The most obvious place to get wood from when you are first starting out in woodworking is usually a local big box store. You can usually get to these pretty easily, and they tend to be laid out and organized well so you can look at them without too much trouble.
They’re ideal because the wood is usually cut to the right size and it’s dry and ready for use. All you need to do is lay it out on your woodworking bench and you’re ready to go straight away.
Of course, there are some problems with a big box store. As many woodworkers will tell you, these places can be pretty pricey and your options are rather limited.
There aren’t many options that you can use in these stores as far as wood species are concerned. You may struggle to find more than poplar, oak, cedar and pine.
Sometimes you may find that these stores in the city will sell more varied kinds of hardwood lumber. You will often get a number of different options to choose from and a range of different species.
At first glance the price of lumber in these places may not seem insane, but after a while it can add up. Just compare it to the kind of lumber that you will find in other places and you’re talking about a lot of money.
If you want to save some money then it can often be helpful to buy the lumber right from the sawmill, but you do sometimes need to do some extra things to prepare the wood before you can feasibly use it.
It can be quite scary when you’re trying to buy wood from a mill for the first time since there are so many considerations to make.
What you will find though is that you will learn new things every time that you visit. If you learn to become less nervous, buying from a sawmill comes with a bunch of different advantages that you can enjoy.
Sizes of Sawmills
Step one of this process is to look for a mill that is going to sell to members of the general population.
After all, a lot of mills are designed to cater to businesses. Your location can have a huge impact on how easy it is to find a mill that will fit with your criteria.
There are generally three kinds of sawmill - small regional mills, smaller mills run by families, and much larger commercial mills.
If you only live close to a larger commercial mill then you aren’t going to have an easy time trying to get them to sell to you. They work on larger scale operations and they sell in trailer loads, rather than supplying small amounts to an individual.
It’s usually much better to try to buy from a small regional mill. You may sometimes find that they won’t sell to just one person, but the mills usually have a kiln so you should try not to let this put you off. A kiln can save you a lot of time in the long run.
When you’re ready to call the mill, you need to be prepared for the kinds of questions that they may ask you. For instance, the biggest question that they are likely to ask is just how much lumber you intend to buy. Some sawmills will have something known as a minimum order quantity, or a MOQ for short.
If the MOQ is much higher than how much you are actually going to need, it’s worth speaking to some other woodworkers that live in the same vicinity as you. You may find that you can split an order between you so that you can get to the buying requirements.
If you want to find the best sawmill that’s likely to sell to an individual woodworker, then it’s usually best to go for a portable mill or a small family mill. If you happen to come across one of these, you will probably be invited to their farm or house so you can look at the lumber.
Sometimes the operations will have little portable sawmills and these will cut the logs into lumber.
You won’t get as many add-on services with these kinds of mills such as kilns, plane and surfacing etc. These smaller mills tend to be the cheapest options available, so you most likely won’t get the same level of service that you would get with a larger industrial mill.
How Can I Find The Right Mill for Me?
It’s pretty simple to find a mill near you. All you need to do is check on Google to find a mill close by. Just look up the local city and then the word sawmill. You will then find a number of different suggestions in the area.
Some of the websites may be outdated - most mills aren’t great at updating their websites!
Most of the time you will find that websites for mills are full of broken links, and you may even struggle to find a phone number. It’s best usually to visit them directly - a lot of these saw mills simply don’t have the budget to build any exciting looking websites.
What about portable mills? Well, it’s best to search for these on Facebook or Craigslist. Just search for rough cut lumber or sawmill and you should find a few suggestions.
Ads aren’t always posted in the most consistent manner, however. For this reason, you should try to search for mills once every couple of weeks if you want to prepare in advance for your next project.
Sometimes Craigslist ads will expire after 7 days, especially in certain locations. The mills usually don’t repost them every week either, so you may not find anything sometimes when you search.
The best thing to do is save any contact details for portable mills whenever you see them, as you never know when you are going to need more wood.
Things to Familiarize Yourself With
You will find that it can be a little confusing to buy from a saw mill in comparison to your usual local store. This is because there is a lot of terminology that you need to know about.
