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Wood Waste: How Much Should You Plan For, And Why?

by Mark Stephens | August 18th, 2010
exotic wood cabinet

Exotic wood cabinet, finely crafted. Did the craftsman skimp on wood?

While most of the fun of woodworking is in building custom and unique projects, the downside is wood waste. Nobody likes it, but it’s just a fact of woodworking.

When you sit down to figure out the amount of wood your project requires, there are a number of things you should account for:

1. You’re going to make mistakes

I know, ouch. Just stick with me, though.

Truth is, no matter how good you are at planning every little detail in the project plans, and no matter how expert you are at woodworking, things happen.  You’ll have to make some “design changes,” wink, wink, along the way to your finished project. Everyone at some point makes a cut too short, assumes a dimension without measuring it, moves too fast, or cuts a dado on the wrong side of the panel.

Sandor Nagyszalanczy, the accomplished woodworker, even wrote a book called Fixing and Avoiding Woodworking Mistakes. It happens to everybody, and the first thing to do is anticipate it when you’re buying wood.

2. You want to have boards for testing finishes and/or stains

Finishing freaks out a lot of woodworkers; you’ve spent months working on an armoire and the idea of splashing on some chemicals makes you immediately believe you’re going to destroy months of work. Finishing is actually pretty easy, and there’s really little risk.  Nevertheless, you’re going to want some pieces of wood left over to test your options, and match existing colors in your house (if that’s a priority).

You’ll find out, too, that a couple of 2″ long pieces here and there just won’t do the trick for testing a few finishes or stains or dyes. Count on a couple of board feet, and you’ll be much happier because of it.

lyptus lumber stack

Selecting wood for a project means working with what the wood has to offer

3. Wood has . . . gasp! . . . imperfections

There’s no way around this one. Perfect pieces of wood only exist in the eye of the beholder. For that matter, an old codger customer once said to me, “Well if I wanted perfect, I’d be working with plastic, not wood!” (Debatable, but I get what he meant).

Woodworkers like to pick and choose for color, grain, and general irregularities here and there. Bottom line?  It’s better to have enough to wood to make your project happen exactly the way you want than to be frustrated with too little.

4. You really, really, really don’t want to have to go back to the lumber store later

Much as we like to see your smiling face walk through the door, few things are as disappointing as stopping progress on a project to go back to the store. Not like your spouse won’t mock you for that one . . . again.


A good point about waste is right here with this shaker table that’s on the cover of Woodworker’s Journal.

What does it take to make a table top as stunning as this one?  The top measures 16-5/16″ wide and 19-3/16″ long – that’s 2.22 board feet.  Rob Johnstone made two tables, so that makes a net of 4.44 board feet.

Guess how much he bought?  Consider for a moment that you might get advice like, “Add ten percent for waste.” Well, that’d be an additional .44 board feet.  Not much. Picture that as a piece of wood that’s 6″ wide and 12″ long.

Johnstone bought four eight-foot-long boards from us for those two table tops – and they were far from perfect with live edges, a couple of end splits, and two bark pockets.  It came out to just about 18 board feet, but the figure was absolutely superb.

Of course, just because he bought that much and his tops only come out to 4.44 board feet doesn’t mean the remaining 12 board feet ended up as saw dust and fall-off scrap.

But that does show that to get phenomenal results, it’s wise to stack the deck in your favor with enough wood.

Waste isn’t always “Waste”

In the case of using some boards to test a finish, I wouldn’t really call that waste.  That’s wood well used.  Plus, anything that falls to the left of the tablesaw blade can very well be used again on another project.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 18th, 2010 at 8:45 pm and is filed under Tips and Tricks. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • nate

    Thanks for the percentage! That’s what I was looking for.

  • Gary Rose

    When I run cost quotes, I include 30% as the waste factor. This allows for grain matching, straight-lining, knots, checks, etc., etc. This may seem slightly excessive, but I think it’s a pretty realistic (and SAFE) number to work with.