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!
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:
Recycling centers are great places to look for fresh cut logs and free wood
This pile may not look like much, but there are some really nice logs under the mud
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.