“Where do you get your wood from?” the man asked, as he wandered through the workshop, his eyes searching through the different colours for identity. My answer? “Well, anywhere and everywhere I can!” It was a truth I can now describe in a fullness many can’t.

In some ways, I consider myself more an opportunist more than a planning seeker although I do plan my days, weeks and months for the many things I do too — so I will always make the most of every opportunity, and that’s the difference. I’m not much different to most woodworkers I’ve known through the years, but there is that unique percentage that seems always to fall on a deal or a bargain in wood-hunting that the ordinary guy never gets a look-in on. I tend to call it wood radar. As I walk, drive and ride I look, watch, wait and listen. Sensing is not like the water divining but a conscious and subconscious awareness for anything wood. Even the smell alone often tells me of the presence of different woods.

Over the years, you gradually develop a sort of sixth sense, an eye and an ear if you will for finding wood. Sometimes you seek out wood and in others, the wood seeks you out. Sometimes you come across a good deal and other times your good deal turns sour in a heartbeat. There are many elements to finding your wood and the wood-opportunist has a heightened awareness and sensitivity that aids his stocking up.

Between my leaving the UK in 1986 and returning in 2009 terms have come into being that at one time we would have said was a con. “Character oak” is a good example. Character oak is an oak board or section with a large amount of, well, character, it’s true. In reality, it is wood that we would have once called unusable. The indescribable described this way seems to be more highly regarded and more highly priced than it would have been at one time. Knowing what you are buying is important. Sometimes, often, character wood is the most difficult wood to work and the most difficult to control. Occasionally, it can give decoration to a piece that might otherwise be too plain. Our creative juices flow when a wood comes with burrs and burls and whorls and other textures naturally occurring for us to work with. Generally, I think that it is fair to say we are looking for wood we can control. The odd knot, section of divergent grain, colour stray and such are acceptable. Wood with an even grain configuration, moderate colour changes and dry is the wood we want most.

Walnut slabbed in a small woodmiser mill is enough machine work for a hand tool man like me.

Green wood is the wood we take from the log stem freshly cut without any kind of curing or drying. We can get this wood for free or we can pay too much for it. I used to get calls from people who had a walnut or a mesquite that had come down on their property right next to the house. “You can have it for free if you’d like!” What I knew was that they had had a quote for a thousand dollars to have it removed. More of it was leaning dangerously close to the house they lived in. Leaning trees and US stick-frame homes can be a bad thing waiting to happen. I usually declined. These were often a job for those with the winches and cranes. That said, I have ended up with good wood this way, even though I needed to be patient before the wood was dried down enough to use.

When we made the White House pieces I had some highly figured mesquite I had gathered a few months before that I cut the edge-banding from. We were able to book-match every facet of the two opposite pieces now standing either side of the Cabinet Room leading the the Oval Office. Little did I know when I cut those trees that the wood take up so eminent a position. I had no idea.

Over the years we opportunists accumulate.Believe it or not I have twenty boards of mesquite 18″ wide and 8′ long that I have as yet nit found a use for. At age 70 I need to move on it. I have many woods I have not found a use for as yet and I realised this week for the very first time that there are always fewer and fewer tomorrows for everyone born on this earth. Come to 70 and reality hits!

Every run to the wood mill and wood supply necessitates great self-constraint. there will always be a bargain not to be missed or an economy of time and money for you to consider. I love having wood in that has no destiny. Some pieces I have yet had for 20 years. A block of vintage ebony, lignum vitae and pink ivory have followed me for three decades and more. Perhaps they will become something beyond my life’s span; pegs for a violin, stringing or purfling, inlay. Who knows? Not me! Not yet!

“Where do you buy your wood from, Paul?” I never really know where my next piece of wood will come from. It’s an excursion from the norm, a rabbit trail into unknown territory, the end of a long and winding road seemingly leading to nowhere. Maybe one day I can describe the long drive from the UK to the Nueces river, Uvalde, Texas where the big mesquites grow and where my 1952, one-ton flatbed truck went down to both axles with the weight of the logs as I crossed the river and the winch seemed almost to give out but at the last minute pulled that sucker right out of the river mud at the very last minute and I was in my way. Those were the days! No digital imagery, no smart suits and smart phones. Pre facebook and YouTube sensationalist woodworking with hype and spin didn’t yet exist and every fast-paced narrator was still yet to be born. I’m glad to have lived the pure reality when a lone Englishman in a lone Lone Star truck took a journey alone across some wild rangeland to feed his family and pitched himself against an emerging world he might never, ever understand!

