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What to Look for When Purchasing Used Lumber

I buy what I would call “used” lumber (even though it may not have been actually used) on a somewhat regular basis. Most of my purchases have come from barn finds because I like to buy in larger quantities and lots of barns are sitting out there with big stacks of lumber in them. I make sure to only purchase if the price is right because I have learned the hard way that the lumber is never as good as everyone thinks it is or wants it to be. And, there are many reasons for this:

  1. Not cut from high-grade logs: The lumber is cut from whatever logs were available at the time. There may have been some high-grade logs (from the bottom of the tree) in the mix, but there were definitely also low-grade logs (from higher up in the tree). This means the lumber will have more knots and other defects. In the hardwood industry, logs are sorted by grade. Low-grade logs are milled to make low-grade products, like railroad ties and pallets. They aren’t even milled at grade sawmills.
  2. Wood is more precious to the owner: Wood that should be trimmed off was kept simply because they weren’t ready to let it go and it didn’t hurt anything to keep it.
  3. People involved in the lumber production are not professionally trained: Usually the owner of the logs and the sawyer they employeed do not know enough about sawmilling to produce the highest quality lumber. Many sawmill owners do not understand how to cut for grade lumber, and even if they do, they are often given direction from the log owner to maximize yield and not grade. Beyond that, cutting for grade involves flipping the log in the sawmill many times, requiring more work and more time, so those steps are often skipped.
  4. Lumber hidden in a stack is always lower grade than everyone remembers: After the lumber is cut and tucked into a stack, it looks higher grade. It’s too easy to forget about defects and only remember the perfect boards.
  5. Lumber is cut thin and inconsistent: Often (almost always) barn find lumber is cut a little thin and inconsistent. People ask for 1″ thick lumber and the sawyer delivers, even though commercially produced 1″ thick (4/4) lumber is cut at 1-1/16″ to 1-1/8″ thick. Lumber rough cut right at 1″ thick often doesn’t dry, joint flat and plane entirely to 3/4″ or more in thickness. As well as being cut thin, the lumber is usually cut inconsistently – a result of inexperienced sawyers, poor-performing equipment and no real need to worry about consistency of cutting. It’s not easy (and more work) to make sure all of the lumber coming off of a sawmill is the same thickness from end to end of each and every board.
  6. Best boards already used: This one is self-explanatory and obvious. You would use the best boards first too. It just makes sense that the lumber which remains may not be the best boards out of a log.

All of these reasons explain why the lumber won’t be as good as you would hope, but it is also helpful to see examples of what makes lower grade lumber. Click on the video link to see a recent batch of walnut I purchased and what I found in the stack. And, remember when purchasing used lumber, just don’t pay too much.

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