Beginner seeking advice for buying timber

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14 Aug 2020
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Hi all.

I’m a relative beginner - I have some skills but really lacking some knowledge and confidence. I’ve read custard‘s great thread on buying hardwoods And it’s been really useful. But I’m seeking a resource (book/video/website) to learn about the thought processes that happen when converting a cutting list to raw timber requirements. How to calculate efficiently the best use of stock. i.e. whether to get thicker boards and resaw the smaller parts, or order smaller boards at a nearer width/thickness. How to plan for wastage. What amount of material to buy etc… it seems like a dark art. I’ve found lots of books that talk about prepping stock but nothing about how to decide what to buy.

im looking to make a couple of projects and I have cutting lists. But I have no wood stock pile so I need to purchase it all. Happy to start to build up a stock collection but with wood prices I wanna invest wisely.

any advice gratefully received.
I am very much a beginner myself so others will probably have better insight, but thought I'd share my thoughts hoping it helps.

For me one of the biggest driving factors is what size materials my workshop can process. For example I don't have a large enough bandsaw for resawing, so I either need to buy stock close to my final thickness or run it through the planer and accept the wastage. It's normally considerably cheaper to buy full sheets goods, however I have limited space and find it really difficult to maneuver a full sheet on my own, so I will buy smaller sheets accepting the cost increase.

When it comes to how much stock to order, there are several cut list optimisers out there on the web, that you can input the dimensions of you parts and the dimensions of your stock and it will tell you how much you need and also produce a cut list to minimise waste. I use OptiCutter.
Getting the best out of a waney edged board (plank), can be a real
challenge sometimes. There's no Dark Art involved, but something
that develops through experience.
I will often study a board (plank), for quite a while, before actually cutting,
considering various permutations of the cutting strategy.
How to calculate efficiently the best use of stock. i.e. whether to get thicker boards and resaw the smaller parts, or order smaller boards at a nearer width/thickness
buy the thickness you need, never deep boards, or you will release stresses in the board

If you buy say a 200mm wide board to cut in to 30mm strips you will find the outer cuts might bow a bit -thats fine but just bear it in mind

Think abut how moisture leaves a board of wood -its obvious the moisture in the middle will take longer to leave, thus there tends to be a bit of a moisture gradient in timber and when cut that releases stress

How to plan for wastage. What amount of material to buy etc… it seems like a dark art. I’ve found lots of books that talk about prepping stock but nothing about how to decide what to buy.
lots of ways to skin that cat

one thing to bear in mind is that hardwood is sold in these thicknesses:


typically hardwood is converted by cutting as wide as possible on each board to leave 2 square edges

but the actual width is random

It varies by specie, but you tend to find most common board widths are:

some merchants round to the nearest inch, so a 7.4 inch board is charges at 7" and a 7.6" board is charged at 8"

boards tend to be cut to a set length, usually nominally to feet, so say:


American timbers will be cut to imperial and obviously sold here in mms
European, African and Asian timbers are metric, but are based on the above imperial equivalents

Please note:
hardwood timber tends to be shipped in "packs" of around 2cube to say 4 cubic metres and each pack will be one length

a merchant probably has a few packs in each thickness -so you might find they just have 2 packs of say 2" sapele, one 8 foot long, one 12 foot long.

For that reason, I would start by ringing a merchant and ask: "what lengths do you currently have in say 1.25" tulipwood"

and then once you know the lengths, you can being working out a cutting list

You might be best to draw out your boards no a scrap of paper and draw on your components

Bear in mind the ends of the boards might have splits and on the width you might get a bit of sap or corners missing

You cutting list should be arranged like this:

22 x 140
2 @ 750
3 @ 1200
1 @ 2150

45 x 60
1 @ 600
7 @ 1400
3@ 2750

so its section first (thickness x width)
then the list of qtys and lengths below
There are rules of thumb about optimising cutting lists:
Always cut longest pieces first from the shortest pieces of stock available, and work in descending order of size. Can seem counter intuitive e.g. cutting three 1m lengths from one 3m length may seem to mean no wastage but you might have cut up the only length left for the 2m length you still need, which you should have cut first!
If there's a choice always use the worst piece which will suit the purpose (e.g. most knotted etc) Sounds counter intuitive but if you do it the other way you may find you have wasted a good piece which could have been better used somewhere else e.g. on a visible face. Or you might find that the stuff you have left is just not good enough for the next item on your list. It's basic stock control.
Looking at offcuts - if they are too short or narrow to be usable then try to leave defects (knots etc) in the offcut. If long/wide enough to be usable then the opposite - try to incorporate faults in the piece you are cutting.
Works for sheet materials too, though you have to look at orientation as well as size.
It has big advantages over predetermined computer cutting lists: first you don't need a computer - they can't look at knots/faults anyway so can get it wrong. It's head down brain off self correcting e.g. if a cut piece turns out to be unusable you just carry on the same.
PS re re-sawing: cutting boards to width is normal practice but you still want to buy them at a sensible width. Cutting boards to thickness can be a problematic PITA - best to buy them in sensible thicknesses to start with.
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Work out your cutting list, then buy more need.... something like 10 / 20% more.
Firstly, because mistakes happen, secondly because you'll use it eventually anyway.....
some timber yards will cut for you , often at a cost.
But that maybe cheaper for the material.

As a DIYer , a lot of my decision making is based on what I can get in the car . Sheets 8x4 I need delivered - or cut at the timber yard.
B&Q do a cutting service ( 5 cuts for free ) , and i will workout how they should cut , but leave 10mm or more - as i'm never sure of the accuracy...

i have found Alsford timber very good , very helpful over the phone- used to use when lived in surrey and now use the Worthing branch as i live in westsussex, their prices used to be very good and free delivery , but that has gone up to a minimum of £100 ex VAT
They also offer sheet cutting, BUT i have never used that service at Alsford timber - £1.50+vat per cut - so quite expensive
Delivery very good - used a few times for sheet material MR-MDF, Marine Ply , that was before covid and the ridiculous price increases

Another local timber yard i use , in chichester is covers , they have a depot in brighton yard, very helpful people in chichester , however , the lengths of the material is often a problem , and I have purchased over 4m length of softwood and cut with a panel saw to get in car...
Never used their delivery service

they have a branch at brighton
Brighton B&Q dont do a cutting service
but other stores nearby do
B&Q Burgess Hill | Store details | DIY at B&Q -
B&Q Crawley | Store details | DIY at B&Q -
B&Q Bognor Regis | Store details | DIY at B&Q -
However, i have found them often closed, because no manpower and sometimes machine broken , i have used bognor and havant stores for cutting up sheet material - but again the dimensions i wanted i did make sure are oversized, and then i finish to size myself.
I would recommend staying to 2 or 3 different wood types to start with as that way any overage from 1 project can cascade over to the next.
Also consider the price of the timber you are using as just staying with European and USA timbers, prices rane from around £140 cuft for US walnut down to around £40 for beech.