First time going to the lumber yard, which wood to buy for a dresser

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Forum topic by knexster posted 05-29-2020 03:37 AM 1339 views 0 times favorited 17 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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71 posts in 2498 days

05-29-2020 03:37 AM

I might be a bit spunky with this project, but I’ve learned if I go slow, think hard, and give myself forgiveness for mistakes, I can manage a project that is a big stretch for my actual skill set. I’m going to build this dresser…

Problem is, I’ve never bought wood outside a big box store, and this is my first project calling for board feet, and not dimensional lumber. Naturally, I have a lot of questions, and I just don’t feel comfortable going to the lumber yard and trying to get answers to all of them, so I decided to start here. I’ll try to be concise with my questions, as I want to be respectful of the time of anyone who decides to read this and offer help, so thank you in advance.

1. Looking at the project outline, I’m not sure what width the boards need to be. I understand the 4/4, 8/4, etc., but I’m totally thrown off without the actual dimensions I need. After doing some calculations, I THINK it seems I should be looking for 6” wide boards all around, but I just can’t be sure. I know once I get the wood I’ll be able to lay out all the cuts and get a real visual of what to do, but I would really be appreciative if an expert could look at the plans and give me some guidance on the widths of what I should be looking for.

2. I’d love to go for Cherry and Yellow Birch as suggested, but while I’m confident in tackling this project, I am not comfortable with risk of spending hundreds of dollars on the wood to find out I’ve truly bit off more than I can chew. I thought about just using straight pine, but I’m just not sure that would turn out well, especially since the plans call for two types of wood… Can anyone suggest affordable woods that would still preserve the quality of the piece? Maybe I can get away with less than $200 on the wood? Seems unlikely… But it sure doesn’t help that hardwood dealers don’t seem to advertise their prices online, and from what I understand, things aren’t exactly stocked with barcode stickers once you do get there lol.

Again, I will be immensely grateful for any guidance offered.
Below I’m including the materials list that contains a cut list, along the suggested BF.

5 BF 8/4, 2 BF 6/4, 18BF 5/4, 24 BF 4/4, 2 BF 3/4 cherry lumber
24 BF 4/4, 25 BF 3/4 yellow birch lumber

-- Don't think outside the box. Think as if there is no box at all.

17 replies so far

View Walker's profile


465 posts in 1687 days

#1 posted 05-29-2020 03:52 AM

First of all, make sure you understand how to calculate board feet. Easy to google. You need to think in three dimensions. The next thing to consider is waste. If you’re buying rough cut lumber that is 4/4, you’ll need to surface it, which will reduce the dimensions down. If you’re buying already surfaced lumber (more $$$), it will likely warp by the time you get it home and get to using it. So squaring it up again will eat away at those BF. Proper storage will reduce warping. Also, you might mess up a piece and need to scrap it. A tough pill to swallow for sure, but having some extra lumber on hand that matches your project is a good idea. Nothing worse than being mostly done with a project, finding you need one more piece of cherry, but the lumber yard won’t get a shipment for two weeks.

As far as needing two different woods, that’s up to you. You could also get one species and finish with two different stains. Sometimes building furniture it’s easier to stain/finish pieces before final assembly. As for cheapest species, that depends where you live and what’s available. This site has good info about species and characteristics like workability, hardness, porousness, etc.

Most lumber yards charge by boardfoot. They’ll likely have a price list and after you select your pieces they’ll measure them and do the math. So you’ll have to estimate in your head as you pick out pieces. Bring a tape measure with you.

For a first big project like this, it will be tough to go to the yard once and walk away with all of your materials. I would see if you could break down into smaller sections. For instance buy the materials and work on just the frame first. Then get what you need for the panels. When that’s done, go back and get the stock you need for the drawers. Whatever way makes most sense to you and your work flow.

-- ~Walker

View SMP's profile


4725 posts in 1120 days

#2 posted 05-29-2020 03:54 AM

If i were you, i would go to the local lumberyard and walk around. Bring a tape measure and a notepad. Go look at their cherry and birch and get prices first per BF. Then look the average widths of most of the boards. For example my local lumberyard cherry in 4/4 is about $5.33 per BF, and most of the boards are around 5-7 inches wide. I had to really dig to find 9-10” pieces i needed for a project. Do this also for the 5/4, and 6/4 etc. You’ll then want to look at your cut list, and possibly draw it out, and see ok if I get a 5” wide board I can rip the 2 1/8 piece and the 1 7/8” piece with an inch of waste, but if I get a 6-7” piece I could probably rip those two and a 1 3/8 piece. Its a bit of trial and error puzzle piecing together but Inthink you get the idea. Also check what their “return” is, for example they may sell 10 or 12’ long pieces and require a 6’ return, meaning you can get a 4’ piece or you have to buy the whole board. So on your pieces that are 60 7/8”, you wouldn’t be able to get 2 lengthwise out of one true 10’ board unless you found one a little longer. Some places don’t let you pick through boards, i avoid places like that. And remember the price for boars foot, you have to basically double the price for 8/4, multiply by 1.5 for 6/4 etc, in case you think the price looks similar, its not really when you do the calculation. Hope that helps a bit.