41 Comments

  1. Jeremy on 5 August 2020 at 1:22 am

    Great writing, Paul. Inspired me to get back in the shop and use some of my wood. I love having wood with no destiny, too. Gives the shop a sense of limitless possibility. I picked up some Patagonian Rosewood for a good price and look forward to the moment where I will know the right project to use it for – and hope it doesn’t turn out terrible. Thanks for the inspiration and the lessons; they have been invaluable.

  2. Steve P on 5 August 2020 at 4:46 am

    Radar? More like medullary ray-dar…

  3. David Bentz on 5 August 2020 at 6:56 am

    Powerful words and beautiful thoughts from life well lived. I’m a cynic and all I can think of after reading them is ‘Oh, what a wonderful world.’!

  4. Sylvain on 5 August 2020 at 9:25 am

    “… I realised this week for the very first time that there are always fewer and fewer tomorrows for everyone born on this earth.”
    I hope nothing serious with your health happened this week.

    If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that we’ll all die someday. We just don’t know the date and hour. Most people don’t want to see it. But with the covid-19 it comes in full light.

    While looking for “wiki life expectancy”, I see an interesting graph showing the relation between life expectancy and income inequality in rich countries. Food for thought.
    Sylvain

  5. Stephen McGonigle on 5 August 2020 at 11:25 am

    “Where do you get your wood from?”, well almost certainly not from certain nationwide DIY stores. Over priced pine with the sap still oozing at no extra cost. Friends and neighbours know of my habits and a surprising amount comes that way. I’ve begged timber from people at the tip when it was about to be thrown. I’m a total ‘skip rat’ and find so much there. I always ask efore taking it, and have never been refused. I love working oak, and my favourite source is old drop leaf or gate-leg tables. These are everywhere and seriously unfashionable which leads to their being cheap. In the north (Stockport) I pay around £20 -£25 each, sometimes less. Where else can you buy 80 year old seasoned oak for that money? They also supply hinges and screws which I save.
    With much pine being improperly seasoned, check the charity shops that sell furniture. I buy old wardrobes and chest of drawers with the sole purpose of harvesting them for their timber.
    I have to admit that as well as furnishing me with great wood, I get a great satisfaction from this behaviour.

  6. Stephen McGonigle on 5 August 2020 at 11:32 am

    Should anyone in the UK ever get the chance, visit Kilburn in Yorkshire, the home of Mouseman Thompson furniture. There’s a great museum dedicated to furniture making, and around the tiny village there are huge oaks, sawn into planking and slowly seasoning. I can only describe these as mouth watering.

    • Rob Ling on 13 August 2020 at 10:41 am

      I’ve been there before I was really into woodworking but loved it. Good cafe too (I like my food). If you ever visit Hull Minster, there are mouseman pieces in there too featuring the trademark mouse. The mice are quite tricky to find. I spent an evening walking around the building with my photography club and spent most of the time looking for the Robert Thompson stuff instead of taking pictures.

  7. Michael Rodgers on 5 August 2020 at 1:06 pm

    Paul,
    Having crossed the Nueces near Uvalde many times (but without a load of Mesquite), I fully realize the import of your story. Gutsy!

    Regarding Mesquite, almost all ranchers despise it because it allegedly sucks up water during hot dry Texas summers. Cows don’t complain though and neither do woodworkers. It is beautiful material with which to work.

    Thanks Paul!

    • Sylvain on 5 August 2020 at 1:33 pm

      Actually, trees hedges reduce the effect of drying winds, they give some shadow and give a better structure to the soil which retains more water.
      Here, with the climate warming, farmers are encouraged to plant back edges which were taken away to facilitate the use of machines.
      Sylvain

      • Michael Rodgers on 5 August 2020 at 4:01 pm

        True, the restoration of “forested” edges are very important in Texas to reduce soil erosion and its dehydration. I put forested in quotation marks because much of Texas consists of grassland/prairie ecosystems. The country around Uvalde is hill country mixed with grasslands. A big problem here is overgrazing pastures and replacing native grasses with “improved” varieties resulting in fertilizer-dependent monocultures that ultimately worsen the groundwater problem. The native grasses generally have deeper root structures that promote better soil structure and are much better at retaining soil and moisture. Ranchers who have gone to the expense and trouble to restore native grasslands along with better management of rotating cattle between pastures dramatically improve groundwater availability. Very important in a hot/dry climate. (Sorry about the long-winded reply. I don’t mean to be one of those guys.)

