Jun 252012

MacBeath Hardwood’s lumber stacks – I think I’m in love.

After getting an initial design and plan created for the cutting boards, I next had to find a place to get wood. After making a few inquiries from neighboring woodworkers, I set out for MacBeath Hardwood in Salt Lake City. It was a long drive, but well worth it. It was everything I had hoped for in a lumberyard and a little more. I walked in and felt immediately like a kid in a candy shop.

MacBeath’s stocks the largest supply of wood I have seen. In fact, as I wandered up and down the rows, I saw wood I have never heard of before from all parts of the world. Each species was neatly stacked in bunks, floor to ceiling in a large warehouse. The picture at left is just one row. There is another one behind me, too. Note there is a second level up above. There is another building full of plywood and a couple other buildings I didn’t get to explore. I spent the first fifteen minutes just walking up and down the row, looking at each and imagining the possibilities.

Once I got over the delight of the variety, I set about choosing the wood for this project. Let me take you on a bit of a tour and explain a few things I look for when shopping for wood.

  • #1 Common Walnut

    Price. Overall, MacBeath’s prices were much better than I was expecting.Having a larger population to sell to must make a difference. I’m happy to drive an extra 30 minutes for good prices and great selection. One thing I discovered is they have different grades of the more common woods.

    Furniture grade walnut $7.11.

    For example, the first stack of walnut I came to was $7.11 per board foot (12 inches x 12 inches x 1 inch). I dug through the stack and found it to be beautiful wood, straight, clear of defects like knots, twists or holes. Then I wandered down the row and discovered a stack of #1 common walnut at the other end. It was $4.18 per board foot. The edges were rougher, contained a few knots and some deviation to the grain. For a large piece of furniture, this could make a big difference, but for this project, #1 common works just fine at 60% of the cost.

  • Surprise!

    Surprises lurk in dark places. When choosing wood, you have to look at the entire board before you decide if you want it or not. Trees are not uniform and strange things show up. While looking through the walnut for a board as small as I wanted (3.5 inches wide), I found one that looked terrific. I measured it to be 4 inches. Close enough. I pulled the board out of the stack to put it in my pile. Surprise! Halfway down, the width changed to less than 2 inches. That board wasn’t going to work for me at all. I had to keep searching until I found one that maintained the width the entire length.

  • Beautiful, but not for us.

    Grain matters. The grain refers to the uniformity of the rings in the tree. When cut, we see them side on and we call it grain. Depending on how the tree grew, everything can be straight and uniform or it can swirl and move all over the place. When building furniture, I love to use some interesting grain on table tops and other places were it can be seen. However, for this project, it will be cut up into thin strips. Not only will no one see the grain, the non uniform wood can be weak and easily break or fall apart. So, while the board I found on the left has beautiful grain, I had to pass it by for something more boring, but stable.

  • Splitsville!

    Defects. Trees and not perfect and therefore the lumber is not perfect either. Wood is, after all, a bunch of tiny straws, laid next to each other to draw the water and nutrients from the roots all the way up to the leaves. When a tree is cut into lumber, occasionally the straws will dry out at different rates and create stress within the board. It manifests itself as twists, bends and checks. Each board is different, depending on the internal stresses. Here is a board that looked good on one end, but had a significant crack up the middle on the other end. Not for us! I also paid attention to knot holes. If it isn’t loose or cracking, then it is generally okay. However, I have to think ahead of how I am going to use this piece. If it is building furniture, I will sometimes include a knot or two for character. I leave the board as whole as possible to leave the knot undisturbed. However, I am going to be slicing these boards up.  A knot in the middle of a strip weakens the wood and will even cause it to fall apart and render it copletely unusable.

  • It just keeps getting longer.

    Length. Most of the boards in the stacks are ten feet long. I only wanted eight. Too bad. They won’t cut anything off the end. Now I have a little extra length to either make into more or use for experiments. When I started looking at the ash, I found they only had pieces about six feet long. I thought I would try beech. I pulled a potential board out of the stack. And pulled. And pulled. These boards ended up being over 14 feet long! Clearly this board was too long. I was beginning to feel like Goldilocks. I went to the hickory, a particularly hard wood and well suited for cutting boards and found a piece that was just right.


After about an hour of digging through the stacks (and re-stacking them neatly again, thank you), I found the four boards we need for our cutting boards: cherry, maple, walnut and hickory. The friendly, helpful employees took out their measuring tape and totaled it up. I had calculated back at the spreadsheet I would need about $73 worth of wood. That was before I found out I would be buying ten foot long boards instead of eight. I knew that would increase my costs. However, by looking around, I was able to find some cheaper grades of wood, cutting the cost. I held my breath and added in a bottle of wood glue. Drum roll, please….

The wood was $76.72. Glue added $8.12 for a total of $84.84. Definitely in line with what I expected to spend. I am actually quite pleased, because with the extra two feet of length, I may be able to squeeze a couple more cutting board in, decreasing the cost per cutting board and creating perhaps two or three more to the sales. Load ‘er up!

