Available and Affordable Lumber for Fine Woodworking at a Big Box Store

Fine woodworkers treat construction lumber with absolutely no respect. It’s as if the wood that is most readily available, inexpensive and useful is the red-headed stepchild of its peers. We use it as the backbone of modern society, the structure that protects our families, the undergarment we walk on. It is the literal roof over our head. Yet we hide it away like Bart Simpson's evil twin. Heaven forbid woodworkers actually see the lumber that we depend upon and have so much trust/faith in. Better we cover it up with drywall. Hide it with paint. Use it to prop up it’s better looking siblings: oak, walnut, cherry and mesquite. Better still... lock it away so as to never have to think of it again.

In doing so we woodworkers have created this illogical impression that this common wood is unsuitable for fine furniture. That only expensive, hard to find and precious ‘hardwoods’ can be used if you want to call your project ‘fine’. Shame on us.

I once read a great article in a magazine about a fantastic hall table design. It used mortise and tenon, hidden dovetails, stopped dado’s, etc… something that’d take a true craftsman to make. The example they made used a breed of pine normally reserved for construction. Up close the straight grain drew interest much like a finely pinstriped suit. A few feet back it blended to change the color. I could imagine that the piece would shift in hue as you approached it, passed it, focused on it or just noticed it across the room. This created a lovely warm effect. And if I were that wood, I’d of felt incredibly insulted with the rude comments in the letters to the editor of following issue. The editorial response to the comments was almost apologetic. Strangely the comments and response had little to do with the woods integrity, ease of use or durability, more that it was (we need air quotes for this) “stripy”.

Obviously we woodworkers didn’t learn anything from any of the multitude of John Hughes movies we were dragged to in our younger days. Otherwise we’d know that the smart, unassuming, hardworking ‘common’ girl will transform into the hot sex kitten of a dream spouse simply when we figure out that her hair comes down and the glasses will come off. So in this analogy does that make us woodworkers the attractive hero who gets the girl or nerd that lets her get away?

Construction lumber, generally some kind of softwood, is a wonderful medium for projects especially if you are just starting out in the craft. First of all it is cheap and readily available. That alone overcomes one of the biggest hurdles in starting down the rabbit hole of fine woodworking. In my area I’m lucky in that a real hardwood dealer, a place with a handful of domestics species in both milled and rough state, is an hour away ($4.00 a gal in a 16mpg truck…). The cheapest lumber I can get there is poplar which runs around $3.00 a board foot (144 sq/in). In comparison the big box home center store just down the street has a 2x12x16 board running $20. If you do the math that’s about $.90 a bf when taking into account that it’s actually only 1.5 inches thick.

Additionally, the use of it in the building process is a phenomenal teaching experience. It rewards proper tool sharpening, setup and use. Especially with inexpensive hand tools. Another real benefit for the beginner. If your plane is not set up, dull or you go against the grain the wood will tell ya. Ditto for all your other tools. But guess what, when  one of those teaching opportunities pops up… the woods inexpensive. Plus, if you screw up too much you still have reasonably priced firewood.

The trick is how you look at the boards at the big box store. You could consider them as kiln dried dimensioned lumber ready to crosscut to length and install in your project. What college kid hasn’t made their first book case that way? Or you could look at those boards as 6/4 rough lumber, green lumber at that. With this attitude you will surely be able to find inexpensive lumber for your projects.

Construction lumber stacks are made up of a lot of different species and dimensions. The big box labels are generally marked SPF, Doug Fir or SYP plus the size dimensions. SPF stands for Spruce, Pine, and Fir. The retailers group these species like this because for the building trades they are pretty much interchangeable. Spruce is generally whiter than the others and will have lesser pronounced grain with more small knots. Pine could be made up of many different species but generally it’s southern yellow pine. Doug Fir stands for Douglas Fir, duh… Fir generally is pinker when on the stacks but that fades over time. This really is a good wood for furniture, in fact lots of Arts and Craft cabinetry is done with it.  SYP stands for southern yellow pine, a really fine furniture wood and a staple of the South. In my area all the larger dimension stuff is SYP.

Now all the wood is labeled kiln dried. Ya… I’m guessing the baking in the shipping container on the way from the saw mill to the lumber yard is what they consider kiln drying because this stuff is wet. This stuff is so wet that when cutting it on power tools you’ll often get a stream of water flying off the blade. You can even feel the temperature difference in the wood caused by evaporation. Whatever you buy you are going to have to let it air dry for a while before it’s useful in finer woodworking projects.

The lumber we are discussing is labeled as 2 by something, but the actual dimension is 1.5 inches thick. In wood turning the air drying rule of thumb is a year for the first inch and a half of thickness. But I’ve found that generally letting it sit for a few months is about right if you select properly. This might sound like a long time but if you end up buying a board or two every few big box visits you’ll soon find that you always have some clean dry stock ready to use. Then it’s just replace what you use.

For fine woodworking purposes I generally steer clear of 2x4’s, 2x6’s and such. While you might find some good samples in the stack generally you’re really going to have to look for them. And those few cherry picked samples will have limited use after you redimension them for your purposes. If you are looking for furniture grade stuff from a big box you generally need to go big. So every time I go to a big box I’ll walk by the area with the longest and widest boards. These are generally SYP.