        • RH on 12 August 2020 at 11:17 pm

          Uvalde, TX. Home of ‘Cactus’ Jack Garner, Vice-President with FDR before Harry Truman.

    • Paul Sellers on 5 August 2020 at 3:45 pm

      In reality the ranchers got it wrong too though. Apparently mesquite bring up more water than they consume and give it back by releasing moisture from the leaves, hence it always being green under the mesquites

  8. David R Grindel on 5 August 2020 at 3:45 pm

    Paul, thanks much for reminding me of an incident where I recovered some wood that was in the burn bin. It looked like a cross-beam used on telephone poles. It was only 3 or 4 ft long and had a good size check at one end. I put in the truck and eventually cleaned it up and made my dad a puzzle box from one end. He couldn’t beleive that was the wood from the burn bin. The only problem is I still don’t know what kind of wood I saved. It might be cherry but I’m not sure. And I still have the other section that’s waiting for a purpose that’s not in the fire. This took place about 30 years ago. So yes, thanks for the memory!
    Dave

  9. Paul Boegel on 5 August 2020 at 4:25 pm

    My dad was a scrounger and left me with that bug. I live in an old house with my wife and I am 70 now as well. The full width front porch of the house has a room underneath that is about 12ft wide and 30ft long which is now my wood room. I have taken futons out of our back alley for the pine in them. One of the things I do is make toys so I can cut around screw holes to get parts at no cost. I found a lemon tree about 18in wide in the parking lot where I worked and took the trunk to a woodwork show. A fellow demonstrating his band mill had run out of wood so I got him to cut it us for the cost of coffees for the crew. I traded that later for some walnut. I have 4 12/4x8ft unused boards of western red cedar I took out of a garage destined to be demolished. Most of my wood has been found through one thing or another. I am cutting up a western red cedar at a friends place that owes me some money. About 3-4ft in diameter and 8ft long. I have a froe to see if I can splt boards off the sections I bring home to save wood as the chainsaw is very wasteful. This will become Adirondac chairs that I can sell to buy the wood that I want when I need things. I have about 50bf of Western maple in my shop destined to become my woodwork bench. I bought up the offcuts from a cabinet shop some time back as the short pieces of walnut and mahogany are excellent to make highlight pieces for the toys. Once the bench is made I will go into full production on the toys and make up a website for it. Plus I have traded and sold some of the wood I came across. I am also fortunate to have a hardwood supply about an hours drive away but once responded to an ad up the Fraser Valley near Vancouver where a guy had slabbed some Western maple and was selling it to pay for building his house. It was on the top of a mountain and he was selling it for $2/bf. I gave him $200 and came home carefully with a seriously overloaded Toyota pickup truck. That was many years ago and I have since used all of it to make cutting boards and traded for some walnut. There are opportunities that should not be missed. Yes Paul, I understand what you are talking about.

  10. BigD on 5 August 2020 at 5:56 pm

    My oldest son has about 80 black walnut turning squares that I bought in 1984 when he was only 4. He has been hesitant to use them but I think the next time he comes out to check on us parents I’m going to give him a nudge to start using them.

    I have lived in the Texas panhandle since 1963 and I have never seen the big mesquite trees. The ones we have here are short, squatty, and have nasty thorns on them. I went to work at a natural gas plant in 85 and one of the first things I learned not to do was to roll down the window and rest my arm on the door when I was out in a pasture checking on meters.

  11. Joe on 5 August 2020 at 6:15 pm

    Thanks Paul. I’ve been curious about this based on other blogs you’ve posted and enjoyed this detailed discussion.

    My father, 81, is proud of the fact that he only once needed to buy wood. Otherwise, he has collected free wood over this lifetime. Having grown up with him, there is plenty of free wood if you get used to looking for it.

