How To Buy Hardwoods

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20 Aug 2008
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It's clear from a number of recent posts that sourcing hardwoods is a real problem for many woodworkers. It might be useful to get a thread going which aims to take some of the mystery out of the process.

I guess the first thing to recognise is that even though there are thousands of species of trees, there are only a handful of common furniture woods. It's not that they're the only timbers suitable for furniture making, it's more that they're the only ones regularly available in the massive quantities needed to fuel the market. To make your life simple when first starting out you should confine yourself to a very restricted timber palette, in fact I'd recommend choosing just two or three from Ash, Beech, Sweet Chestnut, Oak (American White or European, not American Red), Sycamore, American Cherry, American Black Walnut, or Maple. All of these are widely available. At least at the beginning forget about Holly, Swiss Pear, Zebrano, Macassar Ebony, Yew, Wenge, or any other temptingly attractive timbers, the fact is they're difficult to source except sporadically from specialist yards. You're far better off having good stocks of two or three timbers rather than individual boards from lots of different species, that won't yield enough consistent timber for any one project, and any left over timber can't be carried forward to your next project.

Having chosen a fairly common timber your next step is to identify a yard that supplies smallish quantities in a range of thicknesses and has a clear pricing structure. Don't expect to get the very cheapest prices out there. You should probably rank reasonable quality and ease of buying above out and out bargain hunting.

I'm more familiar with timber suppliers in the South East, but somewhere like SL Hardwoods would fit the bill, ... awn-boards

There are equivalent retailers all over the country, many of them have regular delivery rounds and can drop timber off at your door.

The next step is to decide how much timber you need. You should always have a plan and a cutting list before starting a project. But a good rule of thumb is to remember there's about a cubic foot of sawn timber in a project like this,


To be safe, you'll need a bit extra, say 1.5 to 2.0 cubic feet. But if you're restricting yourself to two or three timbers that's okay, because you can just carry left over stocks forward to the next project.

If you order, sight unseen, from a yard like this you'll almost certainly get flat sawn boards where the end grain looks like this,


To make it clearer the end grain will conform to this sort of shape,

Timber-Buying-ABW-01 copy.jpg

Look at the face of a flat sawn board and the grain will look like this,


In other words there's "cathedral" grain in the centre, petering out to rift or quarter sawn grain at the edges. This illustrates it more clearly,

Walnut-Flat-Sawn-1 copy.jpg

Why is that? You'll read that flat sawing gives a greater yield from the log. In fact the truth is a bit more devious, timber mills cut flat sawn because it makes a highly variable natural product like timber into something a tiny bit closer to a standardised, homogenous commodity.


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Flat sawing gives you, the user, one key benefit. It makes it easier for you to joint up narrow boards to produce wider panels. Look at it this way, here are two flat sawn boards laid side by side,


You get a fairly harmonious joint. But look what happens when you start to try and joint up wilder grained boards,


To my eye that looks pretty nasty, the sort of careless matching I associate with Oak Furniture Land and other bargain basement manufacturers who just throw their boards together in whatever order they come to hand. Flat sawn boards from plantation grown trees tend to be much more uniform.

The problem you have as a maker is that sometimes you'll want rift sawn stock (for legs for example) or quarter sawn stock (for rails and stiles for example). To get this you have two options, either trim your components from the edges of your boards, or order some especially thick boards and take vertical slices out of them. In reality this is yet another reason to restrict yourself to just two or three timbers, it allows you to build up a stock of different thickness boards.

Another question is should you get sawn boards or Planed All Round (PAR). My recommendation is sawn boards every time. If you haven't got a thicknesser, or your project is too big for hand planing, I can see the attraction of PAR. But in reality it's no cheaper and most yards do a fairly sloppy job of planing to thickness, so you may well find some cupping or tear out, and the boards are unlikely to have clean enough edges for jointing together into wider panels.

How much will your timber cost? Well, if you go to the SL Hardwood website you'll get some indication. As I said, yards like this aren't the cheapest, but they tend to offer fair quality and a hassle free buying experience. To put it into context, that Shaker side table with about one cubic foot of timber, if made in American Cherry, would cost you about £60 plus VAT, say £100 to allow for some wastage and spare material. Given that you'll get many hours enjoyment building it, and have a well made piece of useful furniture at the end, that's not bad value for money and hobbies go!


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However, at some point you'll outgrow timber yards like SL Hardwoods. You'll want to pick through waney edged boards to select your own timber, you'll want particular cuts other than flat sawn, you'll want the guarantee of consistent colour by sourcing all your timber from the same log, or you'll be searching for particular grain patterns to make unique pieces of furniture.

