How to Get Cheap or Free Hardwood Lumber

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Introduction: How to Get Cheap or Free Hardwood Lumber

About: Tim Anderson is the author of the "Heirloom Technology" column in Make Magazine. He is co-founder of www.zcorp.com, manufacturers of "3D Printer" output devices. His detailed drawings of traditional Pacific...

Here's how to buy new lumber in bundles for less than firewood. This seems to work best for hardwoods, cabinetmaker type stuff. This is how I got the wood for these nice shelves and this human-powered hydrofoil and many othe projects.

Construction grade lumber, seems there's no bottom end to that market, and no way to insult the customer with a product too inferior. Fine hardwoods seem to be another matter. There's some with problems the vendors can't stand to sell or discard.

Go to a lumberyard that has an owner or manager. Find that person and ask them if they have any bundles they want to get rid of cheap. Possibly he'll give you a look of recognition. When I did that he had plenty. He sold me some bundles for what he paid minus a random factor. Some were "throw me a twenty".

So he forklifted his distressed bundles on my truck's lumber rack and bottomed my springs out a few times for a few twenties. He's a good businessman and maximizes inventory turns. He wants me gone quickly cuz his partners slept through that class.

For instance this bundle of ash with some beetles eating it. I don't care about the bugs because they'll die as soon as I seal the wood and cut off their air supply. Or I can freeze the wood and kill them that way.
Also a couple of bundles of "rustic" cherry for the cost of firewood. A customer had returned them for being too rustic (spits, knots, and rotted spots). But actually only the top layers were bad. So then I'm making container shelves from nice ash and cherry because it's cheaper than plywood. The materials themselves are so good these shelves will be bringing someone joy and materials for projects for many lifetimes after I'm gone.

Now that the lumberman knows I can make wood disappear, he's happy to give me more good deals. It's the start of a beautiful relationship.

P.s. Do you see any beetles in this photo? Only some of the boards had them...

Step 1: Forklift Lessons

I get back to the tower. Some new interns need a forklift lesson.
So I show them some really virtuoso forklift handling.

Step 2: About That Lumber Rack

I got the lumber rack for used for $30 which is less than the pipe would have cost.
This is a nice rack. The rear crossbars drop into brackets in a really handy way.
When I got it It was way too big for my truck, which was perfect.
I cut sections out of it with an abrasive saw and welded it back together so it fits my little truck perfectly, better than any commercial rack. Commercial models are taller than necessary so they'll fit more models of truck.
Look up the relative size of your truck bed and the wreck with a rack that you're shopping at here.

You might wonder why some racks have a dip in the side pipes. That's so they'll be lower than the crossbars. It makes it a lot easier for the forklift to pull out after lowering something onto the rack.
That's a useful feature to have.

If you don't have a welder already, go build one now.

Step 3: "Stick" Your Stack

Here's the right way to stack your wood.
It's called "sticking". Put little sticks between each layer of wood.
That encourages airflow and drying.
If you stack boards on boards water will wick in between and stay there. Your wood will rot, mold and get eaten by slugs and bugs. Stack your lumber in the shade if possible or it will crack and warp.

This stack has a plywood board on top to shed rain. It's on a wheeled dolly which was handy for moving it until I got it into the perfect spot.

Step 4: Deal With Bugs

After you stick your wood the bugs will start dying off.
They need air and water. Sticking the wood lets it dry out, reducing the water. Slugs and snails will disappear.
If you seal the wood all inhabitants die cuz it cuts off the air. Epoxy is good for this. Linseed oil has worked well for me also.

Throwing your wood in sea water until it sinks is a good trick to try.
But don't leave it there. Borers such as gribble and teredo only live in salt water. They die when the board is put in fresh water or taken out into the air.

The live beetles in these shelf brackets gave me fantasies that the insects would chew through them, dropping my axe collection on my head.
Then Jesse Hensel told me a trick his dad used. Just put the wood in the freezer and the insects will die. Or maybe the trick was really "do nothing" since they live in Fairbanks Alaska and everything there is a freezer.

