Scavenging Timber – Sourcing Good Timber In Smaller Sizes

by | Feb 15, 2019 | 40 comments

Buying timber can seem to be some sort of secret club that you’ve yet to be initiated in to. I’d like to say that after all these years of sourcing timber I’ve been through that initiation, but if I’m honest I’m often still stumped.

It’s not the technicalities that get to me, I’m pretty good now at knowing what I’m looking for. But the problem I see is that all suppliers like to go about it in their own way (a polite way of saying they’re all a bit odd).
Some like you to speak an old-fashioned local dialect, while others I’m quite sure use code.

old timber boards oak and mahogany

The Challenge Of Buying Timber

The real root of the problem I suspect is that all timber suppliers are serving a different customer base, and very rarely is that the hobbyist or small-scale furniture maker.
When hunting for oak you’ll often stumble upon a source for chunky timber beams that are sodden wet. The search for softwood leads to construction timbers that have grown so fast they’ll not thank you for going at them with a hand plane.

Good quality dried hardwoods are not difficult to find. There are a wonderful array of species both native and global available from many different supplies.
Much of the challenge comes when we’re looking for something specific, and it’s too bulky to pop out with the postman.
Locally we have some great small scale suppliers of native timbers (the wood’s spot on, although their quirk can the difficulty in actually catching them open). But when we’re looking for something that’s only available further afield we’ve got to weigh up whether to spend a day on a round trip, or go for a costly delivery with the risk that what turns up isn’t quite what we’re hoping for.

Of course it’s by no means impossible to buy good hardwoods, but there’s generally enough of a challenge to cause some friction before you can get building.

I’m going to leave Richard to share some tips on buying from a stockist, I know he has a fair few stories after all of his timber buying ‘adventures’.

But apart from a good moan and sympathising with all of you who struggle with this, I wanted to explore the idea of something a little different.
Recycling previously used wood.

sourcing hardwood from old furniture

Scavenging & Reusing Old Hardwoods

This of course comes with many of its own difficulties, but there’s something about scavenging something unwanted and making it useful again that really gets my mind ticking.
I know many of you have done this for your own projects, and I have to confess to being a bit of a hoarder. Over the years I’ve stock piled various tables and broken cabinets after stripping them down to their ‘raw materials’.

We received a question recently about how to source thin boards that are ideal for furniture making. This drew my attention to an old mahogany top that I remembered stashing and I got a sudden itch to remind myself of what other old wood we have stored.

The most obvious difficulty with such an approach is having enough of the same timber to build the whole project.
I’m thinking that a good approach here would be to reverse engineer it – check over what timber I’ve got then design a piece to suit.

If I happen to get that far, then I’ll let you know all about it.

And in the meantime, feel free to make any recommendations below to the best suppliers you’ve found in your location. Along with any tales of timber recycling.

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About Helen Fisher

About Helen Fisher

Helen seeks to explore ways to live with greater joy & sustainability for both ourselves & the planet. Concepts which have led to the launch of her second business We Are Carbon. As the producer of our videos, Helen brings a unique perspective & injects life to our education ensuring it is both a pleasure to watch & easy to follow & learn from. Learn More About Helen & The English Woodworker.


  1. Jaime Clifton

    Had lot of problems with this.
    If your in the Westcountry the best supplier ive found is Beach Bros in Exeter.

    • Tim

      I’ll second that. They have loads of sawn boards as well as a selection of planed up remnants from their workshop. Because they have a workshop there, the staff know a lot about timber selection and wood working.

    • Francesco

      Thank you for the advice, I was just looking for a supplier around Exeter. I’ll give it a go!

  2. Len A

    Great to hear from you Helen.

    Looking at that mahogany drawer front I thought you had found my own stash as I have a couple of pieces almost identical even down to the rounded dovetail like ends to the board! I got mine from a broken down large wardrobe when clearing my uncle’s cottage 4 years ago.

    I have recently been given some worthwhile seasoned mahogany that was rescued from the River Thames during WW2 and has been kept dry and unused since then waiting for a project. It has been given to me by a dear friend of my Uncle Jack’s who I often still see and he was thrilled when I showed him the inherited tools of my grandfather. This was about 9 months ago and he said then that he had some timber for me and would get it down from his loft (he was given it by his father) – so when we went round for dinner in January he showed it to me and I collected it just last week. I think there is enough to make a cabinet to hold my bench planes and also a side table.

    I will send photos of the finished pieces.

    • David W.

      Please post pictures of the timber BEFORE you’ve worked it as well as the finished project. Here in the US there is an entire industry of reclaiming timbers that sank to the bottom of our swamps, lakes and rivers. Some of the timber has beautiful ribbons of mineral deposits that have infiltrated the wood over the years.

