Have you ever been at a lumberyard where they sell hardwood lumber? Not the “big box” home centers, but those whose speciality is lumber. If you have, you’re probably familiar with people pulling out pieces of lumber from the stacks and inspecting them. They turn the board over, inspect each side, usually they hold one end and gaze down the length of the board, turn it over and gaze down again. This is all part of their wood selection process for the project they’re working on.
The process of wood selection actually begins before the trip to the lumberyard. It starts by deciding upon the project to be worked on. This can be a pre-drawn up plan out of a book, magazine or obtained online. Or, the box maker/woodworker designs the project from scratch and now has the proportions and dimensions he/she needs. (I’m going to assume that the reader is a beginner and has chosen a pre-drawn project). So, let’s start our discussion here.
Two Strategies for Obtaining Your Box Making Lumber
1. Buy Dimensioned Lumber
Yes, you can buy your boards already dimensioned and planed. This is the easiest way for beginners to get their wood. When you buy lumber this way, it is called S4S (surfaced 4 sides) if it is planed on all four sides. Planed on the two wide surfaces and it is S2S (surfaced 2 sides) and so forth until you’re buying rough-cut lumber (fresh from the sawmill with no surfacing).
Beginning box makers usually buy lumber that is already dimensioned and surfaced (planed). What this means is that you will get your boards that are already planed to their final thickness, are smooth on both faces and have at least one edge ripped and straight. That edge should be square with the board and jointed (smoothed).
The nice thing about dimensioned lumber for the beginning box maker or woodworker is that the boards are thickness planed to the right dimension (3/8, 1/2, 5/8, etc), and you have at least one straight, smooth and squared edge to cut from when making your box. This means that you won’t need to buy the extra woodworking equipment (bandsaw, jointer, and thickness planer), to dimension your own boards in the shop.
2. Buy Rough Lumber
Because I dimension my own wood, I usually buy what is known as rough lumber. The wood comes in thicknesses of 1 inch or more. Measurements are named in 1/4 inch increments. Thus a 4/4 board is 1 inch thick. An 8/4 board is 1 1/2 inch thick… If you were to buy a board that is 5/4, it will actually be about 1 1/8 inches thick if you buy it as S2S (two planed surfaces). The difference is the wood taken off during the thickness planing operation. A S1S board with only one surface planed will be in-between 1 1/8 and 1 1/4 inch thick. Rough lumber does not always have a planed edge.
Rough lumber costs less. Lumber is purchased in terms of board feet. To find the board feet in a piece of lumber, one multiplies the thickness X width X length (in inches), divided by 12 and that equals the number of board feet. A one board foot piece of wood can come in many sizes depending on its length, thickness and width.
Lumber is also priced by the wood species. At the time of this writing, I have been paying $7.89 per board foot for maple, just over $8 for walnut and just bought a Bacote board (an exotic wood) for $38.25/board foot and another exotic, Xericote I priced at $71/bdft.
If you are to dimension the rough lumber yourself, just remember that you will need a thicker board to allow for the kerf of the bandsaw blade in the re-sawing and for the amount of wood taken off in the thickness planing.
Dimensioned lumber will cost more. The costs will vary by how many sides are planed smooth. I figure I pay 20 – 40% more for dimensioned lumber. A lot of that depends on the species and the grade (not enough room here to define).
I dimension my own boards by re-sawing 5/4 boards or thicker into the thin boards I need for making my boxes. These I then thickness plane and edge the boards to what I need. This way, I get boards that are straight, flat and square for my box making purposes. For those people wanting to dimension their own lumber, you will need a bandsaw, jointer, thickness planer and of course, a tablesaw. I will go into dimensioning with more details in a future post.
Where to Obtain Lumber for Making Wooden Boxes
Hopefully, you have a lumberyard in your area. If you’re buying dimensional lumber, a reputable lumberyard will supply boards in the 6 – 8% moisture range. Boards in that range are properly kiln-dried. You should look for boards that are as straight as possible with little or no warping, crooking, bowing or cupping. With rough lumber this isn’t as important as some of these problems can be taken care of when you dimension the lumber to the boards you will be working with.
When you have no lumberyard in your area you can find lumber for sale in mail order catalogs or online. Don’t hesitate to use these even if you can buy lumber locally. Even with a local supplier, they may not sell exotic hardwoods or native wood species that are curled, burled, spalted or bird’s-eyed. If you plan to use veneer in your wood boxes, you may have to look through these sources as your suppliers. If they’re reputable, most mail order or online suppliers will allow for return/refund or exchange if they don’t meet your expectations or have defects.
Back to the beginning of this article… If you have been to a lumberyard and seen buyers looking at pieces of wood the way I described, hopefully, after reading the above, you know that they’re checking for warped, cupped, bowed crooked boards not to buy and looking for those straight, near perfect boards to buy… assuming the straight board has the wood grain pattern they’re looking for.