Part 3: Build your own furniture and save money – pause – NOT!
Am I the only one that convinced myself building my own furniture would save money? Maybe I knew all along that isn’t exactly true, but it helps convince the wife that it’s a good idea. Who’s with me?
We all know from experience that this isn’t a cheap hobby. I usually spend more on wood alone – not to mention new tools – than it would cost to buy whatever I’m building. In the end, it’s about the journey and knowing that you’ve built a one-of-a-kind that is hopefully of better quality than you’ll find at any furniture store. I keep all of my receipts from every project just in case I need to file a claim if my furniture is damaged or lost in one of my frequent moves. Frankly, though, I never add them all up at the end of a project for fear of figuring out just how much I really spent. This project will be no exception.
My wife and I have the proverbial “champagne taste on a beer budget.” What that usually means on a project is that I more or less buy the supplies in installments. I’ll order up my veneer, glue, etc and get the plywood substrate when I have enough cash left over from paying the bills. Next paycheck, maybe I can go get some hardwood or order a tool or two that I’ll need.
So the first thing I ordered was the koa veneer. I wanted to snatch up my favorite lot from veneersupplies.com before someone beat me to it. I also ordered some curly etimoe as a backer veneer because Joe had a lot labeled as a “practice lot” for a great price that I couldn’t pass up (damn those champagne tastes). Once that arrived, I went to a local cabinet shop and bought some baltic birch ply and got started on veneering. That process is for another blog entry, though. I guess I never took a picture of all of the veneer before I started making the panels. This is the earliest picture I have:
Right now I’m stationed in Germany. That makes it interesting to get what I want and need. After living here for nearly a year, I finally found a hardwood supplier that won’t turn their nose up at me if I want less than a cubic meter of wood at a time (a cubic meter is about 430 board feet), but has a decent selection of quality kiln-dried lumber. The place is Wickert, in Landau. They are 45 minutes away from my home, but the drive to get over there is beautiful. I go through their equivalent of a national forest on some narrow winding roads that for the most part aren’t even lined. The drive back with my little SUV overloaded with lumber is another story. Those winding roads can be nerve-wracking!
As you can imagine, American black walnut is not as affordable over here as it is in the states – let alone in California. All things considered (to include how weak the dollar is compared to the euro) I paid something on the order of $11 per board foot for 10/4 walnut. Another thing is that the lumber is milled differently here than in the states. They saw a tree through-and-through (flat sawn) and sell the boles directly to you with natural edges and without sawing out the pith. So I paid over $11/b.f. for the pith and sapwood as well. They are stacked in the same order as they came off the tree. This makes grain and color matching a non-issue, so long as you can afford to buy all that you need and fit it in your car in one trip. The problem is that the wastage factor when buying lumber this way is considerably higher. For an example, all of the walnut pictured below was not even enough for the bed alone (there are three 10/4 slabs and two 8/4 slabs). I had to go back for two more 10/4 slabs.
Like I said, I’m afraid to add up the receipts!
You can also see the curly maple I bought from the same supplier (on a different trip) in the picture above. That was a major score. This hardwood supplier has three buildings about the size of aircraft hangars that are full of mostly hardwoods. The place is HUGE. The place is organized more or less by species. If they get any figured wood, they will sell that to instrument makers or specialty suppliers at a premium. Even if I could find one of those suppliers or instrument makers, they wouldn’t even talk to me – not just because of the language barrier either.
On my first trip to Wickert, I was planning on buying my walnut or a cheaper substitute, like chechen (no luck there). While I was waiting for their English-speaking employee to show up, I was wandering around the warehouse (actually more or less just huge open air pavilions) and I found the maple. The 10/4 maple boles were 18 feet long and stacked at least 15 feet high. At about eye level, I saw a couple of boards that were a little rippled where the bark had fallen away. This is a telltale sign that it’s probably curly. These were the only few boards I could see with those signs in the entire place – one tree in maybe 30 in that stack and the stack next to it. When the salesman got there, and as we were walking around trying to find chechen (he didn’t know what I was talking about) I asked him where the figured maple was, and he told me about how they do business (no figured woods there). Right then I decided that I was taking home that curly maple that day instead of my walnut or chechen.
I showed him the two boards I wanted and he immediately groaned and mumbled something in German – probably something unfavorable about what a pain in the butt American hobbyists are. The boards were, after all, buried halfway down the stack. He argued with me that just because the board is rippled on the outside it doesn’t necessarily mean you have curly maple. I agreed (not wholeheartedly) and told him that if they weren’t curly I would buy four instead of two just to make it worth his while to dig them out for me. Hopefully the two boards I bought will be enough to get my nightstands and dresser done as well. I’m pretty sure they will be.
The Quest for Purpleheart:
I asked the guy at Wickert about purpleheart as well and got nothing but a blank stare. I showed him purpleheart in my copy of “The Real Wood Bible” and he told me he had never seen such a wood before. I also asked at the cabinet shop where I get my plywood. I got pretty much the same response. I finally gave up and ordered 10 board feet of 8/4 purpleheart from a hardwood supplier I used to use all the time when I lived in the Baltimore/D.C. area. Shipping wasn’t cheap, but what else was I going to do? When the purpleheart arrived, I was TDY in Garmisch, Germany for some training. I had been talking to the German guy that runs the woodshop on the army post there and had asked him about purpleheart. Germans have never heard of the stuff. I guess that’s not too surprising since its origins are South America. I had my wife cut off a small piece and bring it down to me when she came to visit. I was curious if it had any figure, so I wanted to take it over to the wood shop and plane off a bit of the roughness to get a look. When the German craftsman saw it, it blew his mind. Once I had seen what I wanted to see, I gave it to him. I’m not going to use all of it, and this was only a 5×5” piece. You would think I gave him a piece of Noah’s Ark or something.
Here’s the kicker. When I went to the woodshop on base where I do all of my milling (left my big tools in storage when I moved here from the ‘states) there was a guy there with loads of purpleheart. He got it FREE at an army garrison 3 hours from here. It seems that one of the deploying units there was stripping it from the beds of their big trucks because it’s just too heavy. There is apparently hundreds and hundreds of board feet there just wasting away, but you have to be in the right career field to even have access to this installation. He offered to take me along on his next trip and all I would have to do is help him cut it up into small enough pieces to fit into his truck. I would get half of the haul when we got back here. I gave him my phone number. Even though I have all the purpleheart I need for this project, how could I turn down more for FREE? That was months ago. I asked about him at the wood shop the other day. He has now retired and moved back to the states. I never heard from him.