Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Search for a Better Lumber Mill

I’ve been really dissatisfied with the service at the lumber mill I’ve been going to since 2009. I’ve never really had a great experience there. Adequate at best. I think, perhaps, a lot of my feelings stem from the owner not being a woodworker, and it seems like he doesn’t really understand what I’m looking for in lumber for a furniture project. I’m willing to chalk it up to a personality difference and say “It’s not him, it’s me” and leave it at that. He’s an alright guy, and the prices there are good, but I want more than just good prices. I guess I’m looking for a partner that’s going to help bring my furniture projects to the next level.

So I’m about to start my next project and I don’t really want to purchase from the same mill as before. I spent an entire week researching alternatives around the area and online, reading forums and reviews of lumber mills around the country to find out where other furniture makers buy their wood.

Here are the results of my investigations:

Talarico Hardwoods near Philly has, very likely, the absolute best, rarest, old-growth, highly figured Quartersawn White Oak, period, and it's priced accordingly.

Hearne Hardwoods, also near Philly, is where a lot of fine furniture makers get their lumber as they specialize in full flitches (all the boards are from the same tree, kept in their original positions within the tree, organized, catalogued, etc etc etc.)  That, and he has a super wide selection of almost any wood you can think of.

Irion Lumber in Northern Pennsylvania specializes in the woods used in 18th century furniture.

Bell Forest Products has a widespread reputation for being an excellent online lumber seller with a very wide selection and good service, but I find their website a little confusing and I'm not in the habit of buying one board at a time.

Steve Wall Lumber Co. in North Carolina has most often the lowest prices of the 16 mills I looked at for 50% of the species I care about.  Not too shabby!

C.R. Muterspaw in Ohio has a wide selection, an excellent online reputation, they hand-select the boards for your order checking for flaws, color-matching, grain patterns, etc, and they have really good prices.

And Dunham Hardwoods out in Iowa has the best prices on Quartersawn White Oak, they hand-select the boards for your order, checking for flaws, color-matching, grain patterns, etc, and they surface plane down to near-final thickness and joint one edge at no extra charge.

So for the entryway bench & mirror project I chose to give Dunham Hardwoods a try.  Sent them an email and within a few hours Zach Dunham replied, answering my initial data gathering questions. We exchanged 3 or 4 more emails and each time he replied in a timely manner with a fully detailed response, answering every question I had.

Here are the highlights:

  • his father, his brother and he own the business and have been doing it for 30 years
  • they are woodworkers themselves, so they understand what woodworkers are looking for
  • they throw away 10% of their inventory that is technically up to grade and acceptable for sale, but since they wouldn’t want to use it for their own projects, they don’t sell it to their customers
  • they touch every board that comes in
  • they hand-select boards for your order trying to match color as much as possible.
  • if you order quartersawn white oak, he won’t put a board into your pile that has little to no ray flake
  • if you ask, he’ll pick out the widest boards he’s got (again, at no extra charge)
  • they surface plane every board down to final thickness and joint one edge for no extra charge. This is not hit-or-miss planing. It’s full final thickness planing where it just needs to be finish sanded or hit with a smoothing plane and you’re good to go. 
  • You have the option of hit-or-miss planing or rough-cut lumber by walking into their retail store, but for mail orders there’s no price drop for buying rough-cut lumber because Dunham won’t be able to see the boards as well and there’s an increased chance that the customer won’t like what they see and want to return the wood.
  • To date, they’ve never had a return.
  • He spent 10 minutes on the phone with me going over my cut list asking me at what lengths I’d like him to cut the 10’ boards, 11’ boards, and 12’ boards across the thicknesses I needed to make sure that he didn’t cut them too short for the parts of my project, but also to try to stay under the 5’ mark to avoid the $7.50 UPS surcharge for over-long packages. Again, for no extra cost.

Here’s the amazing part… all of this is $3 more than what it would have cost me to get lower quality, rough cut, ordered-sight-unseen lumber from the mill I’ve been going to…..and that’s after shipping it right to my doorstep!

I compared Dunham Hardwoods along with 14 other lumber mills, getting quotes from all of them. It’s an amazing value, especially when you consider that you’re getting S3S lumber.

So I placed an order for 55bf and received it within 5 days.  Each bundle was carefully wrapped with the ends cushioned with extra cardboard and tape holding the cushions in place. There was no damage from shipping, and the boards look awesome!  The poplar is wider than I expected (in a good way), and clean and check-free. Nice! The Quartersawn White Oak has prettier and more dynamic grain than I’ve ever seen in person before.


  • personable, family-run business
  • high level of care and attention even with a small order
  • careful hand selection of boards, rough length, widths to serve your woodworking project
  • quick and reasonable shipping
  • low costs, high quality lumber, beautiful figure, no significant flaws
  • every step of the way I’ve been given the royal treatment.

I’ll be buying from Dunham Hardwoods again.

1 comment:

Jim Mitchell said...

Nice post I'm glad I found your blog.

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