At this stage you'll just have to accept that you're going to have to put a lot more effort into timber buying. You'll have to identify more specialist yards that stock "boules" or "flitches", that's entire logs that have been through sawn. Again I can only speak for the South East, but it will mean getting into your car and driving out to yards like Tyler Hardwoods or English Woodlands Timber. These are more daunting environments, you won't have pre-priced boards or standardised price lists. The yard staff won't stand around while you dither, you'll need to have the skill to appraise a rough sawn board and make up you mind promptly. You'll also need to be fit enough to clamber around stacks of timber and possibly cross cut boards by hand to fit in your vehicle.

If this sounds too much there are a few half way houses between these two extremes. Yards like Surrey Timbers, Timberline, Yandles, or possibly the Essex yard that was recently linked to fall into a middle ground where waney edged boards are individually priced and it's a bit friendlier for the uncertain buyer. Again, don't expect the cheapest prices, these yards often comb other bigger yards for the best stock and then apply their own mark up. But for the hobbyist or high end furniture maker is that really a serious problem?

One of the first hurdles you'll encounter is that waney edged, sawn boards tend to be impenetrably grubby. For consistency I'm sticking to using photos of American Black Walnut, well this is what a waney edged sawn board of ABW might well look like,


However, most yards will agree to you taking a few shavings off with a block plane or a box scraper so that you can read the true surface, something like this,


And the other prizes you'll find at these more specialist yards are the possibility of book matching with solid timber using sequential boards from the same log. These are two book matched Walnut boards,


When these are jointed together you get a superb panel that would make a fabulous table top or cabinet top with an almost invisible joint line,



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Once you've made the decision to move up to specialist timber yards there are other benefits you can look forward to. One is wider boards. The basic bread and butter yards like SL hardwoods with their flat sawn stock, will normally top out at about 300mm wide boards, they may have the occasional wider board in certain timbers like Oak, but 300mm is about as wide as you'll normally get, and furthermore you'll probably pay a premium even for that. With specialist, waney edged yards however the sky's the limit. Staying with American Black Walnut here are some beautiful waney edged boards that came from Tylers,


The board in the front is a clear 650mm wide, just enough to yield an entire computer desk top from a single board. The boards at the back are 14' long and 400mm wide, under the grime they're heavily rippled and Tylers had four of them, sequential from the same log. That's enough for a book matched 14 seater dining table.

Keep your eyes open in yards like Tylers or English Woodlands Timbers and you might find extraordinary boards like this heavily rippled ABW,


At the very least you'll have the option of buying unsteamed Black Walnut. Virtually all the American Black Walnut you'll find in a bread and butter yard like SL Hardwoods will be steamed. This blends in the sapwood and makes for a more uniform, homogenous product, again it's moving variable timber to being more like a commodity. That's all well and good, but steaming tends also tends to make ABW a bit flat and bland. Unsteamed ABW can deliver really sparkling grain like this,

Black Walnut Unsteamed.jpg

You'll find wastage will shoot up on a board like this because you'll have to cut away all the sap (and with Walnut you pay for sap, it's sold on a "sap no fault" basis), but isn't that a price worth paying for amazing timber like this?


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Well done Custard. A really useful post for us lesser mortals. Although I live n the North, I love visiting Yandles, which in wood yard terms is as good as it gets for me.
Even at more "standardised" yards you'll still have to be aware of some potential problems with ABW. I mentioned that Walnut is almost always sold on a "sap no fault" basis. A bit of sap on just one side of a board is something most of us could live with, but what if the best side of a board has thick bands of sap like this? Sorry I got the photos wrong, look at the end of the post! :oops:


As the small buyer the hard fact is you're that bit more likely to receive these kind of boards. You could try returning them, or explaining before hand that you won't accept sap on both sides, but it's something you need to be prepared for. It's another reason to select your boards in person, even if that means going to a yard like Surrey Timbers where there'll be a bit of premium for the privilege.

Indeed every timber has it's own unique pitfalls. Off the top of my head here are some of the others,

American Cherry. Excessive number of black resin pockets. Too sappy. English Cherry is a cheaper substitute, personally I like it, but be aware it's often field grown with wild grain that makes jointing boards together very difficult. Cherry ages beautifully, taking on a lovely patination after just a few years. It can be slightly blotchy to finish but time cures that. It's easy to work and kind on your tools. I would strongly recommend American Cherry for your first hardwood experiments, it's also a natural match for Shaker style projects. Cherry used to be called "poor man's Mahogany", but it's now a far more fashionable timber than Mahogany, plus it has the huge benefit of being a renewable, temperate zone timber, so no one will think you're Jack the Ripper for using it.

