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When I took wood working as a student, I learned to finish rough wood - cut it to rough size, joint it, plane it, rip and cross/cut on a table saw, etc. As much as I'd love to own large versions of all these machines, it's not practical for the size of my home shop.

I looked around at my local home improvement store and none of the dimensional lumber was of the quality I'd want to use in a project like building children's furniture or enclosures for electronics projects - nothing looked straight or flat.

What should I expect when purchasing lumber to use in home wood working projects? Do most home wood workers buy rough material and use smaller machines to finish their wood, or should I expect to find a supplier who provides higher quality cut and finished lumber?

  • Thanks for posting a question! However, this question is unclear and may not be a good fit for the site as it is presently worded and tagged, because it covers several topics. Are you asking how to select lumber, or how to mill the lumber? If you specifically need to know how to deal with warped lumber which is typical of the kind sold at home improvement stores, see woodworking.stackexchange.com/questions/319/… – rob Mar 24 '15 at 1:38
  • "Can I expect to buy wood that requires minimal milling" is what I'm getting after. I was having a hard time thinking of what to ask exactly.. – Steven Mar 24 '15 at 1:44
  • Thanks for the clarification! I would recommend removing the last sentence of your question and, if it is a question, posting it as a separate question. – rob Mar 24 '15 at 2:07
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It can very difficult to find wood that requires minimal milling, but it is possible. The tradeoff is that you may need to spend a lot of time searching through every board to find the one or two that are straighter than others.

Look for wide, 4/4 (1") or thicker boards with few knots. These come from larger trees and are generally more stable.

Look at the end grain, ideally searching for quartersawn material where the wood grain is perpendicular to the face (wide side) of the board.

Generally, the lumber used in construction is not suitable for fine woodworking without additional milling. Some home improvement stores also sell pre-glued panels and hardwood lumber (sometimes wrapped in plastic), but it usually costs significantly more than buying dimensional or rough-sawn lumber from a hardwood dealer.

If you do not have the tools to mill lumber on your own, call some local cabinet shops. Often they will sell you lumber and may even do some milling at little or no additional cost. You can also buy your lumber directly from a local sawmill or hardwood dealer, and they will typically surface the lumber on 2 or more sides for a small additional charge.

If you're tight on space, hand milling your lumber is always an option. If you prefer power tools, you may also want to consider looking into a combination jointer/thickness planer. Also, depending on what you're building, you may be able to build jigs to do most of your milling. A taper/straight-line rip jig will do the edge jointing, and you can build a separate jig to joint the faces of boards to about 6" wide (assuming you have a 10" table saw and can raise the blade to a little over 3").

Also look into community shops and rental stores. If you live near a community college or university, they may have a wood shop with all the tools you need to mill your lumber. My local university offers daily or monthly options, and larger cities have MakerSpaces where you can buy a membership and use the equipment. There is also a Habitat for Humanity "ReStore" in a town near me which rents out all kinds of woodworking equipment (including table saws and planers), though you must first purchase an annual membership.

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    what I'm taking away from this is that I need a bigger shop so I can have a jointer and thickness planer :) – Steven Mar 24 '15 at 2:09
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    Sounds like a plan to me! If you're tight on space, hand milling your lumber is always an option. If you prefer power tools, you may also want to consider looking into a combination jointer/thickness planer. Also, depending on what you're building, you may be able to build jigs to do most of your milling. A taper/straight-line rip jig will do the edge jointing, and you can build a separate jig to joint the faces of boards to about 6" wide (assuming you have a 10" table saw and can raise the blade to a little over 3"). – rob Mar 24 '15 at 2:22
  • I checked out combo jointer/planers, looks like a solid viable option, I had no idea these existed. Thanks for the tip! – Steven Mar 24 '15 at 20:48
  • @Steve I think they've been making their rounds through the magazines for a few years but they only recently seem to be catching on in popularity. The main drawback is the time to switch over from planer to jointer mode. On most models I've seen, you have to turn a crank dozens of times to raise or lower the bed (almost all the way) when you're switching between modes. – rob Mar 24 '15 at 21:01
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Great question, Steve. I wish I'd had the wisdom to ask this before I got too into woodworking. I used to buy all my hardwood lumber at Home Depot for 4 times the cost! (I'm not exaggerating). Big box stores specialize in construction lumber so it's a very poor place to buy furniture-grade lumber.

So I started shopping at a local hardwood dealer. (I'd do a search for hardwood dealers or lumber dealers in your area. If that doesn't work, you can always order online for marginally more expensive than what you could find locally). Most hardwood dealers offer "surfaced and straight-lined" lumber--meaning they surface both sides to be parallel and straight-line one side at 90 degrees. For several years, this was more than sufficient for my needs. The surfaces were almost perfectly flat and I just used my tuned up table saw to make the other edge straight.

