Woodworking for Beginners Part 9

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This is a section from A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects, which is available on Amazon. Over the next month, you will be able to read the entire book, and I hope that you like it enough to get tour own copy. Enjoy. 

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Exotic Wood Species

woodworking-for-beginners-part-9Exotic really depends on where you live, though most of the Tropical and African woods are considered in the exotic category. These are the wood types that have bold colors, high densities, and look nothing like what most domestic hardwoods look like.

The striking difference is what makes them popular, as well as the fact that most people don’t even know they exist.

If you live on another continent than North America and Europe, your version of exotic may be Oak or Maple. The trees that Americans and Europeans deem exotic might be just firewood to you, while our every day lumber may be very unique and interesting.

The term exotic hardwood really does depend on where you live, but in most cases it just refers to wood that is from another place.

As you learn about wood, learning about the exotics is important too. There are lots of different wood species that are sold as exotic, and they can take a bland project over the top with just the look of the wood.

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For example, if you are making a wooden hand tool, using Oak or Ash is a great choice for stability, not for beauty. If you use Bocote or Bubinga instead, you get all the stability plus genuine beauty.

That sets the project apart from others of the same style, and other than wood choice the construction process is the same. If you choose the right type of wood, your project can actually look far more interesting even though the process for making it does not get any more difficult.

If you live North America or Europe, exotic hardwood is going to refer to the different wood species that come from Africa and the Tropics. They are in most cases boldly colored, and fun to work with.

Make sure to spend a little time in the woodworking store getting to know the exotics and how you can introduce them into your woodworking.

A good short list to start looking at for most woodworking projects is Bubinga, Padauk, Goncalo Alves, Wenge, Bocote, and Purple Heart. These are all beautiful pieces of wood, and can make a plain woodworking project take on a whole new look and life.

It’s amazing how wood choice can make such a difference. Learn about your exotics, and you will always have a very colorful pallet to work with. The more you know about wood, the more choice you have.

Naming a Board

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In order to understand some of the terms that are coming up, it’s important to understand what the different areas of a board are called.

This way, you will understand what you need to look for when buying wood, and how you tell a particular cut from another.

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On a given board, typically the largest two surfaces are the faces. If you envision a board that is three feet long, one foot wide, and an inch thick, the one foot by three foot side is the face. There is one on each side, making two of the six surfaces faces.

There are also two edges, and on that same board, the edges would be three feet long and one inch thick. The edges run in the same direction as the faces, which is the same direction that the grain travels.

Finally, there are two ends to every board, and they would be the one foot by one inch surfaces of the fictional board in the example. The ends of the board are always where the end grain is located, which makes the ends look slightly different than other surfaces.

If someone asks you to look at the faces of a board, they will typically always be the largest two surfaces out of the six, and they will be opposite each other.

When someone refers to the edges, they are typically the longest two, and the grain of the board runs parallel to them. The ends are the only two surfaces left, and they are typically the smallest, with the wood looking a little different.

There are going to be exceptions to what was just explained, but they are rare, and for the most part you now understand the few terms that you need to know about the surfaces on a board.

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Once you understand the surface names, you can use them to determine the cut, which will help you as you select pieces to build with.

Grain Orientation

The grain of a piece of wood is referred to as the way that the lines run through the piece. There are several different types of cut, but for the most of us we only need to know a few of them.

As you learn more about wood, understanding how to read and identify grain direction can help you select pieces for your projects.

The most common type of cut in wood is called a flat saw, which is also the most economical for the mill, resulting in the least waste. This is where the log is cut in long slices, starting from one end and working down to the other.

Each slab is flat, and the grain in the faces of the boards looks wavy and circular in some cases. Also, on the ends of the board, the lines are flat and parallel to the faces.

The next type of cut is called quarter sawn, which happens when the grain lines on the faces of the board appear to be really straight from end to end. Also, the grain lines in the ends of the boards are perpendicular to the faces, so they run up and down.

