Introduction: How to Find Free Hardwood & Turn It Into Lumber for Projects! (Maple, Oak, Walnut, Cherry & More)
Due to the high cost and low availability of materials where I live, it would be almost impossible for me to afford to purchase all of the materials for my DIY projects.
In this Instructable, I will show my process for getting free wood - from someone's trashed furniture, to ready-to-use lumber on my lumber rack - and it all starts with my bike.
Also, make sure you don't miss the last step, where I show my solutions for storing all of my scrap wood efficiently.
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Step 1: What You'll Need (Affiliate Links)
The tools I've used have changed over the years, and I'm sure they will continue to. In the past I used to carry almost everything home with me on a hand truck, however nowadays I prefer to carry tools with me, to take apart what I find on the spot, take what I need, and throw away the rest.
- Bosch impact driver (I started with hand tools, moved to a cordless drill, but an impact driver is infinitely stronger and faster)
- Japanese saw + replacement blades / Circular saw / Jigsaw with a DIY crosscut sled
- Homemade magnetic Japanese saw guide
- Flex shaft rotary tool
- Router & Flush trim bit
- Utility knife blades
- Locking pliers
- Needlenose pliers
- Speed square
- Bar clamps
- Bench vise
- Flat head screwdrivers
- Folding hand truck (I don't carry it with me, but I do take it if I need to carry something heavy)
- Proper safety equipment (Kit: the PPE I recommend if on a budget)
I also recommend that you check out what I call my "Ultimate Dumpster Diving Kit" which includes more tools that I take with me when biking, not all of which I used for scavenging wood.
Step 2: Scavenging...
In my area, most of the wood that is left out on curb for the garbage truck is particleboard, which I have virtually no use for. If I'll ever need a piece, I will probably be able to find what I need fairly quickly, so there's to reason for me to waste my precious storage space storing particleboard (or MDF, a nightmare to work with for that matter).
Unlike other sheet-goods, when I come across plywood, I usually take everything I can find, especially birch plywood. Plywood is fairly easy to work with, with the basic tools I own. Nowadays I often come across plywood whose plys seem to be glued together with a pink adhesive, and I stay away from it like the plague - it reeks of chemicals!
The vast majority of solid wood I find is pine, however I'm extremely sensitive to it, so unfortunately I can't use what I find. I made the mistake of using pine for one of my first woodworking projects several years ago, which caused me to sneeze non-stop for the following three days - no thank you!
The rest is hardwood, almost exclusively European Beech which is a beautiful wood, perhaps slightly harder than hard maple. Hard maple is my favorite wood (how can't you like tiger/curly maple?!), though I don't see it too often. I also rarely see oak, which means my neighbors may have a good taste in their furniture, I've never understood why oak appeals to people, mostly in the US.
I'm usually on the lookout for tables, beds, chairs, and sometimes also drawers. I don't have the ability to rip boards accurately, so I like to make sure I have a wide variety of different sized boards.
Step 3: Teardown!
The pictures above show two chairs that I found, and the largest amount of plywood I've ever found in a construction dumpster.
Most of the chairs I find usually have one or two mortise-and-tenon joints that are broken, and the rest still glued solidly, making separating them very difficult due to their strength. I've found the method I show in the fourth picture to work fairly well, when possible. Leverage is key.
Step 4: Trash or Keep?
Unfortunately, many people prefer elegant chairs, which are usually constructed from tapered and curved pieces of wood. Chairs can be a great source for wedges that I've used to split pieces of wood in the past. Other than that, they are just disappointing, especially if they're made with slots that assist in accounting for expansion and contraction due to weather changes.
Some chair seats are made of birch plywood, hiding under the cushions. It wasn't the case with this chair, but it's worth the check!
This is also a great opportunity to search for bugs and bug holes. I accidentally crack pieces of wood sometimes, and they are thrown straight into the trash along with everything else.
Step 5: Dump!
A year and a half later!
I believe something like that.
This is the amount of wood I was able to collect over the course of a year and a half
13 chairs, 5 drawers, 3 tables, and 2 chairs - not bad!
Step 6: Prepare for Processing
To prepare the lumber for processing, I go over every board very closely, pulling out all of the nails and staples, to make sure that I don't miss a single one. No misses so far!
I've found that a fantastic method for removing a stuck brad nail is to heat it up with a torch until it's red hot, which chars the wood that surrounds it, making it significantly easier to pull it out once it cools down.
If I'm still unable to remove one, I make sure to mark around it to ensure that I won't forget destroy a saw blade.
Step 7: Cut!
