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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Not All Trees Are Created Equal
Recently, I got a call about a walnut tree which fell in a storm. The homeowner knew it was a walnut and gave me a call to see about doing something with it, hoping to sell it. I get these calls regularly, especially for walnuts, and I always follow up so I don’t miss the good ones.
Even though most of the calls are about walnuts, most of the walnuts aren’t much to talk about. I’ll ask questions about the diameter, where they and their tree live and why they took it down, and though these questions will get answered, the overwhelming theme is, “It’s a walnut”.
Well, just because it is a walnut doesn’t mean it is a good walnut. I have received plenty of calls where I never bothered to pick up the tree because I could tell that the tree wasn’t great and the owner was way too attached, and often, they want me to take down the tree.
I only pay for a few trees a year. I don’t really mill that many logs overall, and they are readily available just for the asking, so there isn’t much incentive for me to spend money on them (really, almost all of the logs I get are free). But, this one was different. It met all of my criteria for a tree to both spend the time and effort to retrieve it and to also pay the homeowner.
So, what makes a tree stand out from the rest and why is this one worth paying for?
First off, yes, it is walnut. You now have my attention. Species does matter and walnut is at the top of the food chain for our local trees here in the St. Louis area. For example, walnut currently sells for $12 bf. while other hardwoods like hard maple, white oak and cherry are in the $4-$7 bf. range. But that doesn’t make it a good tree, that just makes it worth a good close look.
Diameter is currently the biggest driver for me deciding how bad I need a log. The bigger the diameter, the more options there are and the more wood overall. I draw the line at 24″ in diameter on the skinny end of the log, inside the bark. Any smaller than that is a tree which I can easily find and usually procure without spending money. Though smaller logs do still have value, they don’t have enough value and I will not pay for a log under this size. The 24″ size gives me the option to make bookmatched dining room tables (usually 42″ wide) out of only two pieces. If we end up going to a three-piece table top, I only really need an 18″ diameter log and those are widely available at no cost. This walnut was over 24″ in diameter at 30′ from the ground, so it was the perfect size for what we do. Length isn’t usually a problem, but I do sometimes get calls about big diameter trees with very short trunks which branch off close to the ground. The longer the main trunk the better and this tree had a super long trunk.
Location is the second thing I ask about when discussing a tree because it affects so many aspects of the growth and my ability to process it. First off, the location affects the way the tree grows overall. A tree which grew in the open is usually short, wide and branchy. This one obviously, started its life with trees around it and reached up, producing a nice long trunk. I am cutting this tree into slabs, but it would also produce very nice, straight-grained, knot-free lumber.
Location also affects what is in the tree, specifically metal like nails, screws, hooks, chains and wire. Trees which grew in a bad neighborhood, in a small yard usually have a tough life and are full of problem-causing metal. This walnut spent its life in a nice, big front yard in a happy neighborhood on a street which I know has produced a lot of nice trees and shows no signs of metal.
Location also affects how easy it is to access. I get a lot of calls about trees at the bottom of a hill in a back yard with a little gate and no way to get to the log. This tree was in the level front yard right next to the driveway with nothing around it. Access couldn’t be easier.
Overall health of the tree and quality of the logs is the last thing I look at. In this tree I looked for scarring from lightning strikes, busted branches, possible hollow spots and rot. The roots showed a little bit of decay, which could have led to some hollowness in the bottom of the tree, but it was minimal and ended up not affecting the logs. There were some busted branches from the fall, but all of the main pieces showed no signs of breakage. It was entirely solid and sound. On walnuts, the speed of growth also affects how wide the sapwood (white outer layer of wood) is on the log. If it grows very slow, the sapwood may only be 1/4″ wide, while on super-fast-growing trees in a wet, wide open yard might have sapwood which is over 3″ wide. I’m looking for a good balance for live edge tabletops with the sapwood about 1″ to 1-1/2″ wide, and again, this tree was perfect.
