Timber! Selecting Quality Wood for Your Projects

Timber! Selecting Quality Wood for Your Projects

Johnny Williams
Aug 10, 2009

Picking wood for furniture construction is part practical, part personal. Experts advise choosing a board based solely on its condition and workability, but if you're a brazen amateur like me, your gut reaction to its appearance will likely determine a purchase. Each species of wood exhibits distinct grain patterns, or "figure," — learning to showcase these natural aesthetics in your furniture can be daunting. But once you understand the basic guidelines to selecting workable lumber, you'll be free to figure out the figure.

A word to the wood-wise — if you're planning to build furniture, don't buy your material at Lowe's or Home Depot. Instead, locate a nearby lumberyard that sells furniture grade wood and handpick your pieces. Furniture makers typically use hardwoods over softwoods, opting for "firsts and seconds" or FAS timber, common parlance for the top grade woods.

In the lumberyard, the length and width of boards is measured in inches, while thickness follows a separate system. One-inch-thick stock is labeled 4/4, two-inch stock 8/4 and so on. You'll end up buying your wood by the "board foot," a designation of its cubic content. One board foot equals 144 cubic inches — follow this equation to calculate your lumber in board feet: (Length x width x thickness)/144. Unless you're Rain Man, you might want to take a calculator along with you.

Lumber selection takes a lifetime to master, so I asked Brian Reid, my furniture sensai here at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship for additional advice:

• Only shop where you can pick your own boards — take your time and tell the sales person to get lost!
• Start searching for the flattest boards e.g. those with the least about of warp (see bowing, cupping and twisting), but remember that defects have their virtues too — it's just up to you to find them
• Wood movement affects quarter-sawn wood less than flatsawn
• Air-dried boards offer more dramatic natural figure versus kiln-dried, but can be difficult to find
• Always buy more timber than you need and don't think about the price — it's small compared to the hours you'll be working it

Now as we say on campus, go forth and build!

(Image: 1 Johnny Williams)

Johnny is currently blogging his experience as a student at Maine's Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. You can keep track of his projects on his blog, Woodlearner.

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