Very seldom these days can you buy properly seasoned new timber. It will warp, twist and shrink, so that something you make that is good to start with will look very different six months later. That is one big advantage of using manmade substitutes.
So far as appearances are concerned, however, nothing looks as good as real timber. If you buy secondhand material, its warping and shrinking days will be over and it will have acquired a mellowness that only age can bring. Here are some sources of good, cheap, used timber.
Demolition Contractors (or Building Wreckers)
These people pull down old buildings which may not necessarily be derelict but are being demolished to make way for modern buildings which take up less ground space in propor- tion to the accommodation they provide. The bulk stuff is sold to builders but odds and ends are thrown into the contractor’s yard and may be purchased for next to nothing. They comprise all kinds of building material: floorboards (perhaps of greatest use for all kinds of home improvements), joists, doors, roofing tiles, bricks, fence pillars and much more. The writer has bought some unusual treasures, such as stag’s antlers and even a perfectly sound bedpan — each costing a mere 5p. The yards are generally tucked away in side streets that are difficult to locate, but their addresses can be found in the classified section of your local telephone directory. The snag is that the yards are nurseries for woodworm and dry rot, so inspect carefully anything you buy, and if you see a succession of small round holes or detect signs of sponginess discard it.
Woodworm holes are so perfectly regular that they cannot possibly be confused with jagged nail holes, though they might be with holes made by drawing pins. As they are the exit passages of emerging beetles, grubs that have not yet pupated may be left in the heart of the timber. So if you use such timber for any home improvement and have discarded parts containing just two or three holes, examine it about twice a year for three years: if more holes appear, treat the timber immediately with a woodworm fluid.
Doors bought at such yards should be examined before purchase for evidence of twisting. Stand the door on edge and, with one eye closed, look along it — like sighting a rifle — to see whether it is true. When using the floorboards, beware of hidden linoleum tacks which may blunt your tools.
Your car may be large enough to take home the material bought, or you may have to hire transport.
Houses being demolished
If a house in your street is being pulled down you can carry the stuff over to your home without transport. Here you will be able to get a larger quantity of the one item, though there will not be such a wide selection. Ask the contractor’s foreman to let you look round and, having selected what you want, ask him when his men will be working on that particular part of the building so that you may come back at the right time.
Check that a door not yet taken off its hinges fits closely all round the doorstop when closed. If it shows a gap in places, suspect twisting. But do not rely completely upon this test because it may be that the doorcase is twisted also.
The doorstop is the narrow fillet of wood surrounding the reveal of the doorcase. The doorcase is the framework surrounding the door.
Shops being demolished
These are a source of larger sizes of finished timber (such as have been used for counter-tops and display stands) and also of glass. Recently the writer, dissatisfied with the usual kind of letterbox which is so small that the postman has to ring at the door for delivering anything of size, bought a large one for 10p from a contractor working on an old shop. The price of a comparable new one would have been several pounds.
Secondhand furniture is not cheap these days, except perhaps a sideboard too large for a small modern home. You could buy one when the contents of a Victorian or Edwardian house of more spacious dimensions are being auctioned on site. Costing a fraction of its original price, such a piece of furniture could provide £500 worth or more of beautiful timber, mirrors and drawers. Visit the house on viewing day — generally the day before the sale — and examine what you want to make sure it is not riddled with woodworm (a few holes here and there can be treated with woodworm fluid).
Steer clear of veneered pieces which may delaminate when you come to saw them up.
Hiring transport at furniture sales should not be difficult as there will be lorries drawn up on the site. When you get the furniture home, take drawers and mirrors into the house for protection and leave the carcass in the garden for the weather to soften the glue — when it may be pulled apart with ease.
Old fire surrounds
If a neighbour is having a new fireplace installed ask him to let you have his old one. He will be anxious to get rid of it and it will save the builder cartage time. You will then have lengths of timber 100 to 150 mm (4 to 6 in) wide which will make fine shelves and bookcases.
These are generally of inferior timber but sometimes they are reasonably good. Tea chests are made of a cheap grade of three-ply. Watch out for woodworm!