      • Len A

        David W

        I will do that once I finalise my plans and get started.


  3. Jonas

    That part about woodscavenging hits home, being able to make use of something that has been deemed unusable is a good thing. I have aquired a number of different hardwoods, that would otherwise be difficult to find locally, by scavenging old furniture. Another interesting woodsource is when ornamental trees are felled in nearby areas (parks, gardens etc.). These are often somewhat exotic species that can be hard to find as lumber, at least here in Scandinavia.

  4. Simon

    Last year I fished 3 2foot ish by 4foot ish by 3/4inch mahogany boards out of a skip.

    Looks like part of a sawn up wardrobe. This planed up like glass with perfect pink shavings. I doubt you could buy wood of this quality new of you tried.

    So far I’ve made a set of knife handles with a tiny bit of it, the rest is being treasured for future use!

  5. Mike

    Too little of any quality to warrant the trouble. The furniture people throw out around here is cheap veneered plywood or pdf stuff. Not a lot of mahogany getting put out on the curb. Looking forward to thoughts on how to best deal with stockists when making relatively low board -footage orders.

    • Nathan Simon

      My great-grandfather grew up in the depression era. He always saved every scrap of wood even from old crates that way he’d never have to buy wood , He got his best wood from tearing apart old pianos.

  6. David W

    Let it rip Helen! I enjoy a good moan! Here in northern Virginia, US, the hardwood sellers are just as quirky as you describe the UK types. My favorite hardwood source is a 90 minute drive away (on a good day) and he is EXPENSIVE(!). There are two suppliers within 30 or 40 minutes who aren’t much better, price wise AND they put the “quirk” in quirky. Both of them advertise processing up to S4S for a fee, but they roll their eyes and sigh heavily when I asked them to do it. I don’t go to the second supplier that is close by (anymore) because his “warehouse” is downright dangerous to maneuver. The local “big box” stores or home centers carry S4S pine, poplar and red oak. One used to carry maple and walnut too. Woodcraft, our local woodworking merchant, sells domestic and exotic timber that is “skip planed” but it is expensive and the supply levels are inconsistent. Finding timber to up-cycle is also a challenge and that’s a moan/rant unto itself.

    When I buy/download plans I rarely build to them. The reverse engineering approach you describe is one I take with most of the stuff I build. Great post! Thank you for letting me moan.

  7. Mario Fusaro

    Around me are only the big box stores as all the smaller lumber merchants were driven out by them. Now, I have to pay through the nose if I want decent wood from merchants that are miles away or across the country. I always look around on trash day and scavenge what I can from people who are throwing out broken items.

  8. Martin M

    In Lewes, West Sussex I often look at the ‘offcuts’ at Wenban Smith. I’m sure other timber suppliers sell offcuts at advantageous prices.

    • Martyn

      //laughing// Lewes, where?

      • Martin M

        Phoenix Place. Through the shop and upstairs, then back over the top of the shop. Sometimes they have lots, sometimes not so much! Leave some for me though //laughing//

        • Scott

          Now moved to the Brooks Road, but still has the offcuts bin. Oh, and East Sussex… 🙂

  9. Stephen McGonigle

    A good tip is to look for the old drop leaf or gate leg tables. Most are solid oak and are deeply unfashionable. However the tops are often figured English oak, and very seasoned!
    I rarely pay more than £20 – £25. There’s no way I could buy quality oak for that price. There are millions of them out there so you shouldn’t be causing them to become rare.

  10. Rick R

    I guess I’m kind of lucky here in Southern California. There’s a number of suppliers that have a lot of choices, and sometimes prices are lower than expected. When I have a customer that is looking for a special look I can usually find something to fit the bill.

    • Mike

      Where in Southern California are you? I’m in LA. Any recommendations? I know Bonhoffe seems to be the local favorite, and they advertise their willingness to allow customers to hand pick their lumber, but when I went there, that willingness was not on display. If I wanted a mere 50 BF of 8/4 walnut, what I got was what was easy for them to get. That was a few years ago, mind you..

  11. Laurie

    I love to salvage wood for my projects. I don’t require fancy hardwood so I started out using the reclaimed pallet wood approach. This works – to a point. I find it hard to get consistently decent pallets. And there’s s fair amount of work involved just to get a pile of decent wood for a project.
    I’ve lately started dumpster ( or skip !!) diving at local house building projects and I’m amazed at what I can find. Again – no fancy hardwood but a 10’ long 1×4 in decent shape suits my needs just fine. No obvious reason for it being tossed. And that was just for starters. A lot of 1x and 2x scraps in long enough lengths for my purposes. And it’s all free – just requires some time and effort on my part 😉

    • Tim

      So true Laurie. Palettes and dumpster or curb wood are always a good source. I also like to go to auctions and buy as well. If you are patient you can get some good deals.. Also don’t forget the tree removal option.