Not the best “truck” around…

I promised a picture of the wood loaded into the Miata and here it is. Any more and I don’t think it would have worked very well. As it was, the first corner I want around sent it sliding all over and my shoulder took the brunt. Clearly, this is not the right way to haul wood. Once I got onto the freeway, it stayed put and made it easily back to the warmth of the shop to acclimatize to my low humidity. Next up: Cutting!

Jun 222012

This series on cutting boards is the first project in what I call Social Woodworking. The original sale complete, it is now time to roll up the sleeves and get to work. Over the next couple of weeks, I will chronicle the process of building the cutting boards. If you would like to buy one, you can do so here. My goal is to have them ready for delivery by July 1.  

Look quick! It’s clean. Only took 8 hours to get it this way.

Welcome to the shop

This section will be a little light on pictures because most of the work is done in the “other” shop – the office. It is surprising how much time I have spent working through this project on spreadsheets, Google SkecthUp and scouring the Internet. Time was the tools all stayed out in the shop. Today, the computer is just as important of a tool to master.

As wood has gotten more and more expensive, it is critical to know the costs going in, even for something as simple as a cutting board. I used to just buy a bunch of extra wood when I made a project, knowing I would have plenty of projects for the scrap later. However, when I started checking prices this week, I found walnut has spiked nearly double what I paid on my last project five years ago. Cherry has come down some, which surprised me. Overall, though, wood continues to increase.

New city – where’s the wood?

Another hurdle I have had to overcome is just finding wood. I moved to a new city a couple years ago and haven’t really looked for a good lumberyard until now. There are a few specialty shops, but their prices are astronomical. After doing some digging, asking around and searching the Internet (could mail order really be that much cheaper?), I have found a place that shows promise. I will go visit it on Tuesday after work.

I was surprised to find there are a number of potential mail order vendors for wood. I haven’t tried one of these yet, but it shows promise. The prices are very competitive, even after factoring in shipping. The downsides I can see so far are:

  1. Can’t choose the wood. I really enjoy digging through the piles to find boards with good figure, straight, few defects, etc. I consider this to be a large factor. When building a project, I look for wood that will match the project. For example, when I made a night table, I found a pretty piece of figured walnut hiding in the middle of a pile. I was able to combine a couple of these pieces to make a very pretty table top. I don’t like turning over this ability over to someone else.
  2. Boards are usually 4 feet long. I think they make them shorter for easier shipping. When I buy boards at a lumberyard, they are usually between 8 and 10 feet long. Many projects need lumber longer than 4 feet. This could be a real problem. I can’t just magic the boards back together.
  3. Minimum purchase requirements. Most of the mail order houses require a minimum purchase of 100 board feet. Some projects easily have that much. This project, though, does not. In fact, my calculations for making sixteen cutting boards is about seventeen board feet of four different species.

Waste not, want not

Planning a woodworking project is all about minimizing waste. Each time a board is cut, the saw blade turns 1/8 of an inch of the board into sawdust. Also, boards are never straight. Wood movesas it dries. After all, it was a living tree at one time. The first cut on a board is always an attempt to get a straight line on one edge. Anything cut off to get it is wasted, unusable.

Making a cutting board requires lots of decorative strips to make it pretty. Each strip requires a cut, wasting 1/8 inch. Lots of small strips are pretty, but can cause a lot of sawdust.

My “other” shop. I spend more time here in the beginning.

Get out the spreadsheet

I created a spreadsheet to calculate how much wood I would need to make a cutting board. I can input the species, size and number of wood strips and it calculates the waste and the size of the boards needed. After I got prices for wood, it also calculates the cost of the cutting board. I then had fun, mixing and matching designs to see what would be pretty, yet economical. This is were I discovered a few surprises.

In the past, I had made most of my boards from maple and walnut. I rarely used cherry as it was quite expensive. Now, the maple/walnut combination is the most expensive. That’s great, as I think cherry is much prettier. So now, its time time play, putting together different combinations. While it is possible to do a little experimenting at this stage, nothing beats doing it with the real wood. Right now, I’m playing around with some basic widths to make sure I have the right mix of wood and to decide what to buy.

That should run me about $75 for boards 8 feet long, the standard length for lumber. From those, I should be able to make sixteen cutting and cheese boards. With a ratio of 2:1 cutting boards to cheese boards (based on the orders), I plan to make 10 cutting boards and 6 cheese boards. I received pre-orders for six, leaving me ten for later sale.


How did I come up with the prices of $30 and $35? I used two methods, cost and comparative. Using the spreadsheet, I calculated the estimated cost of the wood for each board to be $5.00 and $5.50 (more wood is required for the cheese board handle). There are some incidental shop supplies like glue, paper towels, sandpaper, and mineral oil. I don’t know how to calculate the overhead of the tools involved: table saw, band saw for cheese boards, router, planer, clamps palm and spindle sanders. I should probably talk to my brother-in-law, the accountant.