View Walker's profile


465 posts in 1687 days

#3 posted 05-29-2020 04:07 AM

I glanced through the link, not in too much detail. Something to note, there were a lot of different thicknesses. Pieces are 1/2”, 5/8”, 1 1/4”, 7/8”. It’s not likely you’ll walk into a lumber yard and find all those. You’ll probably see 5/4 rough, 8/4 rough, and maybe some dimensioned lumber that’s 4/4. You’ll have to plane down to the final dimensions yourself.

Also, as width increase so does price. Cherry for example might be one price per BF at 6” widths, and at 10+” widths it’s more expensive per BF. The plans seem to have some fairly wide panels in places. (9 3/4 drawer sides). The top panel is 24×66”. You’re not going to get one piece of wood that big. You’ll need to join together smaller width boards. You could also consider plywood, and masking the edges with hardwood or veneer the edges.

-- ~Walker

View GaryCK's profile


134 posts in 1264 days

#4 posted 05-29-2020 04:28 AM

I agree with Walker, in that you’re likely to find 5/4 cherry and maybe some 8/4, certainly not all of the thicknesses you’ll need in the finished project. There were a couple of watch-outs in the article, too.

”I carefully selected boards whose hues and shades would go well together when finished.”

”When I am not using stain on a project I purchase about 20% more stock than my materials list calls for. This allows me to use only the most interesting and visually pleasing sections of the boards.”

You’ll definitely want to get more wood than you need. 20% seems like a good rule of thumb. I’d also buy some extra wood, perhaps a less expensive species, to practice some of the joinery that was new to me. I’ve never cut a dovetail, for example, and would want to practice that before trying it for a finished product. Poplar is an inexpensive wood that might be good for that.

Watch for significant blemishes in the boards you look through and think through how you might cut boards around them. SMP is right in this regard, only shop at places that will let you go through a pile to select your boards. Coupled with that is your need to securely and neatly restack everything you unstack and don’t buy.

One other thing I mentally kicked myself when someone told it to me. It is such an obvious concept but one I had completely overlooked. Cut individual boards out of the rough stock then mill them to thickness. If you try to mill an entire rough cut board, you’ll always end up with more waste as the longer and wider a board is, the greater the chance for twist or warp you’ll need to mill out. You get a lot better yield milling boards individually.

It looks like a very cool, challenging project. Good choice.

-- Gary, Wisconsin

View Aj2's profile


4032 posts in 3013 days

#5 posted 05-29-2020 05:23 AM

Forget about that cut list too confusing. I would like to suggest that you draw on paper all the different sides. So your not mixed up when you go to the lumber pick out you boards.
These boards are for the top these boards are for the fronts and so on.
After your all done throw a couple more good ones in for piece of mind.

Good Luck

-- Aj

View therealSteveN's profile


8652 posts in 1789 days

#6 posted 05-29-2020 06:29 AM

Forget about that cut list too confusing. I would like to suggest that you draw on paper all the different sides. So your not mixed up when you go to the lumber pick out you boards.
These boards are for the top these boards are for the fronts and so on.
After your all done throw a couple more good ones in for piece of mind.

Good Luck

- Aj2

Best way to pick wood I know of. Break it downs to the need this, then add at least 10% extra, stuff happens.

It’s also best to really pay attention to the color, and grain differences. Saying Cherry brings to mind for me at least 50 looks, add Curly, Gummy, and you can get a circus of looks. If you pick the entire circus you can say with a straight face, yep it’s all Cherry, but someone would think it’s several types of wood.

The other thing is your dealer big enough to move a lot of wood, in a relatively quick period. If not you start getting a huge intermix of wood from different trees, this is when you start looking for the circus animals. A big dealer is more likely to have available lots of wood, all from the same tree/order/delivery, color and grain are a LOT easier then. Often this could be a higher cost, but worth it at every turn.

Thats a nice dresser, good luck with it.

