Selecting wood for your project

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Blog entry by huff posted 03-25-2013 03:13 PM 2152 reads 0 times favorited 10 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I recently read a comment made by a beginning woodworker that made me think about how many times I heard this exact sentiment stated over and over by many woodworkers over the years and it still gets a reaction from me. Have you ever heard someone or maybe even yourself say: I’m going to build my project with cheap lumber because I’d hate to screw up or ruin an expensive piece of wood.

I know this statement is usually based on the fact that we feel we don’t have the woodworking experience to warrant using expensive wood to build a project, that we may mess up and then we wasted a good piece of wood for nothing. I’ve seen this excuse used with woodworkers that have actually been building for awhile but still lack the confidence to spend some money to buy beautiful lumber instead of shelving boards to build a project.

So let me make something perfectly clear before continuing; there is no right or wrong answer for this, but there are definitely two totally different ways of thinking about choosing lumber for a project (especially in the beginning). I’ve always been on the opposite side of the fence with this one. I’ve always felt that if I allowed myself to think that way, then I was giving myself an excuse to fail or screw up.

This started very early for me, in fact when I was in 9th grade shop class. We were to design and draw a set of plans for a project we would build later in the school year in wood shop. I drew a set of plans for a shelf unit to hang on the wall with 3 small drawers along the bottom. Later when I started wood shop, my instructor ask me what type wood I was going to make it from. We had a choice of pine, poplar or a wood called obeece.(looks a lot like Mahogany). Most of the other students where building their projects with poplar because it was cheap and easy to work with. Nope, not me, I decided I wanted to work with the obeece. I really liked the looks of the wood and since nobody else was using it, I had the best selection to pick from. It was more expensive then either the pine or poplar and I believe my teacher even tried to talk me out of it since this was really my first serious woodworking project, but I had no intention of failing and I was going to give it my best shot not to mess up or ruin any of the wood.
Here’s the moral of the story; You can’t make a silk purse out of a sows ear! The project turned out great because I took my time and made sure I thought out each process of building before I cut anything. At the end, I was very proud of my project and my Mom loved it.

Remember I said I built that project when I was in 9th grade, well I’m 63 years old now and when my Mom passed away this past October, I took that shelf down from her den and it’s now in my home. (and I’m still proud of it!).
I never regretted building it with expensive wood, but I would have kicked my ass if I had spent all that time and effort and built it with some cheap wood. I’m just saying…...Don’t let the lack of confidence make you choose what lumber you build a project with, but let it motivate you to do the very best you can and you’ll probably surprise yourself.

Over the years, I’ve realized there are a lot of reasons we may choose a certain wood for a particular project. It may be for strength, durability, color, beauty and yes, even the cost factor, but let’s hope that’s because of other reasons then just the lack of confidence in our abilities.

What else is important when choosing your lumber for a project? Selection, quality, variety and the ability to hand select my own lumber are all important factors for me. The big box stores don’t give you much choice when it comes to different species of hardwoods. Your hobbyist woodworker stores like Woodcraft may give you a little more variety of hardwoods, but your selection in each species is usually pretty limited and you do pay a premium for their lumber.

It will take some searching and time to find a real lumber yard that carries a good selection of hardwoods, exotic woods and sheet goods, but it’s well worth the effort. That’s why I’ve always enjoyed buying lumber from the Hardwood Store in Gibsonville, NC. When I first started woodworking, one of the hardest things I had to learn was where to buy lumber and supplies. Finding a reputable lumber dealer should be one of your first priorities if you plan on doing much woodworking at all, even as a hobbyist.

When I’m selecting lumber for a project, I’m looking for a number of things from each board. I want as much consistency in color from one board to the other, I’m looking at grain pattern and/or figure. I’m not real particular with width, as long as it’s not ridiculously narrow or way too wide. I’ll forgive a little warp, twist or bow if it’s got great color or grain pattern. It’s it’s not too bad, I’ve learned to work around some defects. Speaking of which, even if a board has a bad spot right in the middle of it, if the rest of the board has the color and grain I’m looking for I’ll consider it. One thing I’ve learned over the years is to buy a little more lumber then you might have figured in your plans. If I figured I need 90 to 100 bd. ft. of Cherry to build a project, I will probably pick out 115 to 125 bd ft. just to be on the safe side.

I would much rather have a little lumber left over at the end of a project, then have to try to squeeze some scrape lumber into my project to finish it or even worse, having to go get more lumber to even finish the project. If I have 10, 15 or even 25 bd ft. of lumber left over from one project, you can bet your bottom dollar it will get put to good use down the road. It’s always handy to have a piece or two of different hardwoods available at any given time.

