Free Wood - How To Find Lots Of It For Woodturning Projects

Overview: Finding low cost or free wood, and lots of it, is high on the priority list for most woodturners. If you ask them if woodturning is addictive, you will no doubt hear a resounding yes! The more you turn, the more you want to turn. Welcome to the addiction. Even if you are a relatively new turner, you will find that you can process large quantities of logs if you turn much at all. Finding and processing low cost or free material is the key to maintaining adequate turning stock.

Of course you could just purchase all of your turning stock from a stockist, but that gets expensive and it limits your choices significantly in both the species you can work with and the types of projects you can undertake. Most turners, myself included, enjoy turning low cost or free wood from local areas (salvage, reclaimed, rescued etc.).

If you are a new woodturner, eventually you will find out that the bowl blanks and turning squares available at most lumber stockists is quite limited in both size and overall selection.

Many stockists are used to cutting for dimensional lumber needs, not for woodturners. This means that most of the lumber available is usually cut for maximum yield, not maximum figure.

Free wood and lots of it!
A load of logs at a local recycling center. Just count the bowl blanks....

Of course, if you want to turn exotics like Rosewood, Ebony, Pink Ivory and similar timbers, you will have to purchase them from any of the numerous suppliers of these timbers. However, many of the superb local species that grow in the area where you live may be limited in availability, or not available at all at your local stockist.

Most lumber stockists carry a limited selection of species, ones that sell quickly and can be readily supplied. These timbers are traditionally processed into flat dimensional lumber boards of varying thickness.  My local lumber stockist offers several species from 1" to 6" in thickness. Few of the timbers are available above 2" in thickness and still fewer in 4" or thicker sizes. If you want to turn deep, bowls or very large pieces, you will need to work from the green log.

Most tree dump grounds have equipment working which may be able to assist you in loading your low cost or free wood

The question many new woodturners ask is where do you find low cost or free wood. There are numerous places where you can find low cost or free wood in the area where you live. If you pay attention and keep a core group of friends “on the lookout” for you, you will rarely, if ever, run out of wood.

Most turners find that they can choose from the types of timbers they prefer and even the sizes of trees they prefer, once they have been an established low cost or free wood scrounger for a time.

What to Do and Where to Look
for Low Cost or Free Wood

When I first opened my studio, I really worked hard to obtain local timbers for my production bowl and platter stock. I liked the idea of working with free wood from salvage or reclaimed timber, but I did not have much success at first in locating sufficient quantities for my production needs.

Houston, Texas, is not exactly in a wooded forest, but there are many trees here. I just needed to find a way to reliably locate the wood that was being cut every day. One of the first things you need to do is tell all of your friends, family and business associates that you are now a woodturner and you are looking for low cost or free wood to turn.

Over the years, some of the most beautiful and highly figured timber I have ever had the privilege of turning has come as a result of friends that have called me to let me know about wood being cut in the area where they live, or perhaps out of their own yard or property. Here are a few other places to investigate:

  • Tree Surgeons: Tree surgeons work with and cut trees every day. A tree surgeon can be one of your best sources of supply for green logs. Look in the Yellow pages where you live, and call or visit all of the tree surgeons and tell them that you are a woodturner and you are looking for green logs. Most are happy to tell you where they dump their logs, or may even deliver some logs to you if you are in the area when they are working on a job.
  • Tree cutting Services: Local tree cutters are also another good source of supply. Like tree surgeons, they are cutting trees every day. All you have to do is find a few that are willing to let you have the timber, and you can have a ready supply of timber available. One advantage of working closely with tree surgeons/cutting services is that they are already planning to cut the tree. All you have to do is be at the jobsite on the day they are working. Many will even help you load the cut log sections into your pickup or trailer. Since these companies frequently have to pay to dump the logs, you are helping them to save money by taking the logs that they would otherwise have to pay to dump.
  • Local City Cutting Crews: The city or town where you live probably has a cutting crew working regularly to keep trees on city right-of-ways and esplanades trimmed. These crews can be another source of low cost or free high quality timber. If you see a crew working one day when you are driving around, stop and talk to the supervisor and ask them if you could have some of the timber they are cutting. Some cities also have dumpsites where they take these trees and you may be able to obtain permission from the city to go onto the site and cut a few logs. Every city has different rules, so check with your local city administrators and ask if they will allow you to remove some of the timber from their dumpsite.
  • Local Landscapers: Ask your yard service (if you have one) if they know of any cutting services or companies where you can get green logs. You may be surprised at the contacts you can get. My landscaper has been an invaluable source to me over the years for green logs. Not only do landscapers know other tree cutters, they also know about clients they have that may be taking down trees to install pools, patios, fences, new landscaping, etc. As I mentioned earlier, you want to develop a core group of people who are keeping an eye out for you and will let you know when prime logs are available.
  • New Building Areas: Think about where new homes are being built in your area. These are prime areas for obtaining logs, as the trees that grew where the foundation, driveway and pools will be built will have to be removed. Through the years, I have gotten untold amounts of timber from areas where new houses were being built. By working with the land clearing crews who are working to remove the timber for the housing development, you can usually get an ample supply of logs.
  • City/Town Recycling Centers: Recycling centres are another great place to look for logs and stumps. Many local landscapers and tree cutting services use recycling service centres to dump their logs. One of my local centres only charges the mulch price for a load of wood.
  • You can fill up a pick-up truck or trailer with logs for a very small fee. The city where I live will not allow individuals on their property to get salvaged logs, so I look elsewhere. If your city will allow you to collect logs from one of its dump sites, that’s great. If not, keep on looking.

Recycling centers are great places to look for fresh cut logs and free wood

  • State Cutting Crews: The state where you live also has cutting crews that may be a valuable source of logs. Like their city counterparts, state crews maintain state owned property and frequently cut and trees.
  • Land Developers/Architects: Land developers and architects who build new construction can be a good source as well. I pass by vacant lots all the time that are slated for new construction. There is usually a sign saying what new development or shopping centre is going to be built. I copy down the information from the sign and call the developer, or architect to inquire about the timber that will be removed. Sometimes you get lucky…
  • Lumber or Veneer Mills: If you live in an area that is logging timber, you may wish to contact local mills and ask about off-cuts, or veneer cores. Of course, you will have to pay for these, but the cost is usually quite low.
  • Pool and Patio Companies: Companies that install pools and patios usually have to take out trees. If you see a pool company working in your area, stop and ask the workers or the homeowner about any trees that will be removed, and if you could have some of the logs.
  • Storm Related Weather: When strong storms or hurricanes hit, many trees are blown down. I usually rent a truck and cruise the areas that are hit looking for downed trees. Most homeowners are more than happy for you to help remove downed trees from their property. Just make sure you ask for permission from the homeowner first! It is a nice gesture to offer a small turned bowl to the homeowner, as a thank you for their generosity. Not only will the homeowner be appreciative, but will keep you in mind when any of their neighbours may be removing trees.

This pile may not look like much, but there are some really nice logs under the mud

  • Local Firewood Dealers: Firewood dealers can be a useful source for timber. Although they will not give you free wood, you usually only have to pay firewood prices or less for your wood. You should try to negotiate a lower price than split firewood, because the dealer will not have to split the log sections, thus eliminating much of their labour in processing the firewood.
  • Your Own Land: Do not forget your own land or property. If you have acreage, you may have trees that need to be removed, have died, etc. that can provide valuable timber or logs for your turning activities.

Ask for Permission Before Taking Free Wood!

It should be understood, but make sure you have permission to go onto someone else’s land or property, and any city or town property from the relevant authority or landowner before removing logs.