-- Think safe, be safe

View CaptainKlutz's profile


4859 posts in 2709 days

#7 posted 05-29-2020 06:32 AM

Hmm, so much to learn to before your first trip?

+1 above comments.

1) Need to understand lumber grading a little. Not every sq inch of every board is usable, so you should always buy extra. Here is an illustrated guide to lumber grading that might you understand more about selecting right boards:
They have one picture I want to highlight:

As AJ2 suggested, When you have a long cut list, attempting to mentally use a cut list in pick boards is almost impossible. Focus instead on getting enough total lumber, and make sure you pick your visible face boards to have consistent color and quality.

2) My rule of thumb is buy 15-25% extra, depending on species. Some species like Cherry can be very challenging to buy, and need to allow for up to 30% waste (depending on grade you supplier offers).
FAS (First And Second) cherry lumber can look like this:

#1 quality lumber can look like this:

If you don’t want white sap wood, or do not want to use stain; picking cherry lumber always results in white sap wood that can only be used on non-visible areas or is waste.

3) Break up the lumber selection into key areas. For your chest, suggest you want table top boards to be nearly perfect? Finding the required long, straight, and even coloration boards for this component would be one key area. Another key sub-selection would finding boards to use across the face of your drawers, to enable same grain direction across the entire chest. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing ugly with random grain direction, and/or knots and imperfections in projects. But things look better when either prefect and/or rustic looks are kept balanced across the entire visible side of project.

There is more, but this will get you started.
Please ask questions if something is not clear.

Best Luck!

-- If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all, Doom, despair, agony on me… - Albert King - Born Under a Bad Sign released 1967

View jdh122's profile


1262 posts in 4032 days

#8 posted 05-29-2020 11:55 AM

About the species selection: there is no need to make it out of cherry if you don’t want to pay the price. Pine would certainly work, it will get more dinged up, but that’s not the end of the world.

Note too that it’s not really a mixed-species project in that cherry is used everywhere the wood is visible, while birch is used elsewhere (sides and backs of drawers, mostly – these add up quickly to a lot of wood). For centuries people have been using expensive wood where it will be seen and a cheaper species where it will not. But you can certainly use only a single type of wood (although only cherry would get expensive).

Personally I like yellow birch a lot, a nice light color like maple but it mellows a bit more with age. Its grain structure is very similar to cherry so if you want to mess about with stains you could get close to a cherry color, but I wouldn’t bother. In most of eastern Canada we can get yellow birch pretty cheaply (1/4 to 1/3 of price for cherry). So I would probably make it out of yellow birch for the primary wood (in fact I’m making a birch chest of drawers right now).

-- Jeremy, in the Acadian forests

View John Jardin's profile

John Jardin

103 posts in 855 days

#9 posted 05-29-2020 12:58 PM

I think the dresser is too ambishious a project for a beginner.
Most of us with years of experience would consider it a challenge.
If you are having a problem calculating board feet, then I suggest that you start off with a simple project; one that will give you experience with lumber preparation, joinery, use of tools and finally finishing.
By considering such a large project as this piece, it tells me that you have the willpower for accomplishment. That alone should drive you to gain knowledge about the craft.

John J

View Holbs's profile


2382 posts in 3244 days

#10 posted 05-29-2020 01:50 PM

Best to do a test run on a much smaller project. Go for a bird house. Treat it seriously and go through the motions of purchasing rough lumber, selecting your lumber (finding the knots, grain directions, etc), how to transfer it home, how to store it when not in use, etc. Would give you the experience

-- The Carpenter Bee is derived from the Ancient Greek word wood-cutter "xylokopos/ξυλοκὀπος"

View Madmark2's profile


3061 posts in 1803 days

#11 posted 05-29-2020 02:17 PM

Ask your significant other what wood they like. You’ld be a fool not to!

Do you have a planer and table saw to convert that rough lumber into S4S? How are your jack plane skills?

Planning on doing dovetails for the drawers? Do you have router/bits/jig and experience?

Tapering legs? Got a taper jig?

Build in stages. Carcase first, face frame next, then drawers and doors. Top last. This will keep you from having to buy & store everything at once.

Drawers need runners and doors need hinges. Got a drill press, 35mm forstner bit & self centering hinge pilot bits?

Going for raised panel doors? You’ll need a router table, rail & stile cutters and panel raiser bit.

How is your clamp inventory? Got plenty of small clamps to make more than one drawer at a time? How about long clamps big enough to span the entire dresser? Are you planning on making the top? Can you handle a glue up that size.