This is not a very economical way for mills to cut their logs, so in most cases they charge more for the pieces. In other cases, mills that flat saw their logs will remove the few pieces from the center of the log (which end up being quarter sawn by default) and hold them aside to sell at a different rate.

Lastly, for the needs of most workers the third and final type of cut is somewhere in between a flat saw and a quarter saw. The grain can appear straight on the faces, though some curve may exist.

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The ends of the board is where you will see the grain lines run on an angle, and not straight left to right or up and down. This is called a rift sawn piece of wood, and most boards by default will be this kind of cut.

There are different thought processes on the types of cuts and the stability of the wood. For instrument makers, quarter sawn wood is nearly all they will use, and for many good reasons.

For others, flat sawn wood offers the most beauty and variation, and is sought out over quartered pieces. In other cases, the type of cut means absolutely nothing to the maker, and they just buy the first few boards on the stack.

If you are working with a particular plan or direction that calls for a certain type of cut, follow those plans and use these guidelines to select the right piece of wood for the project.

If the directions do not call for a specific cut, then it’s normal to understand that any type of cut will work just fine for the project. In that case, find the piece that looks the best to you.

Buying Wood Online

Thanks to the modern world we live in, you can now buy wood online from several major sellers, and have it shipped to your home. While this is great for people that live a long way from a wood store, it is harder to ensure that you are getting the board you would have picked had you been in an actual store.

There are good things about buying online as well as buying in a store. You can also do a few things to help your online shopping experience be much easier and increase the chances that you will get what you are looking for.

Starting with the in-store purchase, it’s much better if you can to get into a physical store and actually touch the pieces of wood that you are thinking about buying. When you go through them yourself, you get to make the decisions and you get to pick out exactly the board that you want to build with.

You will have to go through several boards in many cases, but you get to select the exact board that you will be taking home.

When you buy wood online, you are a little more restricted than when you are in the store. For example, you do not pick out the individual board from most places, you pick out the species.

If you are not the type of person that goes through fifty boards before you buy one, then this might be fine for you. If you have unreasonable expectations about your pieces of wood being perfect, then it can be terrible, because it’s more than likely not going to be a board that makes you happy when it arrives in the mail.

There are a couple things you can do in order to make this part of the online shopping experience better.

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First thing you can do is call the retailer and speak to the people selecting the wood. You want to talk to them about what you can specify in your order. You also want to talk about what you are making, and what kind of wood you need for the project.

If these employees are also woodworkers, they can probably help guide you in the right direction. If they are order takers and know nothing about wood, then you will have to figure out all the details before you order.

The main thing you want to ask is what you can specify when it comes to selecting a piece. Wood can have all kinds of defects, and you need to be able to tell them what is the most important to you.

Any good dealer will allow this, and if they don’t then they may not be the best place to buy wood from in the future.

For example, if you are more interested in a nice straight board, and less interested in color variation, you should be able to tell the person selecting the board that you have those values.

If you really need a well quartered piece, and don’t care about anything else, you should be able to tell them that too. Since you are not buying the exact board when you buy online, you need to be sure that you have the opportunity to give as much detail as you can.

There are some online places that actually do take the time to photograph each board and post it as a completely unique sale. This allows you the opportunity to pick out the exact piece using sight, and you buy the specific unit that you want from the group. This is more common for high end exotics and for instruments.

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In a case like that, buying online can be very close to the buying experience that you would have had in the store. You don’t get to use as many senses, but you still get to buy the exact piece based on your personal type of decision making.

This is about as good as it gets when it comes to online shopping.

The worst of online shopping is when all you can pick is a species and a length, and they cut the very first board on the stack to the size you asked for, stick it in a box, and mail it out.

This is just spinning the wheel and hoping that you get a piece that you can actually work with. You should be able to search around and find a place that will give you more input than that, and allow you to get closer to picking out your exact board.

