I really believe that one of the reasons most of us stick to building from dimensional lumber at the local box stores for so long is that it is intimidating to find stock elsewhere. The wood at the home center is hit or miss, but it’s not hard to find and you don’t look too much like a neophyte digging around in the stacks. There’s also generally someone there who knows less than you about the stock (sometimes an employee) and so it’s something of a confidence builder.
Going to a local sawmill is a completely different experience.
I’m an off-the-charts introvert and the prospect of cold calling a local sawmill or lumber dealer has been enough to keep me in the home center stacks for the most part, but a year ago I ventured into a local business that reclaims old barns/houses/etc as hardwood flooring. The stock is not what you might find at a dedicated mill, but the guys there are nice and they knew me from other places (it’s a small town).
After not finding any promising leads on walnut within a three hour driving radius I decided to give them a call. They had just finished a run of beautiful walnut floors, but said they had some stock left in the pile so I dropped in.
When they pulled out the pile of “walnut” to the daylight it looked lighter than any walnut I’ve ever worked, but I’ve seen some light walnut and it was all rough cut, so I started digging through the pile pulling out about 60 board feet of wide, clear stock. Some of it was all the way up to 13″ wide! It had been an ordeal for the guys to move skids and get to this wood so I felt sort of obligated to buy as much as I could.
As I said it was all in the rough, but it was a good price so I brought it home and unloaded it. I took a plane to it hoping to see that characteristic walnut grain. What I saw was the “mahogany of the mountains” – black cherry. One swipe of the plane on the end grain told the whole story.
To be fair I think it was an honest mistake on everyone’s part and they said they would take the wood back, but I can tell you that I felt wholly deflated at that moment. I wanted to run to the southern yellow pine aisle at my local home store just for comfort.
But I’m not writing this for pity. I’m writing it to share some dynamics that might have been helpful to know going into the situation.
1.) Study up on the characteristics of the wood you’re looking to buy. Take a block plane with you and check that end grain.
2.) The above is important because there is an unseen power dynamic at play in this situation. If you don’t have a lot of experience in wood yards you feel like a novice dealing with supposed experts in their field. It’s not hard to sort of feel intimidated when they’re saying it’s the wood you’re looking for and you’re not quite sure.
3.) Don’t be afraid to call it what it is and walk away. I didn’t want to walk away after all the work to get that wood out from the pile. Again, an unseen dynamic lead me to convince myself it was what it wasn’t.
In the end, I came home with 60 board feet of what turns out to be beautiful, 4/4 and 5/4 black cherry. You could do worse, but when you are building for someone else and just spent your wood budget on something that is not what the customer wants, all of your enthusiasm ends up in the pit of your stomach for a little while. I’ve decided that I’ll probably just keep this for other projects. Maybe I’ll make a prototype of one of those ADB bookcases for myself. Maybe I’ll build a black cherry English tool chest. Who knows?
What I do know is that I’m back on the road today for walnut, but this time, I’ve seen better pictures of the stock.