Next, there is the time involved. I had to guess on this, as I haven’t timed making one yet. For the initial calculations, I guessed it would take an hour. When I made the board for my daughter last week, I did keep a rough track and learned an hour each is not too far off. The handles on the cheese boards take another 30 minutes I hadn’t thought of, so perhaps they are underpriced. How much is my time worth? I took a shot in the dark at $25/hour. I know there are plenty that would tell me that number is too low. An equal number would probably say too high. What do you think? This is more complicated than I thought.

Next stop: Etsy.com. I don’t want to be out of line with what others are charging. Etsy is a good place for this. I did a search of cutting boards and came to the quick conclusion prices are all over the map. However, it appeared my price was pretty much in the middle of the pack. I can live with that. This is an experiment, after all. Pricing is something I am going to have to work on, however.

What we are aiming to build.
Click on this picture to go to the eStore and buy your own!

Off to the lumberyard

That is today’s update. The next step is to head off to the store and buy wood. From playing, I know I want to get the following boards with the minimum usable width:

  • Maple: 7″ wide
  • Cherry: 6.5″ wide
  • Ash: 4.5″ wide
  • Walnut: 3: wide

I’ll take some pictures of that. It should be interesting, loading wood into a Miata.


May 092012

I am often accused of burning the candle at both ends, sometimes even “in the middle, around the side and up the back” as Redd Foxx said in the old TV show, Sanford and Son. Sometimes, though, my problem is not even lighting the candle. I have good intentions, but somehow can’t quite get started and let things lie for months.

Last month, we took a trip to San Francisco. On the last day, we were in Mountain View, killing time by wandering around the shops in downtown before heading to the airport. One fascinating shop sold all sorts of items for Eastern religions, like Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism. Denise found a candle holder she liked about the same time I found some Chakra candles. I really liked how one smelled, so decided to get it.

Since we have returned, I put the candle on a small table in our bedroom. Every morning as I am putting on my shoes and socks, I would smell the candle and think how nice it would be to actually light it. A month later, I still haven’t lit it. So why not? What is so hard about lighting a single candle?

The more I thought about this candle, the more I realized it is a metaphor for many of the things in my life that I just don’t quite get around to doing. I recently watched The Bucket List, a delightful movie about two elderly men, both stricken with terminal cancers, who decide to live out all the dreams on their lists before they ‘kick the bucket’. It was then that I realized I had to light that candle before I kicked the bucket.

Letting perfection be the enemy of good

My wife often says I am too much of a perfectionist. She is right, of course. I have a drive to do everything perfectly. I don’t know where this comes from, but I know it can drive me crazy. I will plan something interminably so that I won’t do it wrong. The problem is that planning and doing are very different things and one can only help the other so much. Several times over the last month I had planned on lighting the candle, but realized that I needed to make come sort of foil insert in the holder in case the wax dripped. I mentally designed several different methods of folding the foil so that it not only did the job, but would be attractive. I had elaborate origami folds going on in my mind about how to make a square piece of foil fit into a cylinder and become circular at the top… Oh, good grief!

Look for blocking tasks

Often when I don’t get started, it is because there is some task that is subconsciously blocking me. Usually, it is a small task, like the foil being in the kitchen and the candle being in my bedroom. And where did I put the matches? I allow tiny things like this stop me from all sorts of tasks I want to accomplish. I have a shop that needs cleaning, but since I am not sure where the broom is located. Perhaps it is a small purchase the needs to be made and I never remember when I am at the store. It goes on forever. Sometimes I have to just stop and analyze what task is blocking me from starting. Once identified, I can then focus on that particular task and do it. Then the rest becomes easier to get started.

Just make a move

One of the hardest things for me is making the first step. I am paralyzed by just getting one foot in front of the other. Once I get started, finishing is easy. Cleaning the shop would only take 5 to 10 minutes. All I have to do is start sweeping. My mother would ask me when I was a kid, “Are you waiting for an invitation?” I have found putting the task on a list and making that empty check box stare at me can help me get started. Other times I just have to get into action mode and suddenly starting one task leads to a bunch of them getting completed – starting one makes it easy to start another. Just getting started makes everything fall into place.

Leave room for spontaneity

Occasionally, I have to quit planning and be spontaneous. A few years after we were married, Denise challenged me to do something without planning it to the Nth degree. I realized then that I didn’t know how to just do something without laying it all out. I have worked on this since then, but I still have trouble being spontaneous. Something as simple as going for ice cream can be a paralyzing planning session for me. It is rare that I can surprise my wife, but every now and then, I do it. Just pick something and do it. Don’t plan it, design it or “begin with the end in mind.” Just get moving and see where it goes.

Just Do It

Nike had the right idea with this ad campaign. Just do it. Don’t wait around for the perfect set of conditions. Don’t wait for the sun to shine, the stars to align or the foil to be made into the perfect wax basin. Just light the candle! Strike a match and leave the consequences to another day. Take a risk and see what happens.

I love watching a candle burn. It is very relaxing and peaceful. This one smells really nice, too.