As a woodworker, I use a lot of wood. Sometimes I go out and buy new material for a specific project, but over the past few years I’ve acquired a large stockpile of my own. Now I can build most projects with wood I have on hand, as long as I’m flexible about the design. This has helped me save a lot of money, especially when lumber prices reach the levels they’re at right now.
When many people first start woodworking, they head to the nearest big box store to buy what they need. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s rarely going to get you the best price, or the best quality wood. To build a nice collection and save money, learn to look outside of the hardware store.
1. Find a local lumber mill
Avoid the markup at retail chains by going straight to the lumber mill or a dedicated hardwood dealer. If there’s one in the area, you can find great deals on all kinds of wood. My local mill is routinely $1 or more cheaper per board foot than the closest big box store, and typically has higher-quality wood sourced from a wider species selection. They can also order or cut just about any species and size I want.
Another benefit of a local lumber mill is that you can buy rough-sawn lumber instead of lumber surfaced (smoothed) on all four sides like you typically get at a hardware store. This means more work on your part to mill the wood flat, but it’s usually quite a bit cheaper. And if you have the right tools, like a jointer and a planer, milling lumber doesn’t take all that long.
2. Buy from firewood dealers or tree removers
Many companies that work with trees, at least in my area, have portable lumber mills. If you let them know you’re looking for lumber, they can often cut you some slabs of any local tree they take down. These companies also often post recently cut wood slabs for sale on their website or local Facebook and Craigslist groups.
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There are two drawbacks to sourcing wood this way. The first is that the lumber is even rougher than rough-sawn lumber from a mill, and will take more work to square up. The second, and more time-consuming issue, is that fresh wood is very wet, and you’ll need to dry it yourself.
The easiest—and slowest—way to remove moisture from fresh wood is to paint the ends of the board and then let it sit for a year or two. If you don’t have that kind of time, you can build a kiln to speed the process up. Or you might be able to rent space in the kiln of your local lumber yard. Purchasing newly cut slabs is a significant time investment, but I once bought two 8-foot pieces of white oak for $50 from a firewood processor, and I’ve used that wood in over $1,000 worth of furniture. Those boards would have cost me $250 or more at my lumber mill. I just had to store them for a year and a half before they were usable.
3. Scour internet marketplaces
This is the most hit-or-miss option, but it’s also the best way to secure a ridiculous deal. Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist are both full of people trying to get rid of wood. A lot of it is, quite honestly, garbage: leftover construction lumber that doesn’t have a lot of value in woodworking. But once or twice a year you’ll come across a deal that can’t be beat. Two years ago, I found a cabinetmaker who was shutting down. He sold me all of the wood he had on hand—thousands of board feet—for $300: maple, cherry, walnut, padauk, ipe, beech, oak, and all manner of plywood. I’ve made no fewer than 20 cutting boards, most of the projects I’ve written about for PopSci have come from that wood, and I’ve still got a ton more.
A year after that score, I came across another cabinetmaker who was selling his remaining wood stock for $1,000, and that worked out to about $2 a board foot—an amazing price. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough room to store that much wood, so I had to pass. Deals are out there, if you’re patient enough to look for them.
4. Be flexible and look for deals at the big box store
I go to Home Depot and Lowe’s. You go to Home Depot and Lowe’s. That’s not going to change, because they’re convenient, accessible, and you probably have to go there for glue, or plants, or ice melt, or something else anyway. So when you do find yourself trudging their expansive aisles, there are a few ways to save some money.
First, buy more than you need. Last time I bought plywood, I only needed two quarter-sheets. But two quarter-sheets were almost as much as a full one, so I just bought the bigger piece and now have extra plywood to use for a future project. If you need six 12-inch boards, don’t buy six 12-inch boards. Buy one 7- or 8-foot board and cut it down—it’s probably cheaper per board foot. Wider wood is also usually cheaper per board foot, so if you need 3-inch wide boards, buy an 8-inch wide one and rip it down rather than paying extra for the narrower pieces. Double-check that the math works on the day you’re in the store, but typically buying longer or wider lumber will be cheaper overall.
You should also ask one of the lumber associates if they have a cast-offs pile. This is wood that’s cracked, damaged, or bowed in some way—enough that they can’t sell it at full price. But if you can work around those defects, you might be able to pick up some wood at significant discounts. It’s a gamble, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Above all, be flexible. If you go in looking for one particular type and size of wood, you’re stuck paying whatever the price is that day. However, if you can consider different choices while you’re in store, you might be able to get a better price by making a picture frame out of 2-inch-wide oak instead of 2-inch-wide maple like you’d originally planned.