Here are a couple of things that you should know before you try to visit a saw mill.
It’s always better to prepare before you go to the mill. For this reason, it’s important that you can figure out the amount of wood that you are going to need to buy in advance. It’s basically the volume of wood that you intend to purchase.
It can seem really difficult to comprehend at first, but we assure you that it’s actually pretty simple. Basically, when you call the mill you should be making sure that you tell them how much wood you need in board feet. This helps you to avoid any confusion so your order is correct the first time around.
You can calculate board feet in a simple equation. This is length x width x thickness / 144.
For instance, if the board feet are 2x4 and 8 feet long, the equation would be 2 x 4 x 96 / 144 = 5.33 board feet.
If you call the mill, they may tell you that some walnut wood was $2 per board foot. This means that you would be paying $10.66 using the example above. As usual, the price of the lumber can widely vary depending on what kind of wood species you use.
Sometimes you may find that a mill is altering its prices depending on how hard it is to acquire the size of the board in question.
If you’re looking for a board that is very wide or thick then there’s a chance that you will need to spend more money in order to buy it, especially since the size isn’t very common.
It’s generally best to order roughly10% more wood than you estimate that you will need. This means that you aren’t going to run out if your project runs a little larger than you anticipated.
Another thing that is very important to consider before you order wood from a saw mill is the way that they are measuring the thickness of the board. Usually thickness tends to be represented as a fraction of fourths.
Let’s say for instance that your lumber is 2 inches thick. The mill is going to tell you that the thickness is 8/4 - confusing right? Basically though, it’s not too difficult - divide the 8 by 4 and you will end up getting a solution of two. This is basically the two inches that we had originally.
One final point - if you want a board that measures 1.5 inches, then that would be referred to as 6/4, or 6 4ths.
Amount of Moisture
One thing that you will recognize when you get to the mill is that the wood will be stacked with little stripes of wood in between the individual boards. This is known as stickered wood, and it essentially is there to ensure that all of the boards of wood will dry quickly and evenly.
It’s important to note that since the tree is a living organism, it contains a lot of water inside of its trunk in order to help it to grow and stay alive. For this reason, you may notice that certain kinds of wood such as pine can contain a moisture content of around 100% when it’s cut down initially.
If the Moisture content (MC) is 100% then what this means is that around half of the log’s weight consists of water. The remaining amount is from the actual wood.
When this log has been chopped into boards, it is exposed to the air around it. This is important as it means that it will dry quicker. The lumber is stickered to allow the air to get into each board more easily.
How Does Moisture Influence Wood?
It’s worth making sure that your lumber’s moisture content is at the correct level before you try to work on it. You need to have wood that isn’t going to shrink or expand based on the air around it before you get to work on a project. This is known as Equilibrium Moisture Content, or EMC for short.
The moisture of the wood can often be affected by how much humidity there is in the area. For instance if you are storing your wood in a humid area then the wood can absorb some of the moisture content in the air. This can result in the wood expanding.
If there is less humidity in the air then the wood is simply going to lose a bit of the moisture. This will mean that the wood can become smaller.
There are a lot of problems associated with using any wood that hasn’t dried to the proper level. If the wood doesn’t dry before you use it, you may not notice a problem straight away. Instead, the problem could end up cropping up a few months later.
You may notice that the wood will come apart in little pieces. You will then need to make repairs. You could simply wait a while for the moisture to get to the right level instead and avoid the entire problem.
The best thing to do is to bring a moisture meter along with you when you are going to the sawmill. They are incredibly easy to use - it tends to just consist of pressing a button and the job is done. You can get affordable models for beginners.
There are also plenty of guides online about how to read moisture meters if you want more information.
What Is A Good Level Of Moisture Content?
The answer to this can largely depend on what you are going to be doing with the wood. If you are a woodworker then it’s usually best to ensure that the moisture content is roughly 6%-8% before you start working on the project. This can depend on where you are, however.
There are articles and books online to give you more guidelines on how moisture content works for woodworking. These guides will usually give you a decent idea of what kind of moisture content you need depending on the temperature and the humidity in your area.