  12. Matt

    Hi Helen, finding wood at reasonable prices is a challenge! One thing I have found is a local guy with one of those portable sawmills. His is set up under a big roof system, so not portable for him. He buys logtruck loads of all kinds of logs. I have purchased oregon mountain ash, douglas or red fir, red birch, western big leaf maple, and a local variety of oak he calls pin oak. I have also bought a local cherry called choke cherry. I usually will buy more than I need, as the wood is not dry. Then, like you said, you have a stash of wood after a year or two to pick through as you think of projects. The only problem with this method is that you need a little room to sticker stack the lumber. What a good problem to have…….!!!!!!!

    • Peter Davies

      I have recently been lucky enough to be offered the old pews from a local church that had unfortunately been both robbed and vandalised.
      We brought a full 10′ trailer load and stored it ready for use. The timber is obviously quite old , but it’s all dry and I can’t find any evidence of woodworm.
      As you can imagine there are some weird and wonderful shapes. but the majority of it is of good thickness. There is a mixture of both soft and hardwood. . Of course all the timber has been stained and varnished and there is going to be some work needed to produce a different finish if needed.
      This particular church was a wooden building which had been dismantled and re-erected in the 60s by voluntary labour. The roof beams were beautiful works of art.
      I would recommend church furniture as a good source of second hand timber if you hear of anything local to you.
      I would welcome suggestions on how best to make use of it Thank you in advance.

  13. George

    where I live (middle east) there are mostly big box stores so everything is plywood or mdf.
    I keep my eyes open on trash day and felling in public parks (rosewood is actually a common tree around here).
    But a few months ago I hit the jackpot: a guy put all his furniture on the curb to give it away for free. there were beautiful solid cherry cherry and oak tables which I collected happily.
    only a few days later I discovered why he was so generous: at night I started noticing the chewing sound of woodworm… 🙁
    for me it was no problem, I quickly identified the infected part (one of the legs) and sawn it off, making sure to stay clear of all the small tunnels. now I have some beautiful cherry and oak pieces for my projects!
    beach wood is also easy to find here, usually in dining sets that people throw out. I don’t get why they prefer IKEA garbage over solid wood..

  14. Jim

    Here in the US the woods are replete with fallen wood mostly hardwoods. Most are on public land and are simply lying there to rot and you can get permission to remove a few. If they are on private land seek out the owner and ask permission and why wont they give it if it cleans up their land. Then it is just a matter of milling it with the chainsaw and then resawing it on the bandsaw..

  15. Bob Amsbury

    I keep an eye on Freegle (UK site where people offer stuff they don’t want for free). I recently got access to a stash from a hoarder house – all sorts of nice timber including some mahogany, oak and pitch pine. I’m hoping to be invited to a church clearance this weekend – idiots were going to burn a load of pews otherwise!

  16. Roger Dicks

    Dear Helen,
    Call James at ‘Deep in Wood’, Great Park, BESSELSLEIGH,
    Abingdon OX13 5PZ . Tel. 01865 390268. Mob. 07765 064694.
    He specialises in ‘Locally Sourced Tropical Hardwoods’ – (He bought up the entire stock of Timbmet before they moved) He has an aeroplane hanger (I do not exaggerate) – of just about everything we could ever ask for – and he sources locally cut down trees, dries it and sells online.
    Nice chap, very helpful, he also cuts and machines to very exact tolerances.
    I hope that helps, I’ll just stick to my locally sourced pallet wood for garden planters, etc.

  17. Greg

    I solved my supply problem by adding a Stihl MS 660 and a Granberg 36” Alaskan Mill. 99% of my lumber comes as a freebie if I’ll just take the tree off their property. I have piles of various oak species, elms, cedar, hickory, and pine to slice however I need. I call my time spent cutting and knocking together “therapy”. I’m a much more peaceful person.

    I ply my hobby in Northeast Arkansas, America.

  18. Ed

    I’m fortunate enough to live in a town surrounded with multiple hardwood and commercial wood sources. I was worried my best dealer was going to bail on me as last year he cut his supply way down and wondered if I knew anyone interested in buying the place (including me). Yesterday (Friday, Sept 15) I walked in to look at his 5.x5 Baltic Birch plywood supply for some cabinets.

    Right inside the shop door, for starters was an 18 ft x 2 ft x 15/16 piece of Paduk. And that was just for starters. He had several other large exotics standing next to it. Large curly maple boards for amazing prices were standing in the shop office on display. And, better still, the warehouse supply which had seriously dwindled, was built back up.

    I bought a bunch of really nice mahogany last year from him that turned into a very nice project. I was going to miss his supply. I’m hoping this is a sign that things have changed.