So that's what I'd recommend--find a local hardwood dealer that will surface and straight-line your lumber. Then all you need is a table saw (or even a bandsaw could work, provided you don't mind a few minutes of hand-planing).

Eventually, however, you'll become a lumber snob and decide that the lumber yard's version of "surfaced" isn't up to par and you'll have to ask them to sell it to you "in the rough" and invest in the expensive tools for milling (i.e., jointer and planer). But, you'll probably have a few years, so start saving up! (Which will be a LOT easier now that you're not buying hardwoods from big box stores!)

  • This is what I did when I built a new railing for our upstairs loft. I didn't have any of the tools necessary, so I found a good lumber yard and bought mine surfaced 4 sides (S4S). It was more expensive than buying some pine 2x4 at the big-box & ripping it to size, but was well worth it because I got much nicer material that really didn't need much finishing. – FreeMan Mar 25 '15 at 12:50
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If you don't have much space and/or you want to avoid noise and dust, you could use hand tools. Of course it is way longer but you can do everything you could do with machine.

I'm not an expert myself but i usually buy some pretty good lumber and make them real flat with a handplane. With one good large handplane, you could do most of the job, although it's faster if you have 2 or 3 specialized handplanes that are ready for specific job.

You could also use handplane only when the lumber are too big and complete with a small planner as in this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4ch9px_ZHk

  • I'm definitely a power tools kind-of guy :) – Steven Mar 24 '15 at 14:34
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You can get pre-planed/joined lumber for projects at stores like Home Depot, though the types of wood you will have access to are going to be limited. A friend of mine built a desk with this material and it turned out OK with no milling at all required. Note that this will be separate from dimensional lumber, you might have to ask the staff for guidance.

Lumber yards may also be able to provide the service as well, though the quality may be less than you would get by milling your own lumber.

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I personally have looked in my area for "hardwood dealers" as my Google search term. This uncovered two that sell oak and walnut (occasionally cherry) where I live in Oklahoma.

I have also looked on craigslist. This is not very fruitful for me but it can be for others - it depends a lot on where you live. The one or two sellers I have found were both selling rough sawn lumber.

Also, if you search for "lumber" in your area on Google and then eliminate the big-box stores, you may find that there are suppliers of building materials in your area that have much nicer hardwood. I have purchased red oak from local building material suppliers in my town in this way. It was much nicer than the big-box wood in the sense that it warped less when I cut it.

In all cases, it is most likely that you will find only the most common woods like pine, oak, and maple. Depending on where you live you may find other "finer" woods like cherry or walnut. The last two almost always have to come from an actual hardwood dealer unless you just happen to know somebody who has a WoodMizer portable bandsaw mill that will have access to trees that have come down (for whatever reason). The WoodMizer website allows you to search for owners in your area and they may recycle trees and be a source of local wood that you can buy. This however would require you to stack it and dry it before using as well as requiring access to a truck or trailer to go get it.

I have also purchased from WoodCraft since they have a store in my town. They have a wide selection of wood but not a great deal of any one species; however, it has always been sufficient for my projects. They will also surface it for you if you don't have a surface planer. They say there is a minimal charge for this but I have never been charged - possibly since I usually only buy one or two boards.

Finally, there are the online dealers that I have no direct experience with. I am a fan of The Wood Whisperer and he has a paid site where the members will build a project together. He arranges for the students to purchase their wood online from Bell Forest Products. He speaks highly of them.

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When shopping for wood one will quickly realize all the bad pieces of wood that are overflowing the shelves. So be prepared to spend at least 30 minutes finding suitable enough pieces to purchase. Personally, I like the more natural look of wood, so I don't sand it with too high a grit and of course use a stain instead of paint or other finish.

The first thing though, that I would do is design what you're wanting to build, so you can better determine which type and size of wood you should buy. I wouldn't just go to the store to buy some wood without knowing what thing(s) I'm planning to make. So I'd suggest drawing up your design, right down to the dimensions, and then do some research on the internet for which wood you should use for this and make a decision.

  • Wherever you buy, consider taking some time to sort through what's available to find the best pieces for your project. I found some curly maple in the Home Depot bin, when buying there. – keshlam Apr 6 '15 at 13:28
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Just to remind folks: there are "up cycling" opportunities too. I've gotten some interesting material by scavenging furniture left on the curb, including "prebuilt" large panels from headboards. While disassembling may seem sacreligious after all the work of assembling a piece, it's as valid a reuse as a fix-up would be (though I've been seduced by some of those too, of course).

Even when the material is particle board and not worth taking, the hardware (drawer slides and such) may be.

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