Buying Guitar Wood – Part 1

Guitar wood in a lumber yard

Buying Your Guitar Wood in a Lumber Yard

Buying guitar wood can be a challenge if you don’t know what to look for, especially when buying rough wood in a lumber yard. I’ve learned a thing or two in over 40 years of years of working with wood. I might not know much, but I do know about wood. Soundboards are probably best purchased at a tone-wood supplier, but for just about everything else  like necks, backs & sides, linings, etc. you can save big money by getting your guitar wood in a lumber yard and milling it yourself if you have the equipment, and know what you are doing.

How do you find a great piece in the mountains of wood there? You’ll need to learn the language, know what to look for, and what  to avoid. In a series of posts I will try to cover  the bases so you will have more confidence when you go wood hunting, and make your trips to the yard more successful.

Basics

Let’s start by going over some basics.
4 quarter, 5 quarter, 8 quarter… – What do they mean by this?  It’s a measure of thickness. A quarter is just what it says – a quarter inch. So 5 quarter is 1.25 inches and so on.

Board Feet –  What do they mean by board feet?

  • A board foot is 1 foot of length x 1 foot of width x 1 inch of thickness

So how many board feet is a piece that’s 8 feet long 7 inches wide and 2 inches thick?

  • 8 feet of length multiplied by 7/12 feet of width multiplied by 2 since the piece is two inches thick. A foot is 12 inches, to find the width in feet divide the measured inches of width by 12.

If you are good with numbers in you can quickly approximate board footage if you know that 7/12 is a bit more than a half. A little more than half of 16 is roughly 9 board feet. This is pretty close since the actual is 9.33 board feet. When you’re in the yard you want to spend most of your time looking at the wood, not calculating brdft so the quicker you are at this the more time you have for finding the right piece.

Sometimes they mark the number of board feet  on the ends of the boards (as in photo) but that isn’t always the case. So if you are mathematically challenged bring a calculator or download a free board foot calculator app. Here’s an app for iOS devices, and here’s an app for Andriod devices.

These days lumber yards carry rough wood, and wood with finished faces. What does this mean?

  • Rough Cut –  No finished face, may not be straight or flat and difficult to see the grain. Board footage is calculated from the actual measurements of the board you are buying.
  • Finished Face(s) – One or more faces are milled flat. When buying wood with finished faces you are paying for the wood, the milling expense, and the wood that was removed.

So say you’re buying a piece that has been surfaced on both faces and its final thickness is 3/4”. They will calculate board footage using 1” for thickness not 3/4”. So if you have the ability to mill the wood yourself you can save some money when buying rough cut wood. For this reason I rarely buy surfaced would unless it’s the only wood available.

Lumber Yard Etiquette – Most Important!

Its important you have some manners in the yard. If you don’t you may not be welcomed back. Bottom line is they don’t have to let you poke around in there. They can say just tell us what you want and we’ll pick it out for you, or worse yet buy it online. Consider it a privilege. Here are some simple guidelines to follow:

  • Don’t waste their time if you are only planning to buy one piece and then take an hour to decide.
  • Do not ask for three feet or four feet off a piece less than 12 feet long, they need to be left with a reasonably size piece to sell which is usually 8 feet or more.
  • If you unstack a pile of wood looking for a piece, re-stack it when you are done.
  • Look first then ask for help. Don’t make the fork lift guy move a bunch of bundles for you just to take a look. Have a pretty good idea what it is you are looking at before asking them to move stuff around (more on this later).
  • Time is money so unless you are buying a couple thousand brdft think of it as a quick strike, in and out. These guys have other things to do and will loose interest if you are taking all day for a tiny bit of wood.

What to bring

  • A tape measure is a must. If you are looking for a particular size to fit a particular part or project you need to know you will have enough wood to do the job.
  • A chisel, plane or a gouge. You will need a tool to remove the rough exterior to see the grain and to assure you are getting the right cut, ie: quarter sawn, flat sawn, or rift.
  • A calculator or pad and pencil, or both. You need to keep track of what you have, how many board feet it is, and how much it will cost so you won’t exceed the limit on your credit card.
  • If you are trying to match color on a piece you already have, bring a small sample along. Not many people have a great memory for color.

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