    One of his favorite stories is of a hardwood lumber store in the San Francisco called MacBeth hardwood. In the 1960s, they used to keep the dumpster of their hardwood offcuts outside their chain-link fence and encouraged folks to dumpster diver for the wood (as it was less material they needed to dispose of). My dad obtained may smaller pieces (good for furniture making) of hardwood this way. Unfortunately two individuals got in a fight one evening over some wood so MacBeth stopped providing the offcuts for dumpster diving.

    With Covid-19 resulting in many being out of work, I noticed several friends searching for free pallets that they could then convert to ice coolers, etc that they could make and sell. They seemed to find them without too much difficulty.

  12. Harold on 5 August 2020 at 6:25 pm

    I thought I was the only one that goes digging in nontraditional places for wood. I will haul off old piano’s — free for the taking — and repurpose the wood. I have driven around in the wealthier neighborhoods, on bulk trash pickup days and scored some really nice hardwoods from furniture items that are considered no longer useful. Old pallets, short logs and the occasional torn down cedar fence are all in my sights.

    • John2v on 5 August 2020 at 11:10 pm

      Ive just finished making a couple of pallets from an old coffee table😇

    • Orestis on 10 August 2020 at 3:35 pm

      @Harold i have recently acquired some old piano cabinet parts, they are veneered. Do you take the veneer off or do you leave it on if you want to build a chest , for example?

  13. Mark D. Baker on 5 August 2020 at 6:47 pm

    Aloha Paul,
    You make me feel justified !!
    for years, I have recycled woods of the world from pallets and ‘done-age’ across construction job sites and found some real gems.
    Mahalo,
    Mark Baker

  14. RS Hughes on 5 August 2020 at 6:59 pm

    My previous neighbour was a joiner and cabinet maker called Angus. His wife (sadly no longer among us) inherited a lot of early Victorian mahogany furniture which she hated so Angus dismantled it and laid it aside.
    Fin Finally he decided on a clearout and told me he was chucking it out. “Chuck it in here then” I said.
    I’m coming to the end of it now, but a few weeks ago a fellow gave me a couple of blocks of English Oak that came out of the roof of an old house.
    I’ve just finished carving a foredeck cleat for a wooden boat from the smaller piece, thanks to your lessons in chisel setting and sharpening!
    Some years ago I built steps for my cousin’s raised verandah in Western Australia using some old Jarrah that the previous owner had chucked under the verandah. Dear heavens that stuff was like cast iron! I hope I never have to work that hard again but what a beautiful timber it is.

  15. Ed T on 6 August 2020 at 4:28 am

    One of the You Tube channels run by a construction worker confirms that in the U.S. at least, you should avoid pallet wood at all costs. Most of it is treated with carcinogenic chemicals used to both preserve the wood and keep pests from gnawing on it. I haven’t ever used it as I learned that a long time ago. Instead, head to your big box or lumber yard. They always (mine always do) have a huge culling pile they love to get emptied. Most of the stores in my area will not let customers take pallets for this reason.

    • Andrew on 10 August 2020 at 12:21 pm

      I’ve happily used pallet wood in the garden to make planters. I give the end grain additional preservative. Plants, whether for food or decoration, are kept away from the wood by additional containers. Another source of garden timber arises from replacement of tiled roofs. With permission, the used battens are removed from the site. They can be quite long before they reach the skip. I de-nail them (tedious) in the sun, proof them and use galvanised nails to make trellis. This is thicker than the flimsy offerings of garden centres and far more durable. This work is hardly cabinet-making, but has saved huge amounts of cash.

    • Paulo on 11 August 2020 at 11:19 am

      Hi Ed,
      Way before I even got interest on proper hand woodworking I’ve used pallet wood for extending my porch as a garden walkway (pallet wood and pallet nails, I wanted the bragging rights). I have purposely selected untreated wood – pallets are usually marked with an international standard of letter, HT stands for Heat Treated (only), and should be untreated, also good for burning. Steer away from MB as this is treated with Methyl Bromide (poison). An internet search can provide much more info

      I’m looking forward to seeing my walkway showing so signs of decay so I can: work demolishing, cutting, redrying and burning it for free heating …oh, the joy of building walkway 2.0 only using hand tools (with more free wood) 😀

      Ps: Some of the wood I got from pallets was just too good for walking on. I’ve got a sawing horse made which will probably outlive me!