Oak. There's a bit of an epidemic of yellow stain at the moment, that's a drying fault from being rushed through kilning with inadequate air drying before hand. If you buy from a yard that does there own kilning (like Tylers) you won't get this, it's more of a problem in smaller yards that buy in ready kilned stock purely on price. Oak is often available graded, for furniture making don't skimp, you want the highest grade available. Oak is also one of the very few timbers where you can often specify quarter sawn even from a "standardised" yard. You may want to do this for the distinctive medullary rays you get with quarter sawn Oak. Be aware though that medullary rays come in all sorts of shapes and mixing them up within a single project can be a bit jarring. Personally I favour "spidery" rays like this,

Oak Q Sawn Spidery.jpg

Rather than "splodgy" rays like this, but this really is just a personal preference!

Oak Q Sawn Splodgy.jpg

Beech. Beech comes in two versions, steamed and unsteamed. personally I like the slightly pink tinge you get with steaming. But that's a personal choice, the important thing is to specify one or the other and then stick to it, mixing up the two in one project looks messy. Beech is one of the cheapest hardwoods, but it can quickly get a bit boring. It works well with mixed hardwood/plywood projects though.

Sweet Chestnut. Sweet Chestnut isn't as well known as it deserves to be. It's very similar to Oak except it's a bit paler and doesn't have medullary rays. It's also widely available and very affordable (as far as hardwoods go that is!), the reason it's affordable is commercial planters often include some Chestnut amongst Oak because it can be harvested much earlier so they can get some cash in before they pop their clogs, it's got much narrower sap bands so for any given tree diameter you get a higher yield than Oak. If you want to stick to traditional furniture making techniques you'd use Oak for your show faces and Sweet Chestnut as the secondary timber for backs, drawer sides, etc. Whatever you do don't buy Horse Chestnut if it's offered to you by a local tree surgeon, it's hopeless for furniture making.

Sycamore. Be very careful when buying Sycamore, most of it is fairly grey and often has sticker stains. The stuff to look out for is the bright white boards that are sometimes called "Arctic Sycamore". Buying bargain basement Sycamore sight unseen is just asking for trouble. Rippled Sycamore is probably the most widely available of the heavily figured timbers. There's normally some for sale in at least one of my local yards.

Ash. It's very common to find Ash with a pale brown staining, especially around the centre of the tree. It's sometimes sold as "Olive Ash", if you want a pale clean look then specify upfront that you don't want any Olive Ash, like Walnut Sap it's often sold as not being a fault. Ash isn't an easy timber to finish, it really needs grain filling and that's a bit trickier with a pale timber.

Maple. Maple has a surprising range of colour variation, from white to yellow to pink. They're all attractive in their own way, but you don't want to mix them up within a single project. Buy a bit extra per project and state you want a consistent colour match.

I'm sure there are lots of other things but it's time I had some dinner! Hopefully other people can chime in with their timber buying experiences.

Oops. I messed up the first photo. It should have been this one,



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what a great write up
thankyou for spending your time to make our experience easier to understand

thanks for the write up custard, I really want to try american cherry in particular, sounds like nice wood to work with
I second that!

Great write up Custard, thanks for continuing to contribute such worth while and insightful knowledge for all of us perusing this hobby with limited time or resources. You're a great help!

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Just my 2p.
Custard is SE-based. For us Midlanders, Whitmore's near Hinkley is the place to go for a wide range of good quality timber, like ABW and AC. You have to book an appointment if you want to select your own boards, and you will pay a premium for that service, because someone has to stand over you, move boards for you and wait for you to say yay or nay, but you will get top quality material to work with.
There is another Midlands provider, Sykes. I went there once for a board of Beluga. It isn't Beluga, but the proper name escapes me at the moment. Something beginning with B. The rotary-cut veneer is called Kevasingo. Someone will tell me what I have forgotten, I'm sure. The going rate was £60 a cube at the time, they charged me £90 because I was buying just one (fairly large, IMO) board. I didn't like that, not been back.
marcros":t2czvm94 said:

No more Bubinga by the way, in January of this year Bubinga (along with all Rosewoods including Cocobolo, Kingwood, and African Blackwood) went onto the CITES list. You'll find the odd bit still for sale in a few yards, but basically that's it. If you fancy some Wenge you'd best get your skates on, word is that's going to follow and in any case Wenge quality has gone right down in the past year or two.

Is this a bad thing? No, it's probably a very good thing. One way I've heard it put is this, if the Earth was 46 years old then we humans have been around for 4 hours and the industrial revolution happened just 1 minute ago, but in those 60 seconds over half of all the world's forests have been cut down. Ouch!

Bottom line is tropical timbers are yesterday's materials, very soon trying to sell anything made from a tropical timber will be like trying to sell something made from ivory or panda fur. Some of the coolest furniture makers I know are now exclusively using Douglas Fir and Hazel! That's probably going a bit far, but temperate zone timbers are definitely the way ahead.