Once I select my lumber and get it back to the shop, I start the selection process all over again. I like to lay out all my lumber so I can see all the boards at once and select which boards I’m going to use for each part of the project. For example; if my project has a lot of raised panel doors and drawer fronts like a set of kitchen cabinets or even a large wall unit or home entertainment center, I would pick out the lumber I want to use for the panels since that will be making the biggest statement when looking at the front of the project. I want the most consistent color and grain pattern for those so when everything is built the wood flows nicely from one door or drawer front to another and one cabinet to another. Next I’ll pick out the lumber for the stiles and rails for the doors trying to keep color as close as possible to the lumber I picked out for the panels and drawer fronts. The grain pattern won’t be quite as important for these since they will only be a few inches wide and usually have a profile around the edge, so the grain doesn’t show up as much. Next would be the stiles and rails for the cabinets and finally moldings, etc. I will even mark each board with chalk so I can keep track during the building process.
Another thing I will do and I’m sure a lot of shops won’t do because it’s not the most effective way to use your lumber, but if I find a board that I really like the grain pattern in the middle, but the rest of the board is just so so, I’ve been known to take that piece right out of the middle of a board so I can use it for a door panel or something that I feel the grain pattern will highlight the best. I can always use the rest of the board for something small and insuffinicant elsewhere. Sometimes not the best use of wood, but as long as I get the look I’m looking for, then it’s worth it. I don’t waste wood, just selectively use it elsewhere.

That brings me back to what I said earlier about sometimes buying a board that may be a little warped or twisted simply because the color and grain is what I’m looking for. If it’s not too bad, then a lot of times you can either straighten it out when you get to the shop or work around it. Example: I always cut my long stiles (whether it’s for a door or cabinet front) from the flattest, straightest boards I have. A lot of times, the rails are so short that you can work around a board that has a small amount of bow or warp to it. That’s why I like to select the different lengths because I would much rather work the bow or warp out of a shorter board then trying to work it out in a 8 or 10 ft. board first and then cut it down to shorter lengths anyway, besides, if the board has much bow or twist then you will end up having to take way too much off from a long board to get it flat.

Also going back to what I mentioned earlier about buying more lumber then the project may call for gives me a chance to pick out a board or two that is really different then anything else in the pile. I’ve found some really awesome boards in the middle of a bundle of lumber. There may be only one board like it, so it’s almost impossible to use it in a bigger project, but I love adding something like that to my order just to have for making a special box or an accent piece.( for the really fun projects).

I realize most of the projects I’ve built have been large and requires a larger quanity of lumber then maybe what you would normally use doing a project or two as a hobbyist, but I’ve also built hundreds of small projects and I like to be just as fussy about picking my lumber for those also.

I’ll finish by challenging you to try this if you are a beginning woodworker and have been a little intimidated by using more expensive lumber on a project. I would challenge you to pick a very small project (maybe a small box) and buy a really nice piece of lumber and build it for a friend or loved one. Take your time, keep it simple and let the beauty of the wood make the statement. It will make you feel good and I’ll guarantee they will love it.

-- John @

10 comments so far

View KelvinGrove's profile


1896 posts in 1881 days

#1 posted 03-25-2013 04:12 PM

Hear! Hear!!!

I think there is a place for “the cheap stuff”! I know I use it a lot. Since I have started getting more serious about this as a hobby I have learned three things. First, writing out your own work plan forces you to think a project through from start to finish. It helps eliminate the “dang it, I should have drilled a hole right there 4 steps ago” moments. This has not eliminated but greatly reduced my “messing it up”. The other thing I have discovered is that if I don’t know how to do something it is better to practice it on the cheap stuff with the understanding that I am skill building, not creating. No, I don’t really need a jig that is put together with hand cut dovetails but then again I am not going to hang the jig on the wall. And when I do use the jig to do the project that I will be hanging on the wall it will look better because I took the time to learn. Third, I now have a better understanding of what a friend of mine meant when he said “anyone who does not have enough nerve to take a circular saw to a $5,000.00 pile of lumber probably does not have enough nerve to own their own home anyway!

Go forth! Make Saw Dust!!! Have fun!

-- Tim P. Calhoun GA. If traffic is passing you on the right, YOU ARE IN THE WRONG DAMN LANE.

View shopmania's profile


701 posts in 3151 days

#2 posted 03-25-2013 04:38 PM

Amen Huff! Well said!

-- Tim, Myrtle Beach, Just one more tool, that's all I need! :)

View huff's profile


2828 posts in 3254 days

#3 posted 03-25-2013 04:45 PM

Hey Tim,

How’s everything in Myrtle Beach? I’m missing the beach!!! It’s snowing here!

-- John @

View Karson's profile


35111 posts in 4369 days

#4 posted 03-25-2013 04:46 PM

Great words for all to live by.