Everything about this tree was as I would have specified and the fact that it was already down and most of the top cleaned up made my assessment easy. It was nice to be able to get a look at the cut branches at the top and the busted roots at the bottom to get an idea of the quality of the inside. I could have only had a better look at the inside of the log if it was cut to length, but I told the homeowner that I wanted to decide where to cut it and do that myself. Besides getting my chainsaw stuck and my crane giving up at the end, this experience and this tree was as good as it gets in my business.
We’re Moving: It’s Officially Official
After 10 years in St. Charles, MO we are moving a bit west to 821 Midpoint in O’fallon, MO. We started moving in earnest last week, and this past weekend I officially pulled the plug on the tools in the old shop. There is no turning back now! The new building is a 12 minute drive west of the old location on Highway 70. It is a nice stand-alone building which can easily be found by just Googling the address. No need to aimlessly wander around a giant building trying to find the wood shop buried in the back corner. We don’t have a sign yet at the new location (of course), but you won’t need it.
This Saturday will start our conversion to the new shop. By then, all of the wood and most of the slabs will be at the new location. So, if you are planning to visit on Saturday morning (open 8-12), please report to the new shop. From then on, 821 Midpoint will be our official location.
To kick it off, I put together an announcement video so you can see the outside of the shop (that was the day I got the keys) and our first moving video. Click on the video below to check out the progress.
Installing New French Doors
Installing doors isn’t the quickest and easiest thing to do. They need to fit well, with even gaps all around and they need to shut securely, but easily. It is a demanding task, which I decided to make even more so by adding a second door to the mix.
While challenging, you’ll get no complaints from me. I like this little finicky stuff almost as much as I like sanding. And, while that sounds like sarcasm, it is true. I really do like both. I find it rather relaxing to just chill out and get into the work. When I was working on these doors and shooting the video for it, I even thought about making a “slow” woodworking video, with the beautiful weather and the birds chirping and me just chiseling away. Maybe that will be for another video, when everyone is clamoring for me to slow down the action a bit and make the videos much longer (I expect that to happen on the 12th).
In the meantime, click on the link below to see my zen video on installing a set of mahogany french doors at regular speed.
Quartersawing a Large White Oak Log: Part 1
I spend a lot of time talking about quartersawn lumber with customers and have always wanted to get my thoughts about it into one place. Turns out, it is probably going to be in at least two places when I get done covering it. There is just too much to know and the more I try to explain it, the deeper in the weeds I get, and staying out of the weeds is not my forte.
Since I have spent over twenty years discussing it with customers, studying it on my own and generally just worrying about if I am producing the best quarter sawn lumber as efficiently as possible, I have come up with a lot of talking points. Luckily, for you, I am not going to get too deep into it until the second installment, when I finish producing the quarter sawn lumber.
In this first video, I was most excited to show how I get a log which won’t fit on the sawmill prepared for quartersawing and to get a chance to use my chainsaw (which I do whenever I can). Click the link below to see how I get the large logs ready to be milled.
Visiting Mueller Brothers Timber
I love visiting Mueller Brothers Timber in Old Monroe. It just feels right to me. I like the the guys that run the place and I like that it feels like I’m out in the country, even though I’m less than thirty minutes away from the shop. I visit there somewhat regularly just to see what is going on, look at logs and to purchase lumber. They run a big operation that I have written about before (click here to read more), but this time I decided to shoot a little video while I was there.
My main reason for visiting was to purchase some hard maple lumber for an upcoming project, since I don’t get hard maple logs, and therefore, hard maple lumber very often. While I was waiting for my lumber to be pulled, I took a look around the log yard to see if anything caught my eye (I don’t purchase logs very often – but I can be persuaded). I’m always amazed by the amount of logs that they have and this time they had even more than normal. I know I love to look around their sawmill and I thought you might too. Check out the video below to go on a quick tour with me.
Some quick notes:
The lumber bundles I am looking at are dry and available for sale, but they only sell by the bundle (usually in the 300+ bf. range). They move a lot of product and don’t sell in smaller retail amounts.