Step 5: Bundle Covers and Pallets

This company in southern Maine makes wine racks. They buy 20 foot long bundles of plantation-grown tropical hardwood from Malaysia. Supposedly it's "rainforest-safe" The bundles come wrapped top and bottom with same-species boards with odd dimensions to protect the rest. The pallets included straight-grained boards 20 feet long.

I stopped and asked about the pile. The manager was delighted. He couldn't use this in his factory because it was too thin or a slightly different color etc. He'd been wishing someone would use it for something. He was going to have to pay someone to cut it up and burn it. Then he showed me more piles where he'd saved the best boards from previous burns and gave me that too.

I piled my truck (the previous "Ugly Truckling") with enough wood to almost do a wheelie.
A lot of my instructables projects were made using that wood.

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    77 Comments

    The idea of freezing insects can only go so far. It's pretty obvious, or should be that many insects survive very well in sub zero temperatures. Go just about anywhere that gets below zero in the winter during the summer months and you'll probably find plenty of bugs crawling, flying and biting things. They don't all take the bus south for the winter. They're quite adaptable to all kinds of weather. I'm not sure about the rest of you, but my freezer at home is usually filled with food and not lumber. Sure, it would be great if we all had a big walkin freezer in our backyards, but most of us don't and even if we did it cost a bundle to keep it running all year round..

    Ah, isn't the wood effectively 'quarantined' to prevent spread of the ash borer beetle? And aren't you risking a of spread of the infestation? I don't have any direct knowledge of the laws involved, etc. But I wouldn't transport that stuff across any state lines.

    18 replies

    gmoon is right. in michigan it is illegal to transport ash for any distance. the emerald ash borer is thought to have come in from asia onboard freight ships docked in chicago. infected wood was transported mostly to lower michigan where the infestion spread and has effectively killed all the ash trees in that part of the state. a large effort has been made to cut down ash trees above a certain latitude to prevent the beetle from spreading. seriously bad news. especially if you're a major league baseball player and can't buy a nice ash bat because there aren't any trees left. well, that was more than i expected to write, but work is slow and boring right now, so hope all enjoyed the science lesson. :)

    user

    how did an Asian freight ship get to Chicago?

    Ship goes through Panama up east coast to St Lawrence seaway through the Great Lakes to Cubstown

    Seriously? The St. Lawrence Seaway, of course.

    Anyway, all a foreign species "vector" needs is place to hide (usually crate or pallet wood) and transportation--a ship from Asia to California, then a train or truck to the midwest...

    partially right. He tells you how to kill the bugs. Freeze them. Or seal them in with polyurethane.

    user

    Wrong. You can't kill borers by "sealing them in" with polyurethane. It is crap information like this that helps spread these and other pests. Wood borers are even hard to kill in a wood drying kiln. Freezing is a joke as to kill all the stages... egg, larval and adult, you would have to bring the interior of the wood down to about minus-30°F and hold it there for a while. Up to TWO WEEKS for some species. There are lyctid, anobiid, bostrichid, and cerambycid beetles, just to name a few, that are capable of damaging wood. Each has a different life-cycle and some can remain in the larval stage (where they do the most damage) for up to 15 years. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. THINKING you know something when you do not is even more dangerous. Tom

    So, I know this is an old post; but, here's my $0.02 worth (and that's inflation!):

    1. Cold will kill pests -- if it is cold enough for long enough (the "enough" part varies by pest and wood species). Advantages: relatively easy & minimal wood damage; disadvantages may take several YEARS to be 100% effective. You can often make it more effective by soaking the wood first -- water expands when it freezes and a "wet bug is a dead bug."

    2. Heat will kill pests -- if it is hot enough for long enough (the
    "enough" part varies by pest and wood species). Advantages: relatively easy and relatively quick;
    disadvantages may do more damage to the wood (color & chemical changes) than to the pest.

    3. Chemicals will kill pests -- if they are exposed to a concentration that is high enough for long enough (the
    "enough" part varies by pest and wood species). Advantages: relatively easy & extremely effective;
    disadvantages may be expensive; may make wood unusable for intended purpose(s).

