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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!