Buy Sawmill Hardwood and $ave

Your guide for a successful fi rst trip 

Consultant: Larry Osborn

When you visit a home center to purchase hardwood, more than likely you’ll encounter limited quantities, limited species, and through-the-roof pricing. In some cases, you’re paying for that shiny cellophane wrapper. Before you sell your tools and steer toward a different hobby, you need to check out the benefits of shopping at a sawmill.

While some mills service only the commercial building industry, make pallets, or ship woods overseas, many gladly sell to the local woodworker. Here is where you’ll find great variety and huge savings. If the special lingo and ways in which sawmills sell hardwood have kept you at bay, let us help you shop like a pro.

First things first: finding a sawmill

While your local yellow pages will yield results when you look under “Sawmills” or “Lumber-Retail,” members of local woodworking clubs, woodworking friends, or woodworking specialty stores may serve as better sources for locating a sawmill. Other sources: your state’s department of natural resources, conservation, or forestry; a university extension service; or a forestry or wood science department. If you’re lucky, one of them publishes a sawmill directory arranged by county or region with phone numbers and notations such as type of mill, species cut, and presence of a kiln (it may be available online as a downloadable PDF). An Internet search for “hardwood lumber mills,” “rough-sawn lumber,” and “veneer mills” is yet another good approach.

Note, too, that sawmills come in all sizes, from one-man operations to large mills. With the advent of inexpensively built solar kilns and portable bandsaw mills, many small operations sell lumber directly to woodworkers, but they may or may not be listed in a directory, and the wood may not be kiln-dried. Find owners/operators near you by calling portable mill manufacturers such as Wood-Mizer, (800) 553-0182; Granberg, (800) 233-0499; or Cook’s Saw Manufacturing, (800) 473-4804.

First contact: what to ask

Once you discover one or more local sawmills, call them up and ask the following questions:

• Do you sell direct, and if so, do you sell in limited quantities or require a minimum order?

• What species do you sell, and in what grades and prices?

• Is your wood air-dried, kiln-dried, or both? What are the price differences?

• Can I sort through a stack to select boards, or will I need to place an order in a specific grade and pick it up at an agreed upon time?

• Can I buy boards from the same log?

In a phone call to Haessly Hardwood Lumber Company in Marietta, Ohio (which we randomly selected), we learned, for instance, that the mill does sell direct with no quantity limitation. Woods include red and white oak, hard and soft maple, cherry, walnut, ash, hickory, beech, sassafras, and sycamore in thicknesses ranging from 4/4 to 8/4 for some species and in a range of grades from FAS to #1, # 2, and #3 Common. (See “Sawmill Lumber Thicknesses” and “Lumber Grades at a Glance.”) That’s above and beyond what you’ll find at your local big-box store. By going this route, you essentially cut out the middle man. And the really good news? Prices for kiln-dried hardwood stock undercut the big-box stores by 50% or more!

Lumber Grades At A Glance

Domestic hardwood lumber found at sawmills meets different quality levels or grades as specified by the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA). The basis for this grading is the number and size of defect-free clear cuttings in a board, as summarized below. Thickness is not a consideration, though with some species worm holes, gum pockets, and stain are acceptable.

FAS (First & Seconds). This premium grade represents the finest lumber yield in a log. Generally, the minimum size board is 6" wide by 8' long which yields a minimum of 831/3% clear cuttings on its poorest face. 

F1F (FAS One Face). The best face grades as clear FAS; the worst, as #1 common, containing some knots.

Selects. Close to a FAS board. A Select board must be a minimum of 4" wide and 6' long and yield a minimum of 831/3% clear cuttings, but only on one face with #1 common on the worst face.

#1 Common. An economical choice for furniture that requires moderate lengths and narrower widths. A #1 board must be a minimum of 3" wide and 4' long and yield 662/3% clear cuttings on the worst face. Expect some mineral streaks, splitting, wane, knots, and tool marks (in rough-sawn).

#2 Common. This grade allows many defects, including sound and unsound knots, pith (the unstable center), shakes (splits between growth rings), tool marks, wane, and checks (splits), if they don’t affect strength. Minimum board size: 3" wide and 4' long. Each board must yield a minimum 50% usable, but not defect-free wood.

#3 Common. Not suitable for woodworking due to number of defects and low yield of usable wood.

Mill talk made easy

The contrast between the big-box home centers and a sawmill requires explaining. When you go to a big-box store, you’ll likely find kiln-dried red oak and poplar planed or surfaced on two sides in 3/4"-thickness (nominally referred to as 1" thick) in standard widths that include 1×2, 1×3, 1×4, 1×6, 1×8, and 1×12. Lengths extend to 12', but you can have boards cut to shorter lengths upon request. All of it is edged to remove wane.

At sawmills, rough stock comes in random lengths and widths and in several nominal 1/4" thicknesses, such as 4/4 (“four/quarters” or 1"), 5/4 (11/4"), 6/4 (11/2"), 8/4 (2"), and so on. These thicknesses, though, are designated and the board footage calculated before drying and surfacing. You pay retail for the original green thickness, though what you actually get in dry surfaced-two-sides (S2S) hardwood is shown in the chart on the previous page. The point is you can save money by buying full-thickness rough-sawn stock and then plane it yourself. For those of you who have a thickness planer and jointer, consider yourselves in the winner’s circle. Even if you buy surfaced sawmill boards you save.

Lumber grades also require getting used to. Typically, big-box stores and wood specialty retailers offer only the top grades of hardwood boards—FAS and F1F (one FAS face). However, depending on your project, you may only need #1 Common. More good news: You’ll find all grades at a sawmill. See “Lumber Grades at Glance” for an understanding of the quality differences found in sawmill wood. Once you know this, you’ll know exactly what to ask for.

Grade quality at sawmills runs the gamut from First and Seconds (the best) to #3 Common (the worst).

 What to bring to the sawmill: 1) moisture meter; 2) tape; 3) block plane; 4) calculator; 5) gloves; and 6) pad and pencil.

At the sawmill: what you need to succeed

For starters, you’ll need a truck or trailer to haul home the wood you buy. Sawmills don’t do small-load, local deliveries. Include lots of line or cargo straps to secure the load and work gloves to handle rough-sawn stock and avoid splinters. If the load extends beyond the truck or trailer, tack a red flag to the end, so folks behind you can keep a safe distance.

Next, have in mind exactly what wood you need—the species, thickness, grade, and board feet. (Note that one board foot equals a 1"-thick piece of wood that measures 12×12"). If building a magazine project, bring the cut list and cutting diagram.

How about the wood’s condition—are you set up to plane rough-sawn stock? Next, decide whether or not you want kiln- or air-dried stock. If you’re unsure about the wood’s state of seasoning, tote a moisture meter, like Wagner’s Digital  Moisture Meter (Woodcraft #143611), to check for dryness. 

Ideally, you want hardwood in the 6-8% moisture range for furniture. When buying figured wood or quartersawn stock at a sawmill, use a block plane to shave the rough-sawn surface to determine the degree of character underneath as shown above. Splash on water for an even better view of  the grain and color.

Lastly, don’t forget to check on the seller’s preferred payment method before you leave home. Cash may be preferred over a credit card. With that, good luck and happy shopping! 

Special Thanks

A special thank-you is in order for Norman (Jack) Haessly of Haessly Hardwood Lumber in Marietta, Ohio, who opened up to the magazine staff and offered valuable input for this story.

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