The problem with the places that don’t give you any input is that you are stuck with the next board on the stack, because in most cases the employee doing the work is going to grab the easiest piece and ship it out. They are not concerned about knots or warps. All they do is cut the board and send it.

If you are in a very special niche type of woodworking, like instruments, tobacco pipes, or something else that has specific stores dedicated to selling that type of wood, then it’s a good idea to start shopping there.

A dedicated store for a certain project knows what kind of wood you need to be successful. They only stock that kind of piece, and just about anything you get from them will be usable.

A good example of this is a tobacco pipe making store. The stems of pipes are made from many of the same materials that pen makers use, but some are slightly different.

While you could buy the piece you need from a pen making dealer and take a shot that it will work on a pipe, you can just buy the same thing from the pipe suppler and you will know that it will work. Sometimes knowing for sure makes it much easier to pull the trigger and make the purchase.

The same goes for guitar makers. While you can buy Rosewood from a wood store, when you buy it from a guitar making supplier you know that you are getting something cut and packaged specifically to be made into a guitar.

The worry and wonder about the store bought piece goes away when you pick out a purpose driven piece. The guitar making store is not going to have pieces that are not milled right, and you can be assured that you are starting off without any surprises in the future from the wood that you bought.

When buying online, be extra careful and be sure to select a store that is willing to allow you to have a bigger say in the piece of wood that you buy. Any place worth dealing with on a regular basis will give you more input in the process, and they will help make sure that you get the right piece for the project.

When you find a place like this, you can build a relationship with them over time, and this will also make it easier to get the right pieces when you order.

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Finally, with anything new, be safe and make a small test order before committing to ordering a ton of wood from a new place.

If you have a good experience with them on the phone, and you like the way they handle your small order, you will have that much more confidence when you make a larger order.

Finding Deals on Wood

Any time that you can find a deal on wood, especially wood that you know you will use, you should take advantage of it. Wood lasts a very long time, and you can always store what you buy until you need to use it.

There are several places that you can get a deal on pieces of wood, and they will vary depending on what kind of places you have available to you.

The first place I recommend for finding deals on wood is the hardwood store. Any store that mills wood for their customers should have a scrap bin. This is a large bin that they use to collect smaller pieces of drop and sell them for a really good deal.

The pieces are very small, so you can only use them for small projects, but if that’s what you buy anyway, then it’s a huge deal.

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I have been making wooden rings for a very long time and I love the scrap bin at my local hardwood dealer. It’s always filled with lots of smaller exotics, and these are perfect for my wooden rings. The price is amazing too, and I can often get a full shopping bag for only a few dollars.

Another thing that many hardwood stores do is offer specials for their customers that consistently come through the door. They will not advertise the deal, they will just have a cart or a bin sitting out that has the special and the price on it.

Many times, this is larger drop from a custom milling order that they received. In cases like this, the customer may have bought several hundred board feet of a really high end wood. The drop is really valuable too, so the shop owner sells it for a deal.

There have been times that I picked up some of the most figured walnut that I have ever seen on a deal like this. I also picked up some Koa in smaller pieces, and some Gabon Ebony.

Each time I found a deal like this it was a manager special that was only in the store, and I just happened to be in that day. The Ebony I purchased was exquisite, uniformly dark black, and extremely inexpensive for what I purchased. The Koa was nice too, and much less than the standard price.

You don’t need to go into the wood store daily to find deals like this, though I recommend going in a couple times a month or up to once a week. When you go in, you don’t have to buy something on every trip, you just need to pop in and make sure that you are not missing anything.

Another place to find wood on a deal is by looking at furniture pieces in yard sales and second hand stores. Old furniture is typically made from solid wood, and it can be found for free sometimes in a yard sale or on the curb as a bulk trash collection item.

When you find a gem like that, you can take it home and harvest the usable wood from the piece. In yard sales you can also sometimes find lumber that is being sold because the owner no longer works in their shop. This is a great deal many times, and you can stock up quickly.