I’m asking these questions because you indicate you are a beginner and may not have realized the tools and skill set necessary for such a project. There is more to it than just cutting all the pieces on the cut list & assembling.

I don’t have all the clamps and space to make that project and I’ve got $10k in tools!

-- The hump with the stump and the pump!

View ChefHDAN's profile


1816 posts in 4064 days

#12 posted 05-29-2020 02:59 PM

As said above, rather than tackle a huge project that can have you getting frustrated with all of the little details, shoot for a little smaller project that will help you develop many skills to go towards the next project. Take a look at this little shaker table video , I think I’ve built 4 or 5 of them, it surprising how little stock they take to make, and they are great gifts whenever I need one to give, there is always room for a small table in the house. I draw plans for all of my work now, but rarely are the final pieces a match to the plan, there is SO MUCH that is really best learned from experience, chase the journey not the destination.

-- I've decided 1 mistake is really 2 opportunities to learn.. learn how to fix it... and learn how to not repeat it

View Zort's profile


39 posts in 981 days

#13 posted 05-29-2020 04:54 PM

While it is sometimes difficult to look at wood prices in a yard and not see big dollar signs compared to the big box stores. it is useful to dig a little deeper.
My store sells a 1 X 4 by 8 foot select pine for 14.67. This particular piece of wood is actually 3/4 by 3 1/2 as it has been milled. So for the sake of my example at a yard you would buy 4/4, lets say 4 inch and 8 foot long. that means this is 2.67 board feet. That works out to 5.50 per board foot—for pine.

To put this in perspective, the last time I bought lumber:

6/4 cherry 3.95 per board foot. Add 30 cent per board foot to have it straight lined and planed on both sides. My supplier is pretty awesome because I asked them to plane “lightly” and then set it aside for a week and then plane to 1 1/4 inches (to minimize warpage). I had to wait 10 days for the lumber but it was worth it.

4/4 Poplar $2.95 per board foot.

View bondogaposis's profile


6027 posts in 3566 days

#14 posted 05-29-2020 09:59 PM

My eyes are too old to read your list. You need to make a new list that is organized by all of the lumber you will need at different thicknesses. Most lumber yards will have wood in 4/4, 5/4 and 8/4, group your parts in those categories and look a the maximum widths you need for each, then look at linear feet in each in each thickness. then you will begin to have a clue as to how many boards in each thickness you will need. Buy 20% more than you think you need, you’ll use it on the next project if not this one. It is kind of an art because the lumber yard will likely not have boards in the most efficient sizes for your project. Even with the best planning you will have to wing it once you’re there. Worse case scenario is that you’ll have go back for more if you under estimate.

-- Bondo Gaposis

View knexster's profile


71 posts in 2498 days

#15 posted 05-30-2020 04:47 AM

Thank you all so much for all of your feedback. I do greatly appreciate everyone who is offering tips, and pointing out that this may be too ambitious.

Walker, I will certainly keep in mind the potential warping after I get home. As far as the stain, that’s a great idea. I think getting one affordable wood and using different stains is a good budget friendly strategy. Thank you for the link. I took a look, and I’ll definitely be using that resource in the future. I think you’re right about sectioning off the project, that is as great way to take the project in bite sized pieces, and budget my costs over a longer period of time rather than buying everything all at once.

As far as finding wood in the right dimensions, I figured I’ll have to panel up a few boards in certain areas, especially the top. As for thickness, I’ll either have to plane down to the sizes I need, and/or resaw on my bandsaw. Thank you very much for taking the time to reply.

SMP, Thank you for the tips on how to select boards. I appreciate the puzzle metaphor, I love puzzles lol. I did not know about return, that’s really good to know, so I’ll make sure to check. As far as being able to pick through wood, I can’t imagine going to a place that won’t let me do that. I’ll most definitely have to find a place that will give me the freedom to do that. Heck, I predict all be there for hours lol.

Gary, thank you for taking as look at the plans. Yeah, finding the “matching boards” will be a bit tough, and certainly makes the process a tad bit more overwhelming, but I’ll do my best. I’ll also make sure to buy extra, and I will certainly be practicing before I do anything final. That’s been one of my strengths so far in this woodworking gig. I’m totally fine spending an entire night setting up and practicing something before I take a final cut. As far as being considerate in picking through the wood, I always return my cart, and if I’ve picked the 6th sheet of plywood in the stack, I always replace the other 5 back on top. I’m the kind of person that will always take on the inconvenience and I’m very conscientious of being an inconvenience to others lol. As far as trying to mill up the boards, I figure I’ll keep an eye on dimensions throughout, and accommodate for any short falls as I progress with the build.