How Do I Dry Lumber?
There are a couple of ways that you can dry lumber, but the best thing to do is to simply buy the lumber after it has gone through a kiln. This is one of the main reasons why it’s a good idea to buy the lumber from a regional saw mill.
If the mill is a mid-sized one then there’s a good chance that they will have a kiln that you can use. In most cases though the smaller portable mills will only have the air drying method available.
Kiln dried wood usually costs more money per BF, but if you don’t have a lot of patience then this is certainly worth the extra cost.
Kilns are handy since they operate similarly to what you would expect from an oven. With these, you need to load lumber into a big chamber and the door is closed shut. The methods of transferring heat can differ depending on the kiln that you use.
If you are kiln drying then it’s significantly easier to manipulate the moisture content levels when you are drying the wood. Not only that, but kiln drying wood can mean that any bugs that are residing inside of the lumber will be killed off by the heat.
How long does the lumber need to remain in the kiln? Well that depends on the kind of wood that you use. For instance, a modern high temperature high air velocity kiln is able to dry a 1 inch thick piece of green lumber in roughly 10 hours.
This will bring it to a moisture content of 18%. Since red oak has a higher water content, the process will usually take around 28 days. As you can see, the amount is highly variable.
It is possible to build your own kiln that you can use at home - there are plenty of plans online to help you to do it. You will usually need to use solar energy to get them to heat up inside the chambers. It’s certainly something worth trying if you live in an area that would allow it.
Sometimes the saw mill that you bought your lumber from may not have a kiln. Likewise you may not be able to build your own kiln. In these cases, there is another option.
It is possible to make a setup that is akin to the mile, then you can sticker the boards to allow them to air dry in their own time.
Of course, this can take a really long time to do but it’s great if you have time to kill. It’s best to assume that it will take 1 year to air dry 1 per inch of lumber thickness. This means that it may possibly take around 2 years for a 2 inch board to dry thoroughly.
How Can I Measure the Moisture Content of My Lumber?
There are actually a number of moisture meters available and these can help you to measure the MC of the wood much more easily. They don’t cost a lot of money - they’re usually around $20 to buy online.
It’s just important to clarify whether the meter in question is designed to be used on wood, mainly because there are meters that can be used for other things such as soil. The meters work by using electrical currents that are then sent through the wood.
If the current flows quickly to the next sensor then it’s a good sign that there’s a lot of extra water inside of the wood.
You can get two main kinds of meter - The pin and pinless versions. There are usually 2 needles on the pin versions and these will stick out of the unit. You then need to push the pins into the wood a little bit to take the reading.
You won’t get pins with the pinless version, as you can probably imagine. With these, all you need to do is put them on top of the wood and they will then take their own measurements. Of course there is no consensus about which one is better since it can depend on the user’s preference.
Many people really like the pinless versions though since they are easier to use.
Cuts of Wood
You also need to think about the different cuts of wood available in the mill. If you are looking for a mill then there's a good chance that you won’t already know a lot about different cuts of wood but it’s always a good idea to familiarize yourself before you visit.
This is especially important if it’s possible for you to choose lumber by yourself.
There are many ills that will actually allow you to peruse their wood stacks, and from there you can then choose the boards that you want to buy at your leisure. Not all mills are like this, however.
There are some mills that will want you to call them to confirm an order and you will then need to pick up the boards that they have selected for you when you arrive.
Both methods are useful, but it’s always better to choose your own wood if you want a board with a particular grain finish or pattern.
Mills will often receive a log and cut it in one of three ways. The cuts are as follows - Quartersawn, riftsawn and plainsawn. They all look very different after cutting and the amount of usable wood varies depending on the cut.
Riftsawn - These are cuts that will take place at a 30 to 45 degree angle from the log’s center. You will notice consistent pattern and grain features with these, and they are usually sought after by furniture makers. They are commonly used on things like table legs where a matching finish is essential.