I mention cutting maple logs in the winter, which is desirable because the white (sap) wood of maple logs discolors and stains quickly and easily in warm weather. It is better to cut white woods in cooler weather because they decay or discolor more slowly.
I passed over the double-trunk white oak because I have a lot of white oak slabs and white oak is difficult to dry, especially when cut extra thick. Water doesn’t move readily in or out of white oak which makes the drying very slow and any attempt to speed the drying usually ends with the lumber splitting. Thick white oak can be dried effectively, just not quickly.
The Great Sweetgum Debate
As written by Scott’s “lovely wife”, Chris….
As with all families, many of our discussions revolve around trees. Wait, is that only in our house? Well, if you’re married to a “tree guy” like I am, many discussion do revolve around trees. One recurring conversation is about sweetgum trees. I love them! Yes, I’ve had sweetgum trees in our yard and know of the sweet gum balls. But my gosh, they are beautiful trees.
First, a bit about sweetgum trees for the uninitiated. They are native to the U.S. and Missouri. They are hardy, low-maintenance trees that currently have no major problems with disease. They are often planted in open areas, and make fantastic shade trees. They have beautiful dark green star shaped leaves. They flower in April-May and often drop little green “broccoli tops”. If you’ve seen them on the ground, you know what I’m talking about. They are most famous for their fruit which matures in the fall but doesn’t fall until winter or late winter. These seeds are the infamous spike balls that everyone hates. Yes, they are nearly indestructible and yes, they are hard to clean up and yes, they seem to fall over a period of months, so that you never get them all cleaned up.
But here’s why they are so magnificent. They are beautiful trees. They are large and green in the summer and provide wonderful shade, which is much needed in the heat of Missouri’s summers. Then, in the fall, they become amazing trees with the prettiest color changes to red, yellow, orange and even purple. Even Scott thinks they have the widest range of colors in the fall. To me they are the quintessential fall color. It actually pains me not to have one in our current yard, but there are many in our neighborhood, and I can’t wait each year to see them dazzle in the late autumn sun.
Now, if you’re a “tree guy” like Scott, they have no value. I know, how can that be, right? Well, he doesn’t seem fazed by their fall beauty and only focuses on their shortcomings. Obviously, the balls are an eyesore and backsore (get it? from raking and raking and raking). But, he values trees with great wood. Which, apparently, sweet gums around here don’t have, but according to my internet research, the wood has historically been used for cabinetry.
So….here’s Scott’s point of view, straight from the horse’s mouth/keyboard:
Why do I hate sweetgum trees and why don’t I mill them? Let me count the ways.
Way #1: Dumb, good-for-nothing spike balls. You can’t eat them, they drop continuously from fall through spring, and they are a pain to walk on. People complain about falling walnuts, but spike balls kick walnuts’ butts.
Way #2: They are messy in the spring too, dropping what we refer to as “broccoli tops”. The broccoli tops are the beginning of the reproductive cycle to make the dumb spike balls previously mentioned. Good-for-nothing broccoli tops, making more good-for-nothing spike balls, which make more good-for-nothing sweetgum trees. Don’t need any of ‘em.
Way #3: Open-grown, sweetgum trees are silly with branches. A long, clear sweetgum log might make 9’, with most of them barely making 7’. They can grow much taller and straighter in the woods, but the yard trees are short and stubby. And, there are almost no sweet gums in the woods around St. Louis, so the available logs are always the short and stubby variety.
Way #4: No customer has ever asked for sweetgum lumber or a beautiful sweetgum dining room table. Well, at least none of my customers have ever asked for sweetgum, so I have little reason to mill it. There are just too many better choices.
