Purchasing Timber For DIY Woodwork

Table of Contents

Buying your materials

Timber is now commercially cut and sold in metric measurements, in centimetres and millimetres – in most countries. However, feet and inches are still most widely used and acceptable in purchasing timber in others.

The change-over to metric measurements has also meant that certain sizes (in inches) are no longer automatically available and you will have to purchase the nearest metric size. This need not present too much difficulty because few items need very precise timber sizes. For example, if you order a strip of wood 2 in. by 1 in. in thickness you will not get it exactly.

There is nothing illegal about this, because it is one of the ‘customs of the trade’.

The reason is that all wood measurements start from the bulk tree trunk, before it is sawn up. Suppose that a trunk is exactly a foot square.

If the woodyard machinists saw this into 12 equal planks a foot wide, these will not be an inch thick, because of the wood removed by the saw blade. Instead they will be thinner than an inch. But it is the trade custom to refer to them as ‘1 in.’ rough-sawn timber. Now suppose that such a plank were cut into six equal strips 2 in. wide. These would not in fact be exactly 2 in. across, but a little less.


Further, if these pieces are put through the planing machines to transform them into smooth sided strips such as we would usually buy for our work, even more wood will be planed off, making the pieces still less again than 2 in. by 1 in. But they are still referred to as ‘2 in. by 1 in.’ planed-all-round timber.

In planning any woodwork job then we must take care that we allow for these odd 4 in. of missing thickness. Otherwise we shall end up with parts which will not fit together. This is also why, when making joints, we must always measure each piece of wood, rather than relying on prearranged sizes. The strips will differ quite a lot from batch to batch.

You can order wood rough sawn, partly, or fully planed on all sides. It is quite possible to plane your own timber from rough-sawn wood, but this is a fairly skilled job and takes time The saving is only pence per foot of wood and is not really worth while.

The best way to buy wood is to find a local timber merchant, with his own machines and large, under-cover stocks of wood. He will have all manner of information about the types of wood stocked in your district, their relative costs and the work they are best suited to.

The men who work in the yards are usually most helpful in advising on the choice of wood, and it is not unknown for the friendly customer to be offered short offcut lengths at a reduced price.

When looking at timber, see if you can pick out planks or strips that have nearly straight grain, without many knots, which are not warped and twisted and whose end main, as seen from the sawn end of the piece, is good. Timber with the best end grain costs more, for technical reasons, to saw out, so it may be dearer; but it is still well worth choosing.

Some shops sell timber for the home woodworker nowadays. They often stock the more expensive and unusual woods — those for which the large scale timber merchant may have little call. You will find the prices at these shops well above the timber yard level, for the shopkeeper must of course make some profit on the sale. However, many owners of such shops are themselves keen and experienced woodworkers, willing to help and advise.

Do-It-Yourself shops like this are most useful for the advanced woodworker seeking better wood. It pays, though, to deal with a merchant when buying softwoods.

Sheet materials are more or less standardised in price at large yards, but merchants will rarely bother to sell part-sheets. You must go to a shop for these. But sheeting so often comes in useful for odd jobs that it is worth while buying in full sheets and keeping what is left over. Incidentally, do not expect the merchant to deliver your small order. But if the sheets are big he will always cut them smaller for you to carry away.

Plain timber

There are many sorts of wood. Broadly they may be divided into hardwoods and softwoods, though the division, for technical reasons, is not wholly accurate. For fitted furniture we use softwoods almost exclusively, and the cheap varieties will serve as well as the dear. Wood known as Deal, (Red Deal) is simple to shape and easy to buy. When choosing it, try to get lengths that are free from knots. Not absolutely free orcourse, this is unlikely, but without more than roughly four knots in a ten foot, eight inch wide plank. And the grain should be straight, running evenly up the length of the wood. Try to avoid wood planks that are heavily and differently coloured. This happens because the inner wood of a tree is often of a different colour to the softer, less desirable sapwood of its outer parts. Usually sapwood is pale, yellowish and with the grain lines wider apart.

Since woods vary a good deal, the best plan is to rely on the service of your supplier, by explaining at the start just what purpose the wood will serve. He will then advise the best types he may stock.

As to where you should buy, there is no doubt that you will pay least at a builders merchant with attached timber yard. There you will see large open racks filled with wood of all sizes. The cost will be much less than when buying at some small do-it-yourself shop. However, the builders merchant is geared up to supply large quantities and you may well find that your enquiry for only a few feet of wood will not be over-welcome. Nor will you be able to have your purchases sawn down to small sizes. This is where the small shop scores highly. The advice you will often be given may be very sound, as many proprietors are themselves keen home workers, and you can usually buy in very small quantities indeed. Be very firm though, when offered proprietary boards, especially veneered, for by using these you may well run up an undesirably large cost. Remember that plain, sawn boards and plain sheets can be made into attractive features and will cost much less.


Strips of wood shaped into various sections, half round, quarter round and so on, have their uses from time to time and the smaller sections are not particularly dear. But always count the cost of these additions, especially if you are tempted by impressed, decorative mouldings with coloured inlays. A few feet of these might cost more than all the rest of your materials!

Leave a Comment