Alternative Sources for Wood
by Chris Black
Here and around Atlanta where our store is, we are blessed with an abundance of excellent hardwood dealers. Some are geared towards commercial sales, but most cater to hobbyists and small shops as well. In fact Peach State Lumber, which is the closest to my home, keeps a huge selection of domestic and exotic species surfaced and ready to go just for local woodworkers. You can buy a single board or a truckload and expect the same great service from folks like Bert, John and the rest of the crew. Then of course, there's the world famous Carlton's Rare Woods. If Richard doesn't have it, then it just ain't. Luthiers, restorers and refinishers rely on Carlton's to provide them with the very best for their finest work.
I could go on and list every outfit in town, but what if you don't live near a good lumber supplier? Perhaps you do, but they aren't interested in selling in quantities less than 1000 board feet. Some dealers only keep a few common species in stock. You could mail order your material, but you never know what you're going to get. Not to say these merchants aren't reputable. I've always had good luck with mail ordering wood, especially veneers, but it can be expensive. Let's explore some other ways to get wood that may not have occurred to you.
STATE AGRICULTURE CLASSIFIEDS
Most states have an agriculture department that publishes a classifieds newsletter to support local farmers and state farm products. The best way to access these free resources is through your state's government web site. In Georgia we have the Market Bulletin, which is a free publication to Georgia residents. Your state probably has a similar newsletter. What a wonderful way to learn about and buy wood not to mention chickens, hogs and goats. These classifieds publications almost always have someone selling lumber usually far below retail. Maybe they have a portable sawmill and are trying to make extra money, or perhaps they bought a pile of boards years ago and never got around to using them. I've purchased several hundred board feet of cherry, walnut, cypress and even some reclaimed heart pine this way. I may have had to drive a fair ways to get it, but I've never been disappointed especially with the price.
Speaking of portable sawmills, several manufacturers of these machines will give you the names and numbers of their customers who want your business. Just get the customer service number off the web site, call and give them your zip code. Folks who own these mills usually sell lumber or know of someone who does. Sometimes it's dry and sometimes it's soaking wet, so bring a moisture meter. I've bought green wood in the past because the price was right, and just waited until it was dry enough to use. Not a bad way to go, if you have the space to store and sticker the stack.
I read somewhere that 70% of the hardwood felled each year in the United States goes to make shipping pallets. It's probably true for other countries as well. On a recent trip to my favorite hardwood dealer, one of the guys handed me some 12/4 padauk he salvaged from a pallet. He had a trashcan full of pieces he had carefully pried apart during his lunch break. The nice thing about pallet wood is that it's usually thinner than stock boards. If you don't have a bandsaw or thickness planer, these ready-made skinny slats might be perfect for jewelry boxes or small drawer sides.
Nails are the obvious problem with pallet wood. You'll do well to purchase an inexpensive metal detector, and use it before doing any machine milling. Pallet wood also contains dirt, sand and other contaminates that can dull machine knives and blunt hand tool edges quickly. Take a wire brush and knock off all the dirt and debris before machining.
Another source of trash wood is remodeling contractors. In my remodeling business, we used to pull piles of beautiful wood from homes. On one job, I tore out a laundry chute made with 14" wide chestnut boards. Those boards became my coffee table. On another job, I saved enough clear pine for a dry sink, two toolboxes and a sideboard. But the greatest coup of all was during a shopping mall store remodel, where we removed all the 'outdated' solid mahogany fixtures and replaced them with brand new white laminate particleboard furniture. Oh, yes! Needless to say, we had one empty dumpster at the end of that job. The point being, if you have a friend or family member in the business, ask them to keep an eye out for you. You might be pleasantly surprised, especially if you offer some free cleanup labor.
If you're a turner, you've just got to love thunderstorms. After a storm around our store, the place is absolutely buzzing with folks talking about what tree fell where. I bet many a homeowner would be more than happy to give you their tree if you'd just help them get it off their car. A little diplomacy can go a long way here. Always ask for permission before dragging out the ol' chainsaw in some stranger's front yard, and don't just cut out the part you want and leave them with a mess to clean up. Woodworkers are generally regarded as generous and helpful lot, so let's keep it that way. Often after a tree is removed, the owner will leave a pile by the street with a free firewood sign. In the neighborhood where our store is, people like to drop by and leave notes on our bulletin board for free unsplit firewood. It's too short to mill and dry for cabinets but great for green woodturning. Be careful. These trees are usually yard trees and have all sorts of hidden hazards. There can be nails left from tree forts, embedded barbed wire and even horseshoes. As a tree grows, it buries its history deep within its annual rings. A cheap metal detector doesn't sound like a bad idea.
Now, not all found wood is a bargain. As I've mentioned before, reclaimed and salvaged wood can contain all sorts of nasties that are just waiting to ding a knife. I've even dug bullets out of wood before. Some boards aren't boards at all, just thinly veneered plywood. A small slice from a hidden spot with a pocketknife will let you know right away if you're getting the real deal. Take what you can actually envision using, and leave the stuff that will inevitably become shop clutter. You'll realize that once everyone knows you're looking for this type of material, they'll be more than happy to worry you to death to come and haul off their trash. I mean can't you use some termite-infested firewood and some pressure treated cutoffs from a deck job on your next project? I usually divert their good intensions with a sincere thank you and a how nice of you to think about me, but I've got plenty. Let them do their own yard work, thank you. Happy hunting!