Way #5: Wicked crooked lumber. Sweetgum heartwood lumber dries alright (so, I hear), but the sapwood does not. Unfortunately, for the sweetgum trees and local sawyers, the short and stubby, open-grown trees are almost all sapwood, with only a hint of heartwood. This makes for some of the most crooked lumber imaginable. I got my introduction to the twisting of sweetgum, when I milled and dried some 4/4 sweetgum for flooring and all of the boards twisted, with some of them twisting almost 45 degrees. And, those were on the bottom of a stack with wood on them as high as the Bobcat could reach. Boards 6” wide and less, lifted up thousands of pounds. Incredible and noteworthy, but not in a good way.
I say, if a tree doesn’t produce something edible or at least some decent lumber, then we don’t need it. Trim it low and plant something else instead. We can get our firewood from other trees.
Don’t Forget the Chainsaw (mill)
I started milling lumber about 25 years ago with a chainsaw mill, which is just a chainsaw with an attachment to control the depth of cut. The simple device allowed me to consistently cut accurate lumber with a minimal arsenal of equipment. It was a great way for a guy who knew nothing about trees or logs or sawmilling to learn about producing lumber. And, even today, I still use a chainsaw mill (Lucas mill) to cut the live edge slabs which we sell at WunderWoods.
Customers are regularly impressed with the quality of the cut from the chainsaw mill, imagining that the chainsaw will necessarily make a terrible cut with a nasty surface finish, which it does not. As a matter of fact, the quality of the cut from a chainsaw mill is better than the bandsaw – it’s very flat and absent of dips and doodles (scientific term) associated with thin bandsaw blades. Don’t get me wrong, bandsaws can and do, cut just as well, but when they start to get dull or otherwise less than perfect, they will cut anything but flat. A chainsaw cut will remain flat as the chain dulls, it will just cut slower.
A chainsaw mill is commonly referred to as an “Alaskan mill” because of the brand name “Alaskan mill” attachment made by Grandberg International, the same way you might call any facial tissue a Kleenex, but it doesn’t need to be this exact type. As far as I am concerned, any mill which uses a chainsaw chain and bar is a chainsaw mill, no matter the setup.
The Alaskan mill is a simple metal frame, which attaches to the chainsaw bar and can be adjusted to change the depth of cut. It is so simple, in fact, that you could easily build one yourself. They have never been too expensive, so I think most people just opt to buy one. You have to set up two rails (many use a ladder) on top of the log to guide the first cut, but after that the Alaskan mill just rides on the previous cut. I am a fan of the Alaskan mill for its simplicity, and I have a warm place in my heart because it was my first mill. If you didn’t own a chainsaw and decided that you wanted to cut some lumber, you could be making your own lumber for about $500, for a small chainsaw and the Alaskan mill attachment.
I started with the Alaskan mill after reading an article about a father and son using one to cut logs in the woods. I thought it would be cool to cut my own lumber with a chainsaw, and I didn’t want to invest too much in the beginning because I didn’t have a source of logs. Plus, I didn’t own any land, wasn’t friends with any tree service guys and really had never even used a chainsaw before, so I wasn’t sure if it would take. The Alaskan mill promised me the ability to cut lumber anywhere and be able to do it with no heavy equipment – a small pickup truck was more than enough to get milling.
The Alaskan mill works just as advertised, but understand that it is not a production machine. The operator is the sole source of power, and as such, it isn’t an easy row to hoe. It would take me most of the day, by myself, to load up equipment, travel, set-up, mill one 20″ diameter x 8′ log, clean-up, load up equipment and lumber, and travel back home. That was fine with me at the time because I was young and I was tickled to end the day with more than 100 board feet of hardwood lumber. Using my simple logic, my equipment would be paid for in just a couple of logs.
Needless to say, this milling thing did take, and I kept on finding more logs and milling them. It didn’t take long for me to feel like I needed more production, so I moved up to a Lucas mill, but funny enough, not with a chainsaw slabbing attachment. I bought it only with the circular saw setup, which appeared to cut much faster. I then moved onto a bandsaw mill, then to a large circular mill, then back to a bandsaw mill, and only then back to the chainsaw mill attachment for the Lucas mill.