Quartersawn - These cuts are created by simply cutting the log into quarters and cutting from there. These cuts are useful because they aren’t likely to warp as time goes on. They will usually shrink and dry at an even pace and this means that they are rather strong. This is especially true if you are using red oak.
Plainsawn - As the name suggests, this is the simplest cut of all. They are usually the most affordable too. You won’t get a lot of waste from these cuts since the whole log is being used but the grain patterns aren’t always consistent with them.
How The Milling Process Works
Finally, let’s dive into how the milling process of the lumber works. This is essentially how the cut piece of the log is turned into a board that you can work with that will look good.
The mill will cut the log using the methods that we have mentioned previously in the article, and they will do so with a band saw usually.
They are going to cut rounded logs that aren’t perfectly straight, and as such the cuts that you get with the band saw generally aren’t totally parallel and straight either.
You will often find that a lot of mills aren’t going to give you any extra surfaces when the log has already been divided into boards. There are others, of course, that will do other things for you. Perhaps they will give you planing services or they will add a straight edge onto the cut.
Before you buy boards from a saw mill, it’s always a good idea to make yourself knowledgeable on exactly what you are getting for your money. You are going to need to know what kinds of tools you have at home too if a mill isn’t going to give you any extra services.
You will generally find that a medium sized mill will give you more services than you would get from a smaller portable mill. If you would like to have the boards surfaces on your behalf then you are probably going to need to pay around 50 cents extra for each board foot.
This may sound like a lot when you are ordering the extra wood but it’s certainly worth your time. You aren’t going to have to spend as much time doing it yourself, and that’s worth its weight in gold.
That extra dollar or so is still going to be cheaper than what you are going to find in your local hardware store.
There are a lot of surfacing options available to you, but it’s a good idea to understand the terminology. The wood surfacing is often known in mills as S2S, S3S or S4S. This basically means Surfaced Number of Sides. S2S, then, would be Surfaces 2 Sides. Here’s a deep dive into the terminology.
None - Most people get no surfacing. It’s very cheap but it does mean that you are going to have to spend extra time when you get home trying to do it yourself. If you get some wood that hasn’t had any surfacing done to it, the board has literally just been cut off the log.
As such, it’s often possible to notice what is known as the live edge. You can even see the part where the bark has been pulled off the tree.
To prepare the wood yourself, you will have to make sure that you’ve got a table saw, a jointer and a planer. You are going to need to get a straight edge using the joiner and will need to run the board’s edge over the joiner in order to make it straight.
Tiny layers of wood will be cut away from the board each time, and you’ll eventually have a straight edge.
Then you need to use your saw, putting the flat edge against the fence of the table saw and you will then need to rip the board to the width that you need. Then run it through the thickness planer to get the thickness that you need.
S2S - As the name suggests, this piece of wood has been surfaced on both sides. Any boards have been planed so you can be sure that the thickness will remain the same across the whole board. There will be smooth tops on both sides of the wood.
Of course, it’s important to note that there won’t be straight edges on these boards, so you’re going to need to do some work at home to smooth them over.
S3S - These boards are usually planned similarly to S2S boards, but there’s an edge on one side that’s straight in addition to the faces. You won’t need to use a jointer with a board like this, which is useful.
All you are going to need is a table saw in order to cut the boards to the width that you need. It’s best to opt for S3S at the absolute minimum in order to save you a lot of effort at home.
S4S - These are the kinds of boards that you are most likely to see in places such as hardware stores. These boards are usually straight on every side and the sides will also be parallel to one another. You won’t need to do any unnecessary preparation before you get to work. Naturally this option is going to cost you the most money but it’s your best bet if you can afford it.
Things to Ask
Before you go to the mill you should ask some questions. Ask the mill whether they sell to the public, and if they have a minimum order quantity. Ask them if they can sell you kiln dried lumber, and whether they can provide you with S4S lumber.
Basically, ask questions pertaining to the information provided above.
That’s everything that you need to know about buying lumber from a saw mill! It can be a little daunting, but it’s certainly worth it to save yourself a lot of time and money for your next project.
Remember to do your research into the different mills that are out there, and you are sure to get great results.