      Noho ora mai,
      Paulo

  16. Michael Mier on 6 August 2020 at 12:21 pm

    Hi Paul, my first time comment from the Netherlands.
    I usually check any skips or furniture dumped on the side of the road to check for usable wood. Few weeks ago, I stumbled across a coffee table made of solid Wengé (Panga panga) with a stone mozaïek top. It was pegged and screwed together, so once taken to pieces fitted in my hatchback. Wengé is on the endangered list and sometimes used as a substitute for ebony.
    I would encourage woodworkers to keep a sharp eye open for skips and tips and second-hand furniture shops. Re-cycling and reclaiming is often better for the environment.

  17. Andrew on 10 August 2020 at 12:02 pm

    I turned sycamore from the garden to make chisel handles. 3/4″ copper pipe off cuts formed the ferrules (yes the real old copper pipe}. The chisel blades were assorted second hand items bought at a cattle market, but most carried the word “Sheffield”. Other than incising a few rings for grip, the handles were not decorated or lacquered. They were intended entirely to to be functional. None has broken in any way. Now 40 years old, they will certainly outlast me. I’ve been amused that friends are impressed by them, they are so simple (the handles, not my friends). I think that perhaps they are feeling “I could could do that too”.

  18. Gary on 10 August 2020 at 4:09 pm

    I have been fortunate that when my father retired in 1975 he bought a tractor driven saw mill with a three foot blade. He sawed many walnut, cherry, sassafras, oak, and maple logs into 8-10 foot boards of varying thickness. Those boards were stored flat until the early 2000s when my son had a chance to buy all ~20,000 lbs of it from the second owner who bought it when my father passed. It continues to be a great resource for very dry and often heavily figured wood from west central Illinois in the US.

  19. Bruce Fleenor on 10 August 2020 at 4:12 pm

    I’ve always been a “low budget” wood worker using free wood and used tools. I’ve found great wood on the side of the road, house demolition sights etc. I also cruise the big box stores for figured lumber because they dont sort it. I find a lot on Craigslist. Sometimes people justbdont know what they have.

  20. Mike O'Neil on 10 August 2020 at 4:32 pm

    I know what you mean, Paul. I’ve been an “opportunist scrounger/scavenver” for years. I just can’t pass up a “beautiful to me” piece of wood. Just prior to reading this I just happened to strike up a conversation with a man cutting the grass across from my home. He admired my handmade pallet wood tool tote that I was carrying and one thing lead to another in our discussion. He asked if he could have some of the wind fall apples from my tree and I gladly answered yes – to which he then said he had some true 3/4″ by 6″ by 4 foot maple boards that he would give me in exchange. Serendipity strikes again!

  21. Martin on 10 August 2020 at 9:07 pm

    Excellent advice. I am into day 3 of using the sides and backs of old drawers to provide clean flat thin wood to make the shelves of a display cabinet for my smaller tools. Not only am I reusing, but as all the drawers are coming out of furniture in my late father’s house there will be a link to the past in the new piece of furniture. I had hoped to get some thicker boards from the main body of the chests of drawers but they turned out to be very thin ply and beading masquerading as solid timber.

  22. Gerard on 10 August 2020 at 9:54 pm

    From New Zealand, thank you all for your comments: they have warmed me at the start of a wet, cool winter’s day. I’m not alone in my desire to re-use timber, wherever it may be found.

    • Paulo on 11 August 2020 at 11:38 am

      Tino pai Gerard!
      Still cold, but getting warmer here in Aotearoa/New Zealand

      In terms of warm words, how about these, from those who came here before you or I?

      “He kai kei aku ringa“

      “There is food at the end of my hands“

      Said by a person who can use his basic abilities and resources to create success.

      I often recall these words when I look at the work Mr. Sellers’ does, be it shaping wood or knowledge 🙂

      • Paul Sellers on 11 August 2020 at 4:30 pm

        Paulo, This brought tears to my eyes just for the kindness of it. I think it is the only time I have edited anyone’s comment and I didn’t only because it bothered you so. Thank you! These are the little things that make the ordinary very extraordinary!

        • Paulo on 12 August 2020 at 8:47 am

          Thank you Paul, I’m humbled.