Some cities will not allow you onto city property for insurance and other reasons. Some require permits or insurance before you can access their property. Since every area is different, YOU must determine what is necessary in the area where you live. Do not worry if you are stumped at a few places; there are plenty of logs elsewhere. Just move on down the list and keep talking until you find someone who will cooperate with you.

I have found that most homeowners are very willing to let you have free wood from trees that have been cut on their property. Many times, the logs are stacked by the curb, awaiting heavy trash collection. I always ask permission first, even if the logs are in the trash pile. It is a good way to meet the homeowner and perhaps develop another source for future low cost or free wood.

This 43-year old American Elm yielded an enormous quantity of free wood for bowl and platter blanks when the owner had it taken down

Remember, that homeowner has friends, relatives and business associates who may be removing trees for various reasons as well. This could be another excellent source of free wood as you begin build your network of resources.

Cutting Standing Trees

I never cut standing trees on someone else’s property. I do not want to carry the liability insurance or permits necessary, or take the chance on damaging someone property. It is much easier to let a professional tree crew take the tree down and just wait by the curb to load your trailer.

Give a Little Something Back

I’ve found through the years that it’s much easier to get free wood when you offer a little something in return… a small bowl, or a pen perhaps to the friend, relative or homeowner who gave you the tip, or allows you to remove a log. It is a small thing, but it will come back to reward you many times over.

Another thing that is nice is to offer some cold drinks to clearing crews on a hot summer day. It’s the little things that count and you may be surprised how much help you can get from a clearing crew by simply offering cold water or sodas on a hot summer day.

Be on the Lookout for Free Wood

Always keep a keen eye to new construction in your area. If you hear a chainsaw running in your neighbourhood, drive over and see what is going on. Several times, I have heard chainsaws running in the morning whilst getting the mail and have gotten a few nice trees from neighbours. When you’re driving around doing errands, keep an eye out for new housing developments, land clearing operations, new roads being built etc. You may be surprised to find just how much timber is being cut and sent to the dump everyday.

Last but not Least

One of the things that all new woodturners have to learn is to not take more free wood than they can expect to process promptly. Many timbers degrade quickly after being cut, especially in areas that are hot and humid. It is better to leave with a little less and be able to process it all within a reasonable time frame, than to take more and have some of it go bad. Then you just have to get rid of it yourself.

I am a production turner, so I can process large quantities of timber very quickly. Even so, I have learned to cherry pick the best parts of the tree and only leave with these. It sounds simple, but it took a long time for me to learn this simple rule. You only have so much time, so you might as well spend it working on the best and most beautiful parts of the tree. One of my turning friends has a saying, “Life’s too short to turn ugly wood.” I heartily agree!

Do not be discouraged if you some of the places or people you contact will not cooperate with you in your wood gathering efforts. Just keep on looking around and you will have success. When I first started years ago, I really had to scrounge for enough timber to keep up my production schedule. These days, I turn down free wood all the time unless it meets my rigid selection criteria. You will probably reach that point as well, much sooner than you think. It just takes a bit of persistence and effort.

Safety Note: Always follow all manufacturers safety instructions before working with your lathe, or any of the tools or products you may use. If you are unsure about any operation, obtain competent professional instruction before proceeding. Use and wear all necessary safety devices during turning and observe safe woodturning practices to prevent accident or injury.

Steven D. Russell is a professional studio woodturner, teacher and writer. He has written numerous articles for international woodturning magazines, which have been published in more than 78 countries around the world. Steve has demonstrated in numerous cities across the United States. His studio, Eurowood Werks, specializes in bowls, platters and hollow forms with unique visual and tactile treatments.

Steve is also the current and founding President of the Lone Star Woodturners Association, Inc., an AAW member chapter. The LSWA is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching and demonstrating the art and craft of woodturning.

Steve is also a featured writer for the Guild of Master Craftsman's "Woodturning" magazine, published in London England. Woodturning magazine is the world's leading magazine for woodturners. Look for his articles covering technical topics, or project based articles in an upcoming issue.