wasteful and expensive, but that's the nature of the beast. Boards can be flattened with hand tools - it was done for millennia before electricity was discovered, so there's no need to rush out to get a shop full of power tools...
    – FreeMan
    Feb 3, 2023 at 19:19

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