Like all of my other projects, I used my Japanese saw along with my homemade magnetic saw guide, which helps me make a 90° cut. If you're never used a Japanese saw, I highly recommend you get one, there is a world of a difference between a Japanese saw and a regular hardware store push saw in terms of cut speed and incredibly smooth cut quality, as long that it has a pistol-handle and not a straight round one that is very uncomfortable to hold - at least from my experience.
If I'm unable to hold the piece of wood with my left hand, I clamp it down to make sure it doesn't move, especially if I'm cutting several smaller pieces of wood at once, as shown in the second picture.
I used to not cut off mortises, tenons, and holes, but it saves me a lot of time to cut all of them off all at once, instead of during a project.
Step 8: Is There a Better Way to Cut?
After cutting maybe two dozen board with the Japanese saw, I thought all of the cuts would destroy the blade, and replacement saw blades are fairly expensive. I prefer to save money, of course.
First, I got all of the boards that were almost the same height, and placed them side to side. I used a longer piece of wood to clamp them down and guide my circular saw. My circular saw is really old, and the blade has over a millimeter of play, creating a lot of tearout and overall making inaccurate cuts - basically a piece of junk. I tried using my jigsaw, but it didn't work very well either. The wood didn't stay in place because of the vibrations, and it was much slower.
I should've placed cardboard in between the clamp to accommodate for the slight differences in thickness between the boards, it's possible that could have helped.
Step 9: Flex Shaft Experiment
I had several of the same boards, and I thought to try and cut only the tenons off, to save time and dull the blade less.
I placed all of them on the magnetic guide, but I wasn't able to cut off only the tenons without damaging other boards, so I was left with a 1mm (1/16") tenon on all of the boards.
I thought the best way to remove it was with my flex shaft rotary tool with a carbide burr. This worked fairly well, though it took forever because European Beech end grain is incredibly hard, it felt like a rock.
Overall, it was a big waste of time. My assumption that cutting all of the boards shown in previous steps would basically destroy the blade was completely wrong. Even after recutting all of the failed cuts with power tools, I could only feel that the blade became slightly duller after cutting so much hardwood, and that's very subjective - and that's great!
Step 10: Cut Off Dados (1)
I've been quite disappointed in the past to find something and take it apart, only to find that the wood has dados/slots going all across it, making it hard to use the wood for a project, since I don't have a table saw to cut rip off the dado.
So I decided to try something new. I used my Japanese saw and jigsaw to cut the slot, with the slot facing up, so the tearout created by the blade doesn't damage the finished side. I only make sure not to saw into either of the sides accidentally.
Step 11: Route Dados (2)
The second part of the process is to hide behind my workbench while turning this router which hasn't been turned on in over 20 years! If you look closely, you can see that I'm using a flush trim router bit that has a bearing that guides the bit and makes sure it doesn't dig into the wood. That way, I'm cutting off the remains of the dado, but using the straight sides of the dado as a reference.
The results aren't always perfectly straight, however I haven't practiced using a router much, but it's good enough for my projects that usually don't require very high tolerances.
Step 12: The Knife Trick!
I don't know how to sharpen a card scraper, or own a proper handle plane.
Instead of using sandpaper, I found that a sharp, new utility knife can scrape off wood, lacquer, or paint very fast.
A trick I found out accidentally is after scraping for 30-60 seconds, if I flip the over the blade, I get a new sharp edge on the other side, and I can continue doing this many times. I'm not sure if scraping the wood creates a burr or if that self sharpens, but it works, and creates less dust since it operates more like a scraper that created curls.
I've used this technique to finish my workbench top and I can't compare it to sandpaper in terms of speed, but can say if can leave a finish that's very smooth, equivalent of a high grit and a lot of manual work!
Step 13: Storage
I've found that separating my lumber into several different categories allows me to store a lot of wood without taking too much storage space. I like to separate small-average sized sheet goods, shorter pieces of wood, smaller scraps that I don't want to throw away, large sheet goods, and long strips and boards conveniently stored under my bed as shown in the last picture.
Some more thoughts:
- You may have noticed I haven't mentioned pallets, and that's because I don't use them for anything except campfires. They're usually made of splintered, broken, dirty, cheap, and sometimes poisonous wood, so I avoid them.
- I always wanted to build a jointer, but only had a flex shaft rotary tool, which would make the build. Now that I have a router, making a jointer shouldn't be too complicated, and I can use it to fix boards that don't look too good.
- If you have any tips you have regarding any of the steps shown in this Instructable, please let me know!
- If you're like me and love building your own tools, don't forget to check out The Ultimate Collection of DIY Workshop Tools, which contains dozens of Instructables on all sorts of homemade tools, perfect for your budget!
I read ALL comments, and reply to as many as I can, so make sure to leave your questions, suggestions, tips, tricks, and any other ideas in the comments below! - Thanks!
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