If you are tackling a very complex joint or project. Practising on something cheaper can also have it’s play off. I’ve seen LJ’ers on this site say that they made a chair out of cheap wood so that they had the practice to make 8 of them.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Southern Delaware soon moving to Virginia †

View scarpenter002's profile


605 posts in 3874 days

#5 posted 03-25-2013 05:12 PM

Preach on Huff!!

Very nice writeup and well thought out. Thanks for your encouraging words.

-- Scott in Texas

View Joe Lyddon's profile

Joe Lyddon

10056 posts in 4021 days

#6 posted 03-25-2013 05:49 PM

I really never thought much about the various kinds of wood & cost when I was a kid… I didn’t have to pay for it and I didn’t really KNOW the details.

Over the years, not really “woodworking”, I’d just get some plywood and do what I wanted (which was not anything fancy)... and the cost / type of wood wasn’t thought about… It was The Easiest Way to get something done.

Now, when I retired, went onto a fixed lower income, and I became more interested in true “woodworking”, I was really SHOCKED to see what the cost of wood was! For the first time in my life! ...

If I wanted to do ANYTHING with wood, I’d have to figure a way to get wood without BUYING it… like old furniture, etc. being thrown away on Trash day… and using old Pallet wood…

My first project was a portable kitchen Island piece… I used pallet wood, scrap 2×4’s from a crappy work bench that I tore apart in the garage… I ended up having to BUY some wood to finish-up the project… I went for PRICE! ... I got some Poplar… It was fun to work with & I really liked working with it… I finished the Island base, still don’t have a top & drawer done… just laid some plywood on for a top… It’s usable… I Painted it! LOL

Ever since, my first choice of wood has been Poplar unless the project OBVIOUSLY had to be something else…

I have a friend that I also get scraps from which helps a lot.

I have used White Oak for chairs & a Tool Tote… and Walnut for a couple of Malloof low back dining chairs I’m in the process of making (the most money I’ve spent for wood in my life!).

I will be making a BBQ cart soon… and will use White Oak…

Other than that, if I can use Poplar, I will… Primarily due to the cost… I have used dyes & stains to get Poplar to look like I want it to look… I like it… It’s fun to work with.

So, that is the way I decide what wood I’m going to use for a project… LOL
... real simple…

-- Have Fun! Joe Lyddon - Alta Loma, CA USA - Home: ... My Small Gallery:"

View Roz's profile


1699 posts in 3755 days

#7 posted 03-25-2013 06:21 PM

I myself have said that, and then when the project was done thought how much nicer it would have been if made of another wood. I have also used cheaper materials out of necessity and there have been times when I was glad I did not use better material because the project was quickly done. Now I spend a good deal of time selecting the lumber that goes into my projects.
I don’t figure materials too closely and like you I usually have some left over. The left over bits don’t go to waste as some project will come along that the left over lumber finds its way into.

I do like to try to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. I can’t help myself, I want get all the good I can from a piece of lumber and sometimes wind up making a lot more work for myself as a result. I have used boards that I should have passed over. In the end it usually all works out well.

Now days I have an ample supply of good hardwoods to work with; but there was a time when I had to rely on the local hardware store for my lumber.
Anyone need a used TV cabinet made of shelving material?

-- Terry Roswell, L.A. (Lower Alabama) "Life is what happens to you when you are making other plans."

View JoeinGa's profile


7735 posts in 1976 days

#8 posted 03-25-2013 06:25 PM

Interesting ideas… One of the things that always struck me is when someone says they built a (whatever) out of “cheap pine (or God forbid… MDF) , because they didn’t want to screw up some expensive wood”. Then in the next breath they’re saying how nice it came out and they’re really pleased with it.

I’ve always wondered “So did you go back and REMAKE that (whatever) out of expensive wood? Or you just gonna be happy with what you’ve got?”

I dont ever recall someone saying “I liked how this thing turned out in the cheap wood so much that I threw it in the trash and REMADE it from (insert expensive wood of choice here).”

-- Perform A Random Act Of Kindness Today ... Pay It Forward

View Roger's profile


20923 posts in 2773 days

#9 posted 03-26-2013 12:20 AM

I hear ya Huff. Nice vent. I personally do what a good brother o mine told me long ago: “if you mess up, it’s ok, it’s just wood, grab another piece”

-- Roger from KY. Work/Play/Travel Safe. Keep your dust collector fed.

View KelvinGrove's profile


1896 posts in 1881 days

#10 posted 03-26-2013 02:04 AM

joein, I am going to build a humidor for my brother in law. The majority will be red oak that came from his dads garage after he passed away. That makes it priceless in a sense. By the time I am done I will have a nearly identical spline joint box with inlay string and initials made from pine to keep my safety glasses in.

-- Tim P. Calhoun GA. If traffic is passing you on the right, YOU ARE IN THE WRONG DAMN LANE.

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