There are some myths about do-it-yourself (DIY) projects and small construction jobs around the house. One of the most persistent myths is that it’s always cheaper to DIY something than it is to buy a new model. That can be true; however, if you’re not planning ahead and you’re not careful, you could end up spending a lot more to make your own bookshelf than you would have just buying one. There are dozens of reasons for this. One of the main reasons is that the companies that mass produce household items are able to buy their supplies in bulk. That means that they get the best prices on lumber.
You, on the other hand, have to go to the hardware store and pay the marked-up retail price. Or, do you?
Well, the answer is no. You don’t have to pay the retail price for your lumber. In fact, you can often get great lumber for free or very cheap. You won’t even have to settle for nondescript “whitewood” that you find at the big warehouse store.
You can get hardwoods such as oak for free. How’s that? Here are your options.
Related: Types of saws and their uses
Table of Contents
1. Discarded Furniture
Lugging furniture to a dumpster or to the town dump is sometimes difficult; other times, it’s impossible. That’s why so many people leave furniture on the curb with a sign saying “free.” If you’re thinking “but I don’t need a new futon”, you’re missing the point. That furniture is likely made out of wood. Depending on the age of the furniture and the type of furniture, it might even be made out of hardwood.
You want to stay away from the pressboard stuff; it’s not built to last and it’s difficult to work with. However, a sheet of pressboard does make a good backing for a bookcase.
Why This Is a Great Source: Discarded furniture is a great source of wood because it’s free. Also, older furniture is often made out of hardwoods such as oak and maple. Couches typically had wooden support structures that are a softwood that is lightweight and easy to work with.
Caveats: The main concerns with hauling old furniture around are bugs, space, and effort. If something has been sitting on the curb, especially something with cloth padding, it could have developed mold, mildew, and bugs. You should make sure you inspect it thoroughly or leave it outside of your house until you can be sure it’s not moldy or infested. Also, you’ll have to find somewhere to keep the furniture until you can break it down. Lastly, you’ll need to actually do the work of breaking it down. If you’ve got a reciprocating saw with a good blade, you should be able to work through any piece of wooden furniture in no time, though.
Where to Find It: So, where do you find discarded furniture? The first and most obvious choice is simply to drive around until you see it. Alternately, you can try www.freecycle.org. Find your area and get to hunting.
2. Construction Sites
Not all states produce statistics about the amount of waste that is produced in their states; however, many scholars estimate that as much as 30% of all waste in landfills comes from construction waste. That waste consists of packaging materials, materials used in the construction but not in the final product, and discarded building materials. It’s that last one that should interest you. Discarded building materials often includes wood. For example, if a worker is cutting a ten foot beam down to an eight foot beam, what happens to that extra two feet of beam?
If it is useful somewhere else, it might be used. Otherwise, it will likely end up on a burn pile. This is a pile of odds and ends as well as damaged wood that is going to be discarded. Oftentimes, construction sites will let you take it for free; it saves them the trouble of having to haul it. However, make sure you speak with the foreman on site and get express permission to take things.
Why This Is a Great Source: A construction site provides you with large amounts of wood. Furthermore, that wood is going to be professional grade. Also, it is often free.
Caveats: You’ll need gloves to navigate the different pieces of wood. Damaged wood and discarded construction pieces will likely have nails and splinters. You’ll also need a truck of some sort to haul the wood away. Lastly, the wood was discarded for a reason. In many cases, it will be cracked, waterlogged, or stained. You might only use a small amount of what you take, but that’s fine because it was free.
Where to Find It: You’ll need to find a construction site within driving distance. You can find a scholarly rundown of wood waste at construction sites here if the data interests you.
3. Wood Pallets
Pallets are fabled sources of cheap wood. Every beginning woodworker has probably read through dozens of blogs about all of the incredible things you can do with pallets. Why are they so popular? Well, roughly four or five billion board feet of lumber is used to create pallets in the United States every year. That’s billions of free board feet just waiting for someone to claim them. Also, each pallet has about 40 feet of lumber. That’s enough lumber to build a bookcase with just one pallet.
You should know that some of the best pallets are actually from foreign importers. Big box stores like Walmart and Target tend to use very cheap pine pallets; they also use a service for their pallets, which means they want them back.
Why This is a Great Source: Each pallet has a surprising amount of wood. They’re also designed to withstand thousands of pounds of load and even shipping overseas. They’re sturdy wood that you can find just about everywhere.
Caveats: The major caveat when working with pallets is the incredible amount of work. Pallets are nailed together typically with annular ring nails which are ridged nails. That means they’re built to last. They don’t come out very easily. You’ll likely need a pry bar and a hammer. Those who are experienced with salvaging pallets say they can get through each pallet in about thirty minutes.
Where to Find Them: You should avoid the huge box stores; they likely use low-quality pallets anyway. The best pallets that you’ll find are typically from stores that get foreign imports. The foreign importers often use hardwood pallets to ensure they survive the long journey. You should look at motorcycle dealers, car dealers, shops specializing in German or British cars, tile stores, and anywhere that imports granite or marble. They’ll likely have some great pallets.
Any pallet that is leaning up against a dumpster is considered fair game. However, if the pallets are stacked behind the store or leaning against a wall, ask before you take them. You wouldn’t want to accidentally become a thief.