    I know Helen had asked us to offer our sources, and I will at some point as long as I can confirm he can get pieces like these again. Until then, I’ll be saving to rent a commercial straight truck (lorry) so I can haul some of these large pieces intact, as I have the correct license to do so.

    Excited again
    Flyover Country, United States

  19. Jeremy Sharp

    A friend oh mine owns a cabinet shop. He buys straight from our local saw mills, and keeps a good stock of material. Most the time I can go through and pull a couple dozen board feet from his bundles. If you have an opportunity to get to know someone with a professional shop then it’s great source of wood.

  20. Alan Cable

    For a number of years, I’ve obtained wood bark and chips to use as landscape mulch from a local sawyer (sawmill) (North central US). Last year, I asked the owner if he might have a few pieces of heavy white oak. He found me two pieces that were 2.5″ x about 4″ x about 5 feet long. Price? Is $9 too much? (air dried for 5+ years). I’ll be going back as he has several barns and sheds full of both air and kiln dried lumber. And, no, he isn’t “on-line”! Local yellow pages, only.

  21. Craig

    I use Mac Timbers and he’s located in the Peterborough area, Lower Benefield to be exact. Always has a great choice of English hardwoods and you’re let loose to have a good rummage in his stock.

    I also like to reuse wood if I can, nothing feels better than making something from (almost) nothing. I have stacks of boards from old bookcases, chest of drawers etc.

  22. Neil Christie

    Dark brown furniture can’t be given away at auctions unless exceptional. £5 will get you a wardrobe or a dresser. A bit of a poke around will tell you if it’s good timber or rubbish. Bang it apart with s hammer and load into your car.
    Same for eBay. That £5 table can build a lot of smaller projects.

  23. Peter Collins

    Brilliant supplier of English Hardwoods is Mike Cawthorn of Mac Timbers near Oundle Northamptonshire. Mike is a cabinet maker and joiner he saws and sells all of his locally sourced timber. He supplies bowl blanks and sawn timber to specification. What Mike does not know about wood is not worth knowing.

  24. Ken Wortman

    Great article! I live in northern Minnesota and harvest my own trees, Fir, white Pine, red pine, spruce, Basswood, black Oak, Black ash, white birch and Aspen. When I am not home and on the road building projects I collect left over lumber. I also recycle tear down lumber and good pallets. I am off to Southern California to build another project. I will see what entails tomorrow and Wednesday on if there will be any wood for recycling.

  25. Rob

    Richard and Helen,
    I always enjoy the blog posts and the videos. Finding wood in the US is always interesting. I grew up in the Northeast and now live in central Arkansas in middle America. Unless you buy construction grade lumber, things are always a bit pricey. About 17 years ago I bartered for a large Bandsaw Mill and wood has not really been an issue since. When you add up the cost of a mill and the cost of finished lumber, the mill pays for itself in a very short time. I get my logs by contacting a tree surgeon in the area and he is happy to give me whatever I am looking for regarding species. Oak, pine, hickory, walnut, cherry and more are often in good supply. While it takes a good while for wood to air dry, it is wonderful to work and I usually have a good supply to choose from. Just an idea.

    By the way, when will we see a video from you about making quark and lime paint? It would be great to see how it is done. Cheers!

  26. Derek

    I am on the lucky side of the scale. My father has a hobby sawmill and it is located on the property of a local tree service. In my area there is an abundance of Oak, Elm, Ash, Cottonwood, and Maple.
    I count my blessings every time I get to go and select wood for my projects. I can imagine it would be daunting to have to deal with companies that try to over charge for their merchandise.

  27. Michael Ballinger

    I happen to be repurposing a pine wardrobe into a dovetailed toolbox at the moment. The great thing is after thickness planing it down to 5/8ths it hasn’t cupped at all because it’s been sitting around so long I guess. Just put the first corner together last Friday, 11 dovetails and it worked out great. If anyone knows a good supplier in Ireland I’d be keen to know.

  28. xavior

    I like the bit on recycling. It saves a lot of cash and sometime one can land into a real gem.
    The problem of course is it usually has nails that easily mess your planers

  29. Mark

    Just recently my boss had the thatched roof of the farm workshop rethatched.
    Thay decided that the barge board on the end was in need of replacement.
    They cut it in to 4 pieces and through it to the ground.
    When I picked it up I found to my horror they had cut up a perfectly good
    Mahogany board that was 20 foot long 12 inches wide by 1 1/2 thick and 1 piece shattered.
    I’m told that it had been up on the roof when the bosses father moved to the farm when my boss was a small boy he’s now in his mid 70s.
    Needless to say it’s now in my workshop no it way to becoming something beautifull when my skill level is a high enough to make it happen.


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