The first step once approaching the stack is to find out if the selection is dry enough for you. I’m sure everyone will have a level they are comfortable with. If you know you aren’t going to be using the wood for 6 months or so then something really wet will be OK. If you’ll need it for next weekend you’ll need it as absolutely as dry as possible. I check simply by feeling for a temperature difference. If the wood feels cold… way wet. If I can’t feel any difference… just a little wet. If the largest size is too wet and I really need a piece then I’ll check out the slightly smaller sizes.

My next step is to check the end grain. The goal for both dimensional stability and quality cosmetics (my opinion) is to find as quarter sawn boards as possible. What I mean by this is you want the pith of the tree in the board. This will tell you the tree was cut right down the middle, or ‘quarter sawn’. This is the most dimensionally stable because as wood dry growth rings tend to ‘straighten out’. Quarter sawn lumber has the shortest growth rings because they go from the top to bottom. This means it can’t move much. I also prefer to find boards with the tightest grain possible. Chances are these are some kind of long leaf species. Bonus of tight grain is the surface will have a much more homogeneous look. Don’t worry so much if the center of the board isn’t so great or it has the actual pith (something you never want in furniture). You’ll end up cutting that part away. Remember… it’s cheap and you can use scrap for firewood.

After selecting a few based on temperature and end grain I’ll then look at the faces of the board. Be sure to flip ‘em because there can be dramatic differences from one side to another. Now here is the big attitude adjustment, we are now thinking of these boards as ‘rough’ lumber. Yes they are going to have defects such as knots (likely monstrous in size), wane (bark), twisting, cupping, etc… But you also need to remember these things are 12 inches wide and 16 to 20 feet long. In them you will be able to find long stretches of clear straight grain. If you find one board with a 4 foot length of straight quarter sawn grain 4 inches across then you’ve just found the legs of a table. Find 5 more of those sections and you have the material for a tabletop. Could be all in the same board! Remember, if the pith runs down the center you can draw from both sides for your stock.

Do this long enough and you’ll eventually get this wash of euphoria when you find that perfect board. It’s like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. A 20 foot long, knot free board that and has the pith close to the edge instead of in the middle. You don’t find them often but… I always set these aside for ‘special’ projects. Imagine that 9 to 10 inches of quarter sawn lumber waiting for you to get a project idea.

Or you might be like me, end up in the middle of the isle screaming to god, “Whyyyyy” because you realize you came into the store with only a $5 because you just needed a paint brush.

Be prepared is the moral of that story. So if you are planning on using my treasure hunting technique and don’t have some monster truck you’ll want to leave a few items in your vehicle. A cheap crosscut handsaw, tape measure, square and marking utensil. These are there so you can break down the material to a size more easily transported. I did this for years using the rack on a MINI Cooper so vehicle choice doesn’t matter much. You can figure out a way. The shopping carts left in the parking lot can double as workbench surfaces to make the cuts. And did I mention… $?

Once you get this little treasure home you will need to store it out of the way manner that’ll promote slow drying. Ideally you can stick it in your garage stickered, meaning with little scraps between the boards so that air can get to all six sides. Just be sure to keep it up off concrete. When I was working in my apartment I’d either lean em up against a wall or stick em in the closet were I kept my tools.

Now over the next few weeks or months, as this wood dries, it’s going to do some weird things. It’s going to move, crack, cup, twist, and might even exude sap (did I mention this stuff really is green). Don’t worry about it. Remember we are thinking of this as rough lumber, you’re going to cut around those defects.

Which brings us to the woodworking. When dealing with rough lumber, unless you are a masocist, you’re going to want to do your milling with some power tools. Yes, it can be done strickly with hand tools but… why? It won't require a huge investment to get the necessary tools and the savings in lumber...

For years I’d mill up my lumber with said crosscut hand saw, a 10” craftsman band saw and a jointer plane. I think that band saw cost about $100 new and the jointer was an ebay find. If I had to do it again I’d of probrably of bought a craigslist band saw and invested the savings in some blades and a magnetic fence. Both items I ended up buying later anyways.

The process is simple. I plane one section so it had a straight edge, remember you crosscut it down to size earlier for transportation. I then rip the length using the band saw and fence. If it was too thick for my purpose then I’ll smooth one face and resaw the smaller piece to length. It was simply a matter of finish smoothing the part afterwards. Easy peasy… The trick for all this was to make one reference side flat or straight with the hand plane so it can reference  the powertools fence. Then use the machine to do the monotonous work.

This is still my methodology for diminsioning lumber with the exception that I now have a used thickness planer.

After milling it’s simply left to your imagination what can be accomplished. The wood takes edges well. Smoothes wonderfully. Can be used with any of the fine woodworking joints successfully. Takes a multitude of finishes. And in the end you’ll be proud of the work you accomplish with the medium. There is just this little bit of extra delight when I look at pieces you’ve built with this lumber. That you saw the greatness, the potential, in what others dismiss. The diamond in the rough. The mutt with a heart of gold. The “common” looking smart hot girl.

Recently using these very techniques I built 4 tables and a rolling cart to be used at the school. I’ll write a post an the build later. But now for now…