4. Fallen Trees
If you’re good at spotting different species of tree, you’ve likely noticed that the trees in your neighbourhood are probably better wood than whatever you’re finding at the hardware store. Oak, cherry, and hickory are very common trees depending on where you live. Some of them in your neighborhood could easily be fifty to a hundred years old. If that’s the case, they would make incredible sources of hardwood lumber. You don’t want to cut them down for the lumber, but if they were to fall during a storm, someone would need to remove it. If you have a storm in your area, you could offer to help your neighbors by cutting up their trees. In exchange for cutting up the trees, you get to keep the wood.
Why This Is a Great Source: Fallen trees are an excellent source because they’re often higher quality wood than you could otherwise afford. They also produce incredible amounts of wood. Board feet are calculated by width times length times thickness. So, a twenty-foot oak tree could easily produce 100 board feet from one tree.
Caveat: Make sure you ask your neighbors before you start cutting up their trees. Also, this will require a lot of labor. You’ll need a chainsaw (Makita and Husqvarna make some good ones) and a truck. You’ll also have to haul all of that lumber into and out of the truck. It’s a lot of work but it’s probably worth it.
Where to Find Them: If there’s a storm, you might want to just drive out looking for downed trees. Otherwise, you might find your neighborhood on https://nextdoor.com. It’s a social network for your local area.
5. Demolition Projects
For any number of reasons, a building might need to be torn down near you. The people who are doing that demolishing might be looking for someone to help them. Sometimes, they might even offer to pay you. However, a better form of compensation might be allowing you to keep whatever wood you take from the building. Depending on the age of the building, you could end up with some great lumber.
For example, buildings that are more than about 60 years old probably used old growth hardwood for their flooring. Old growth wood is wood that comes from forests that could be 200 or 300 years old. The wood is denser, stronger, more rot-resistant, and a richer color. It’s the best wood for any hardwood project. However, it’s very difficult to come by because most of the old virgin forests had either been cleared or protected by the 1940s. However, you can still find the wood in use as flooring in old buildings; those might be the exact kinds of buildings that are being torn down.
Why It Is A Great Source: A deconstruction project is a great source of wood because you’ll find large amounts of it. Some of it might even be rustic or heirloom hardwood that will make great furniture. Finally, it will all be processed and planed for use in a building; that means it’ll be more uniform than some scrap you might find.
Caveat: As with many of these other suggestions, the first caveat is that you’ll need to spend a lot of your time and energy on the project. You’ll need tools and protection to make sure that you can deconstruct the building safely. Then you’ll need a truck to load and haul the lumber.
Where To Find It: You’ll likely be able to find local demolition and deconstruction jobs in your area if you search Craigslist. Oftentimes, people are even offering to allow you to haul off any materials you want. It saves them the trouble of hauling it off. You should also consider woodworking forums or Reddit. There are entire subreddits devoted to odd jobs around the house. Try searching for your area, but be careful and always vet someone before you show up at their house.
6. The Lightning Round
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- Professional carpenters and woodworkers: they’ll likely deal in smaller amounts of wood than a construction site but the wood they use will likely be very high quality. Since they’re in the business of selling wood, they might want to sell it to you instead of give it away. However, you’ll likely be able to get some odds and ends pretty affordably. They also discard wood that’s below professional-grade.
- Volunteer Projects: volunteering and service organizations often help with home construction, land clearing, and demolitions. As with a construction company, they’ll need to have the wood hauled away when they’re done; you could haul it to your house.
- Tree Surgeons: Depending on where you live, they might be called arborists, tree surgeons, or tree trimmers. Whatever you call them, they’re the folks who trim trees, fell trees, and grind stumps. Some companies sell the felled wood. Others toss it into a wood chipper. Call up a few companies and ask; if they toss it in a wood chipper, ask them if they’d be willing to toss it into your truck.
- Boatyards: Many companies and entrepreneurs will buy old wooden boats and scrap them for their wood. They’ll often sell you old seasoned teak at a great price. If you have a boatyard or a dock nearby, you should call them. If they don’t sell old boat wood, they’ll likely know someone who does.
- Excavators: These are demolition professionals who specialize in earth moving. They’ll oftentimes have scrap wood from previous jobs that they want to get rid of. Call some local excavators; anyone that digs swimming pools is a good place to start.
- Remodelling Contractors: These are contractors that remodel entire rooms or entire houses. They usually rip out a lot of interior wood. If you have a trailer, you can often ask them to leave your trailer at the job site. They’ll dump all of the scrap into it like a dumpster; in a few days, you can haul it away.
- Rural Fences: If you live in or near a rural area, you know that the ranchers and farmers are constantly fixing their fences. If you leave your number with one of them, they might let you know next time they start ripping up fence posts and fencing boards.
- Barns and Mills: Barns and mills in rural areas often fall into disrepair if the owner is far away. If you can find the owner of an abandoned barn or mill, you should call them and ask if you can deconstruct it for them.
- Old Train Depots: It’s not common to find an old train depot that’s been decommissioned but is still standing. However, if you do, you should contact the owner if you can figure out who it is. The railroad ties can be over 100 pounds of dense hardwood that has weathered and aged.
- Hardware Stores: This will be likely your most expensive option, but if something is cut incorrectly or if the wood isn’t up to a customer’s standards, it will go into a pile for cheap lumber. You can find some good 2x4s and 1x4s typically.
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