          I am no authority on either cultures, but I am ‘made of’ words such as those. Such things I come across and they imprint on me, I have no choice but to steer my life by it – thus I can only repay your appreciation with more of it (facing the risk of ‘overdoing it’):

          Reasons why I chose to write my thoughts is, from Japanese:
          the principle of “giri” (‘appreciation’, but much! more) and, another one from my Māori neighbours:

          “Aroha mai, aroha atu“
          “Love received, love returned”
          Aka a positive ‘what goes around, comes around’

          Thanks for the edit 🙂 (words!)

  23. Robert Newman on 10 August 2020 at 11:25 pm

    At 80, I too have come to the realization that I need to use the walnut and cherry that I bought back in Florida in 1975. I have used up the maple, except for one piece of Birdseye. I have a small cabinet project that will probably take the rest of the cherry and two pieces of ambrosia maple I’ve had for several years. The walnut is more difficult because my wife is not a fan of the wood.

  24. Joe Renta on 11 August 2020 at 12:20 am

    Well said as is often the case with your musings Paul. Just this past weekend as we went through many of my Mother’s things as we get things ready to sell, I was reminded of many old things.
    At soon to be 66 I saw a photo of my oldest friend as we sat looking at each other at 6 months of age. I still talk to him weekly. Another School photo of a buddy from 1960. We had plans to attend a ballgame this year but still enjoy the catch up phone calls. Lastly, as I walk by a turkey call on my workbench I think of my newest buddy. We’ve only known each other since 1969. Our homes are wide open for each other.
    I have sincere appreciation for your bringing these memories to light for me. Excuse me as I have some phone calls to make, but first I need to get this dust out of my eye.

  25. JERRY BARNISH on 11 August 2020 at 11:45 am

    ” we know not the hour” is a reality I have lived with for eight and one half years. I was any given moment away from a fatal heart attack until the clog was opened. Every day I try to account for learning as Isaac Watts suggested. So slowly I am studying so to be more effective at woodworking in retirement. At each point I ask as I am working , what would Mr. Sellers do?

  26. Myk Hough on 11 August 2020 at 8:27 pm

    If you believe the words of Psalm 90 then, once you have reached 70 you are on borrowed time or, as I like to call it, “overtime”. The advertising phrases “lifetime guarantee” and “will last a lifetime” bring a wry smile to my face. As a result of ill health and Covid-19 restrictions I have spent almost no time this year on my two hobbies of woodworking and playing bass. Now I’m feeling better I’ve decided to at least get back in the workshop and counter the depressing effects of being idle. Life’s too short to waste any of what remains.

    • RH on 12 August 2020 at 11:22 pm

      I call it being ‘past my use by date.’

      • Vidar Fagerjord Harboe on 21 August 2020 at 11:09 am

        Here in Norway, more and more food items are marked with “best before XX.XX, but often good after”. Whole milk, for instance. Eggs.

        Myk, get your bass out and play to records! Venture into other music genres and have a blast! I have been building my repertoire on the piano over the past 3 years. My musical roots are classical, mainly pipe organ / church music and religious music, the latter of the conservative end of the scale(!).
        I bought a digital piano 8 years ago (have been playing organ since elementary school). The last 3 years, I’ve expanded my playing after joining a band in our local congregation.
        Lately, I’ve been fooling around with different genres while playing “Amazing Graze”. From blues, via gospel, salsa and tango, to country/western and lately early rock’n roll! 😀
        The journey has been wonderful! I’ve become a vastly better piano player, and I’ve discovered a lot of great music that gives my faith a boost. And I’m having a blast!

        So get that bass out, and play! <3<3<3

        The smooting plane too, but PLEASE do not mix the two…

  27. Mike Z. on 27 August 2020 at 8:58 pm

    It is amazing to imagine the journey a man from England took to end up in the so called “badlands” of a place like Texas. Why I enjoy this blog and indeed Mr. Sellers’ work overall. It is a rare individual who has experienced so much and can appeal to such a wide audience, on either side of the Atlantic. Keep up the good work and please stay healthy. I have a stash of alder that is well over 30 years old now, came from my father in law’s shop when he died. I have been thinking I need to use it soon as I am not getting any younger either. Cured, dried and straight as can be now also.

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