AJ2, I totally agree that the cut list is confusing, well, a lot of this is confusing to me, so I guess that isn’t saying much haha. I like the idea of remaking the cut list in a more friendly format for myself. Thank you for the help!

TherealSteven, honestly, I’ll do my best to grain match, but since I know I’m trying to learn with this project, I’ll still be happy with a circus lol. Thank you for the tips!

CaptainClutz, thank you for the tips on lumber grading. I also greatly appreciate the idea of breaking up the project into sections, this will help greatly in taking the project on in bite sized pieces. This will probably also help make wood selection a little less overwhelming, as I can get what I need for one section, and be done until I’m ready to move to the next part. I also never knew there were “first and second” pieces. I was just getting as handle on quarter sawn, rift sawn, and flat sawn lol.

Jdh122, I don’t think my hardwood dealer actually has yellow birch, the website indicates they have birch, so I’m assuming that’s different. Like oak vs red oak. I’ll still be going with the budget wood no matter what it is though. If I end up going with pine, my plan is to make the dresser twice. Once in pine to figure it all out, and the second time with nicer lumber that won’t get dinged up. Thank you for your reply!

Zoro39, you’re definitely right, this is too ambitious. The only thing I have not done and feel nervous about is the actual lumber selection part. I totally understand that takes experiences and I can see the value in starting smaller, that’s just not how I operate. My first project after setting up my shop was building a router cabinet. Before that I’d just built a work bench with some 2×3s and a cross cut sled. Heck, I’d never even built a cabinet. It took me about 7 weeks once I started, but I took my time, and it I’m pleased with how it came out. Yes, I made a lot of mistakes along the way, and I will with this project as well, and I’m totally okay with that. Thank you for your advice, and your words of caution.

Holbs, not a bad plan. Heck, my wife asked for a birdhouse too. Looks like I’ll be doing this out of order though. I’m set on this dresser. Thank you for you advice!

Madmark, she just wants “dark wood”. So I’ll just be finding a nice stain for that, cause “dark wood” is expensive, unless it’s cedar lol. Yes I have a planer, I recently bought a Delta 22-590x. I built a jointer sled for it and used it to build my wife a jewelry box with cedar, cause you know, dark wood lol. I do not have a jack plane, so skill level 0 there. For the dovetails, yes I’ve done dovetails using a jig I made on the table saw, and made half blind dovetails using my router table. However, this project is my excuse to buy a dovetail jig. Yes to the tapering jig, I built this in order to build the dovetail jig mentioned above. Also, as pictured/mentioned above, I do have a router table. I will need to purchase a couple router bits as well. Yes I have the drill bits necessary. The clamps are a problem, but I will be able to get by with only buying a couple more than I have now.
As far as skill to do this, nope. That’s why I’m doing this, to greatly push my limits. I do greatly appreciate you breaking this down and being so thorough with your advice. I also appreciate the words of caution, thank you very much!

ChefHDan, I do like the idea of building a small table such as that little shaker table. It probably would be a better place to start. As I’ve said above though, this is what I’d like to tackle. I’m not expecting this to come out looking like the picture, I expect my project to come out looking more like how a McDonald’s burger looks when you buy it vs what it looks like in the commercial. I’m okay with that. One day when I have the skills to make it just like the picture, I’ll probably design one myself. By then I hope to have achieved a better understanding of the art of the process, which I do acknowledge, I have very little understanding of now. Thank you got your advice, and I really appreciate the project tip, I may just end up building one of those tables.

Zort, this is why I want to begin getting my lumber for as hardwood dealer. Better prices, quality, and if I’m lucky, they’ll offer the terrific customer service as you described. Thank you for the help and sharing your experience.

Bondogaposis, yes, I agree, I definitely need to make a new list. This will not only keep me organized, but will help me gain familiarity with the project. In turn, I will hopefully have an easier time calculating what pieces I can get from what board. Thank you for your advice!

Again thank you everyone for all of your greatly helpful replies. I am taking all of this into serious consideration. As I’ve indicated in my responses, I know I don’t have the artful skill to make this dresser, at least, not to the level of a an “heirloom” piece. I’m okay with that. This is why I want to start with a more budget friendly material. Maybe down the road I’ll have the true skill and understanding of woodworking as an art form to really make “heirloom” furniture. As a side note, I think I need to add some of my projects to my profile. This may better evidence my skill set, so it doesn’t seem like I’m a complete newb. I mean, I’m still a newb, but not a new newb… You get my drift, right?

-- Don't think outside the box. Think as if there is no box at all.

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