Buying wood directly from a mill is not something everyone can do, even if you have sawmills in your vicinity, but it is available for many woodworkers and for those who belong to clubs and associations, it's even possible to get together and do "group purchases". Not all mills will sell to the general public, Often the large sawmills are wholesale only, but many of medium and smaller independent mills are happy to sell smaller quantities of wood. Do NOT show up at a mill and expect to buy one or 2 boards. These people make their living selling volumes, and just the way they store and stack their wood, it's not really an option for them in most cases. When you do show up at a mill, they will ask you that right away ... "How much wood are you looking for?" So you will need to be prepared with an answer in either board feet, or a number of boards, truckload, 1/2 truckload etc.
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There are basically 3 sizes of mills, Small, Medium and Large. Small mills are normally one person operations, often part-time and they will have a small gas driven, probably portable bandsaw mill. Medium size mills may have a larger circular saw and/or a bandsaw and probably operate full time or at least season full time. Large mills will often have a multitude of saws and will be driving truckloads of lumber through their mill on a full-time basis. They probably will also have a kiln to dry the wood they are cutting and often these do not sell to the public, but you can still ask them, some do ...
Like many things, there are pros and cons to purchasing directly from a mill. Of course the biggest benefit is that you will save some money on the wood you are buying, the downside is that almost always the wood is green (wet) and will need to be dried before it can be used, which also means you will need a place to store it for some time and you will need to monitor the drying process and probably more the wood to drier places as it continues to slowly dry.
Many of the small and medium-sized mills will have some wood that they cut "on hand" that is, they cut it sometime in the past and it is sitting waiting for a buyer so you will want to contact them ahead of time to get an idea what they have. Wood that is on hand could have been cut a few days ago or it could be months since it was cut. How long it has been sitting drying will be a determining factor for some buyers.
Overview of Moisture Content of Wood
In most places on the planet, the moisture content of wood for woodworking and furniture building wants to be around 9 percent. Trees that have just been cut down and milled can have moisture contents of 25 to 40 percent. This means the wood needs to dry out and length of time this takes depends on hardwood or softwood? type, Fir Oak etc.? how thick the boards are where they will be drying (inside, outside, undercover, not under cover).
Most wood coming from a mill will be dried outside for a time, which would be best determined by a moisture meter. In my case, I let my wood air dry until it hits around 14% moisture content. At that point it will not get any drier as long as it sits outside, it just will not get any drier. Once it hits that level of moisture I need to move the wood into my shop to dry it down to around 9 percent and this can take anywhere from weeks to months depending on the wood and how thick it is. For all of this, it will be important to have a moisture meter similar to this one - Moisture Meter at the Woodworkweb Amazon Affiliate Store.
Once you arrive at a mill that has some wood available, it will often be "stacked and stickered", that is stacked horizontally and stickered so the air will help to dry out the wood. It is impossible to go through these stacks to pick outboards, this is where the volume purchase comes into play. You should be able to look at some sample boards, but examine all of them like you would at a wood store is often not an option.
When purchasing boards from a mill that is normally in some degree of green or wet state, the things to be aware of:
- Will the ends crack (have the ends been "end sealed")
- What defects does it have
- How many defects does it have per board
- What is the degree of moisture
- Does the sawyer have any idea on warpage of this wood
- Is the coloration of the wood similar or wildly different
What To Look For at the Mill
In almost every case the sawyer or mill owner will be willing to show you some samples of the wood. This will give you an indication of what you will be receiving and it is up to you to examine the samples and make decisions from there.
If boards have been "end sealed" there is a much better chance the boards will not crack at the ends, boards that are not sealed almost always crack at the ends and those cracks will bleed up the board making each end unusable.
How thick are the boards - this will have a bearing on how long it will take them to dry out.
What is coloration like? Most mills will make an effort to try and keep the wood from each tree within a group so that you can at least have some similar looking colorations. Trees can come in widely different colorations and trying to match wood from different trees can be problematic at times.
What is the moisture content of the wood you are looking at - ALWAYS ASK if you can check the moisture (bring your moisture meter)
In terms of "board cuts" that is Quarter-sawn Boards, Rift Sawn Boards or Flat Sawn boards - in most small or medium mills they often don't differentiate these but sell the stack as it is with these cuts all mixed in. It will be up to you to sort these when you get them home.
If the mill has sorted these cuts, expect to pay more for Quarter-sawn boards as these are premium as they often have least defects, least warpage, and twisting and are the nice looking boards. Using these boards sparingly such as for table tops etc will also help you wood budget go further.
When You Have the Wood Home
Now that you have purchased wood from a mill and got it home ... now what? Well, you will need a place to stack it and you likely have that already set aside. You will need "sticker" boards, usually, these are 3/4 inch square and 3 or 4 feet long. You will need one "sticker" every 2 feet or so, and the bottom wood needs to be sitting off the floor or the ground and if you are stacking these on the ground, the higher the better so starting with 4 inches by 4 inches posts might be a good start, then layer the wood and stickers as you go up. The height doesn't matter except as safety is concerned and your ability to reach and stack the boards.
At this point, your wood will likely be well above 14 percent. If you wood is at 14 percent, or when it drops to that content, that is when the wood or at least portions of it needs to be brought inside to dry further. At this point, if you have room to stack horizontally you can do that, but once the wood is at 14 percent you can now begin to stack it vertically the same way they do in most lumber stores.
Now it's just a simple matter of waiting for the wood to drop to around 9 percent, or whatever moisture content you need for your area and start using that wood.
Copyright Colin Knecht