    4. And here's my favorite -- Microwaves will kill pests. Because they heat from the "inside out" and depend upon water content, the noxious little critters are often quite susceptible because they are inside the wood and usually more "wet" than the wood. Advantages: Quick, Easy, Cheap, and Effective; disadvantages: severe size limitations (look for one of the old GE Ranges w/built-in microwave), may "toast" (color & texture change) parts of your wood, may set it on fire -- using the grubs as "tinder" :-)

    They also kill many "pathogens" as well -- which is an added bonus.



    Amen brother! Don't think the poster meant any harm but sometimes we think we know everything when we find out new things all of the time. There is a very good reason that insects have been around thousands/millions of years (always evolving) . Though something might seem so simple it's easy to maintain it's not always the case. One measly old cell seems simple enough right? So why have molds including fungi man handled our living areas for all of these years? Adaptability. Molds don't even need oxygen and that may be true for some insects, I'm not an entomologist. One thing I know is that single celled organisms are the first species of life on this planet. Another thing I know is that it doesn't matter what your education is or what you think you know, on the job experience outweighs anything you can learn in a book and that is because the writer of said book hasn't experienced everything out in the real world according to his so called expertise. The only thing I ask is ponder what I've said for a moment. Though education doesn't hurt how do we know our teacher is educating us properly? It's not very hard, reason and instinct goes a long way. If you have trouble with instinct forget about selling it to others, how comfortable would you be building a crib for YOUR baby with that beetle infestation?

    Heat the wood thoughouly between 130 and 160 for 24 hours. That'll kill the bugs.

    user

    Stop ruining our enjoyment of free stuff elspecially wood!

    Thanks for the info! What other tricks do you have for wood pests? Some of this wood had termites, I saw them crawling around, like tiny white ants. Tasty nutty white ants. No idea what beetles it might have. If you cut the wood to expose the burrows and let the wood sit, they push sawdust out of some of the tunnels. That isn't happening with the wood that I froze or built things out of and sealed/oiled, Doctrine from boatbuilders is epoxy coating stops everything because it's a great encapsulant and stops air/water.

    user

    As posted by the member "zieak" below this comment, fumigation is the best technique, and is the only practical technique for large amounts of lumber. The burrows you see are usually caused by the larval stage of the beetle, they actually bore out into the ope when they are morphing into the adult stage. Then they mate, lay eggs in (mostly) hardwoods, then die. They are commonly called "Powderpost Beetles" because when they finally bore out, there is a bit of sawdust like material pushed out ahead of them.... hence the name Powderpost ... but there are many species that fall under that common name. And in some species, the adults cause damage too. Techniques that work with some species fail to have any effect at all on others. Epoxy drastically slows moisture transfer, but does not stop it, and will not prevent a beetle larvae from boring outward through it. Polyurethane will not even slow them down. Limited population density of the infested wood you are finding may be the reason you have some anecdotal success with short term freezing and coating the wood you are using... not every inch of every plank contains larvae. But sooner or later, you will be introducing these pests into your home if you keep relying on wood finishes and short freeze cycles to kill them. Tom

    What about vacuum to maybe 0.9 bar for a while?

    0.7 bar would be better,and drcrash's vacuum can go down to near 0 bar.

    A fumigation would probably work with some species. Wrap your stickered pile with plastic and bomb it then seal it closed. Let sit for a few weeks and you'll have some pest resistant wood for a while. I might let that breathe for a long time before cutting or sanding it also. Just an idea. I had a shelf fungus that i etched a design into. A year later an insect burrowed out of the thing making at least two holes in the face of it. I put the whole think in a gallon zip lock bag and then in the freezer for a few weeks and i did not have problems with it for years afterward.

    So why was the lumber yard holding these pieces of wood then? Shouldn't they be destroyed by burning them then? Just asking, and going off of what the author said to do.

    A mill could stick them in a kiln and kill whatever is living in there that way. I saw the numbers a while back (temperature and time) required to make your wood sterile (at least as far as insects go) but I don't remember what they were off the top of my head. Lumber yards don't have a kiln. The response really depends on what the boards are infested with. It's probably NOT something exotic and rare that is going to wreak havok on the trees of North America but rather things like termites and powder post beetles that are already pretty much everywhere.