If you are looking for free wood, one of the best resources are pallets. It’s important to get the permission of the store owner when you do collect pallets, and most of the time they will allow you to take a few.

A good way to start is to find businesses that receive freight on pallets (which you can usually tell from the pallet pile out back) and ask to speak to the manager. They may just be relieved enough that all you wanted to talk about was pallets, and happily give you a couple.

As a general rule, darker colored pallets, and pallets with an obvious coating or chemical smell should be avoided. These have been treated with pesticides and mold inhibitors so they can last longer outside.

They are not good to work with, and can cause health issues. Some pallets are not as obvious, and the coatings are not easy to see on the surface. It’s important to check the pallets carefully before taking any of them home.

One way to help figure out if a pallet is possibly on the safer side is to look for pallets that seem to be made from natural colored wood. Most pallets are utility items, so they are not typically made from any kind of wood that is higher end or expensive.

There are exceptions to this, because what some call exotic others just call firewood, but in your local area the pallets should be made from a domestic and inexpensive species.

Pallets that seem not to be coated with anything, do not have a chemical smell, and seem fresh looking are the best candidates for being safer to use. If you can spot a few of these and they pass your safety screening, that’s a good place to ask the manager if you can have a few.

Once you get home, start taking them apart and organize the wood. I recommend doing this all at once, so that you create a usable lumber pile. It’s not a quick project to remove and mill boards from several pallets, and you don’t want to be doing it every time you need another board.

Just get it all done at once, and you can hold off until you need more wood.

Another source of inexpensive wood is your local home improvement store. I have bought full sheets of plywood at 70% off because someone dropped it and damaged the corner.

The area affected was only a few inches by a few inches, and they took 70% off the sheet. This was a huge deal, and many times hardware stores will do this to move the stock that everyone passes by.

If you go into a hardware store frequently, you will have seen at a bin of 2×4’s where there are a dozen sticks on the top that could be bananas or hockey sticks without much work.

These are the bad boards that everyone keeps picking over. Eventually the customers end up filtering the bin until it looks like it’s full of bad wood, and sales from that bin drop dramatically. Some of the customers think it’s all bad wood, and others think that it’s going to be too much of a hassle to go through it.

Long before this happens, a good hardware store will pull those pieces, set them in a separate area, and mark them down for quick sale. When you find a few gems in these piles you will find some deals. Even warped 2×4’s are a good deal if the price is right, and you only have to saw off a small amount to make the board usable again.

Lastly, though this one requires a little more study on your end, it can be beneficial to know more than others when it comes to freebies.

Most suburban areas are landscaped, and as the areas get older, the managing parties remove trees from time to time. If you know what kind of trees are in your area, you can really benefit from picking up some free wood after it’s felled.

In my part of the united states, there are a lot of Indian Rosewood Trees used in landscaping. This is not the same as East Indian Rosewood, and is slightly less valuable.

Even so, it’s still a premier furniture making wood, and lots of hardwood furniture pieces are made from Indian Rosewood. Knowing that information, when my area started cutting down Indian Rosewood Trees, I made sure to snag a few logs for my shop.

Knowing what you have around you can help quite a bit when it comes to getting free wood. Some of the more expensive wood that you buy from a hardwood store can be the same trees that you drive by on the way home from work.

When the managing association decides to remove trees, talk to them and see if you can take some of the wood home and dry it in your shop.

Looking for deals on wood is important, especially since you will always use the material in your shop. There are a lot of ways to get a deal, and the easiest is to just spend time in your local hardwood store and pick through the scrap bin.

Once in a while you will see a deal pop up, or find some free wood elsewhere, and you should jump right on that every time. It will always be useful, even if not right away.

Part 9 – Wrap Up

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I hope you liked Part 9 of A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects. As you can see, this is a different kind of beginner woodworking book, and I encourage you to get a copy for yourself so you have it all in one place. 

Happy building.

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  • More than 20 Years Woodworking Experience
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