I always liked the Lucas mill and once wide, live-edge slabs started coming into style, it just made sense to use the Lucas with the chainsaw slabbing attachment to cut big logs. The mill I use now (a bigger Lucas mill) is a major upgrade to pushing a chainsaw through a log and really makes the process more enjoyable. I still have the noise of the engine and need to sharpen the saw quite often, but the sawdust and fumes aren’t directly in my face and I don’t have to work so hard to push the saw through the cut. The hardest part now is moving the slabs out of the way, since the Lucas mill can cut up to 60″ wide and they get quite heavy.
I was prompted to write this because even though I have upgraded to the Lucas mill for my sawmilling, I still do a lot of work with a chainsaw, and I want to remind or encourage everyone to not forget about their chainsaw as a means of milling. Don’t think that you need a “sawmill” to produce high-quality lumber or that if you have a “sawmill” that you no longer need your chainsaw. You won’t get dazzling production numbers, but you can still be milling at almost any time with just a chainsaw. I am reminded of this all of the time when I see posts from others of the big and beautiful wood they have cut, just by taking their chainsaw mill to the tree.
Even if I am not using it for the actual milling, there are plenty of times where the chainsaw still comes into play, whether freehand or on some type of mill, and I am still amazed by the simplicity of it all. I use the chainsaw to rough mill mantels which we haul out of tough locations by hand and to cut large logs into quarters for further processing on the sawmill.
Every time I do some sort of work with the chainsaw, especially if it is part of the milling process, I always think back to my early days and appreciate what it can do. I think I really like the idea of knowing that if I needed to, maybe if I was stranded on an island full of large trees (and plenty of gas), I could mill everything I needed with just a chainsaw – maybe one with an attachment, but still, just a chainsaw.
Feel free to send me a photo of your chainsaw milling, and I will be glad to post it here with a link. I am sure everyone would love to see what is possible with a chainsaw/chainsaw mill.
I Love My Truck
When I purchased my 1977 Chevy C-60 in 1998, I was looking for a truck to haul logs for my infant sawmill business and not much more. All I knew was that I didn’t want to spend much money and as long as it ran, I would be a happy owner. I only spent a few thousand dollars to buy it and a few more to make sure it ran and that the crane wouldn’t leak hydraulic fluid everywhere.
Since then, I have used my truck to haul an amazing array of logs, from small firewood pieces to giants which would only fit one wide across the bed. Not that I haven’t busted it along the way, but I have never had a problem with carrying lots of weight. Even when a loader operator dropped a 4’ diameter by 13’ long sycamore log onto the bed from a few feet in the air, it has always bounced back and asked for more.
I bought the truck well-used, so it has never been much of a looker, but it didn’t bother me. And, though I thought I might one day “fix it up”, I never did because I knew I would just mess it up again. After all, I used it as a work truck, not a show truck.
What it lacks in looks it makes up for in versatility and drivability. I feel as comfortable driving that truck as I do any pickup truck and love that I can use the crane to load almost anything. Even if the logs are extra big, I can simply pick up one end of the log at a time and work it on to the bed. I also love that the truck isn’t too big, so I can fit into tight spots and I don’t feel like I am going to destroy the place when I pull in.
My C-60, which is now 40 years old, recently blew the engine. When it happened I had a tough decision to make — put more money in the truck which I loved but was in very rough shape or put the same money towards another truck. I couldn’t decide, so I did both. I purchased the exact same truck, but with only 50,000 miles and in much better shape. (I love farm auctions!) It is a 1977 Chevy C-60, also in its original red, with original everything and only one door ding. I am currently working on moving the bed and crane from my original C-60 to my new C-60 and plan to use it for another 40 years.
Big Sycamore Will Make Big Slabs
Recently, I salvaged a huge sycamore log that I plan to cut into natural-edge slab table tops. In the video below I show how I got the log from a warehouse construction site. After this, it will sit for a year or so to give the sapwood some time to spalt (begin to decay), which will add a lot of visual interest to this giant. Now it is time to cut some logs from last year (or the year before).