Lumber Preparation for a Successful Woodworking Project

Preparing your lumber before you start a new woodworking project is probably one of the best ways you can set yourself up for success.

But knowing exactly how to prepare the lumber might be a little unfamiliar.

That’s why this article is going to be all about the “how” and “why” of lumber preparation.

We are going to answer questions like:

Then, we’ll touch on some helpful woodworking tips to make the wood preparation process easier and more effortless.

Let’s start with the “how” of it all.

How do you prepare wood for woodworking?

The steps you take for wood preparation depend on the kind of lumber you are starting with for your project, so let’s discuss these four different types of wood and how you will prepare each one for woodworking:

  1. Fresh-cut lumber
  2. Rough-cut lumber
  3. Finished lumber
  4. Pallet wood

How to prepare fresh-cut lumberA fallen tree in the forest that's ready to be fresh-cut lumber

Fresh-cut lumber is any lumber that has been freshly sawn. It’s also called “green lumber.”

Imagine a tree has fallen down in your yard—that’s what fresh lumber is.

It’s unlikely that you have a lumber yard, mill, or kiln in your backyard, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make use of this kind of wood for your woodworking projects.

Unless you’re working on framing a house or building an outdoor deck or barn, fresh-cut lumber isn’t actually usable until after it has been dried. Those projects can be done with freshly cut lumber because gaps between boards aren’t a huge issue.

However, for the most part, the key to preparing fresh-cut lumber is drying it.

The only issue?

Without a kiln, air-drying fresh-cut lumber can take a year or more—depending on conditions and the species—and that’s a pretty long timeline. But if you do find yourself with some extra room, the process of air-drying your own wood can be really rewarding.

But how do you transform a freshly fallen tree into lumber that you can dry?

Assuming you don’t have a means of milling lumber on your own, you can actually hire a sawyer who will bring a portable mill to your site and saw the logs, length-wise, into several pieces to aid in the drying process.

After this, the pieces of wood should be separated by stickers and held together by straps in order to keep the stack of wood from warping as it dries.

Separating the wood pieces also helps to keep fungus from discoloring the wood pieces.

Next, you’ll want to apply a sealant, such as latex paint, to the ends of the pieces. The ends will dry out faster than the other parts, and if they aren’t sealed properly, they may crack or bow.

Once the drying process has begun, the only way to know if the lumber is ready for woodworking is to use a moisture meter to check the moisture content (MC) of the wood.

Once the MC of the wood matches the equilibrium moisture content of your region where you will use the final product, then it’s ready for your woodworking project.

How to prepare rough-cut lumberStacks of rough-cut lumber

If you prefer to buy your lumber rather than DIY it from a log in your yard, you’ll have the option to buy rough- or finished-cut lumber.

We’ll talk about finished-cut lumber in a second, but for now, let’s talk about rough-cut lumber.

Rough-cut lumber has been processed a few steps further from fresh-cut. This lumber has been cut into planks, but other than that, it’s untreated and unfinished. Usually, rough lumber is air-dried and thicker than finished-cut lumber.1

A lot of woodworkers prefer rough-cut lumber because it’s cheaper than finished lumber, and it gives the woodworker the option to finish the boards themselves in the way that they want.

This method does require the use of power tools, such as table saws, miter saws, jointers, and planers.

Before even purchasing your rough-cut lumber, you will want to make sure the wood is at the proper MC for your location. Depending on how rough the surface is, use a pin or pinless moisture meter to check the MC. If the surface is very rough, then you’ll want to use a pin meter as a pinless meter needs a smoother surface to properly take measurements.

Depending on the measurement you get, you might want to find boards that are closer to the appropriate MC.

When you first purchase rough-cut lumber, you want to look over the board and remove any end checks. These are small cracks that happen at the ends of the board. If these are removed, then you won’t have to worry about them growing bigger and ruining the entire plank.

Also, if the wood is too wet after purchase, you may want to dry it more, as there will be end checks and other drying defects created in the wood after it has been trimmed and dried some more.

After removing any checks, you’ll want to make sure that the board is even by using a jointer to flatten one side of the board and one of the edges.

Next, on the side that you didn’t use the jointer on, use a planer on the surface of the wood to get it to the thickness that you will need for your project. Then, use a table saw to cut the other edge. You can cut it to the size needed for your project.

Lastly, you’ll want to square up the edges of the board using a miter saw. This will ensure that you have a perfect, 90-degree angle.

In the end, you’ll be left with a workbench full of sawdust and a perfectly shaped board that you can guarantee the quality of because you’ve done it yourself!

How to prepare finished lumberFinished lumber at a home improvement store

Finished lumber is the easiest lumber to prepare as there is little to no preparation necessary.

These boards are easy to locate, as you can buy finished lumber at your local home improvement store. The boards are dried, planed, and cut to size.

You can essentially handpick whatever kind of board you want when you are buying finished lumber.

Finished lumber is hassle-free, so preparation is all about knowing what kind of sizes and appearances you’ll want for your project. This is to avoid over-purchasing since finished lumber is more expensive than rough-cut lumber.

You’ll want to know what kind of grade you want for your finished lumber. A-grade and B-grade lumber is good for projects where appearance matters. These grades are smoother and have higher quality grains.

If appearance doesn’t matter in your project—like framing a structure—then C-grade lumber should work just fine.

It may be useful to use a moisture meter to check the MC of these boards. Even though the boards have been kept in a stable environment, you will want to make sure they match the EMC of your region to avoid any moisture-related problems for your future project.

How to prepare pallet wood

Using pallet wood for a project is a great way to exercise your DIY muscles and upcycle something that would normally be thrown away or left to rot.

The first part of preparing your pallet requires some demolition.

Once you’ve acquired a pallet, you’ll need to break it down. Wear your best personal protective equipment like safety glasses, gloves, and a mask, and take your preferred deconstruction method.

A variety of hand tools will do: you can pry the pieces from each other using a hammer or pry bar, or you can use a crosscut hand saw.A miter saw on a piece of wood

Use a hammer or a pair of pliers to remove all of the nails. Then, you’ll want to clean the wood to get rid of any dirt or dust.

If you want, you can use the same method of preparation used for rough-cut wood, using jointers, planers, and saws to make sure the board is smooth and straight.

Or, if your project is more rustic and doesn’t require as much precision, you can opt for using your choice of abrasives, like aluminum oxide or silicon carbide, to smooth down the wood pieces and avoid splinters.

Use the sandpaper to sand all across the face of the board and edges of the board, working in the direction of the grain.

Finally, you can finish the wood pieces by applying oil, wax, weatherproofing, stain, paint, or other wood finish depending on the look you want and the type of project you are working on.

Why should I prepare my wood before a project?

We bet at this point you’re asking, “Why do I even need to bother with this?”

Well, Benjamin Franklin once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail,” and that’s true of most things, but especially woodworking.

By taking the time to prepare your lumber before a wood project, you can ensure that your project will turn out the way that you envisioned it.

Not preparing your wood can result in crooked and cracked pieces. And if the wood is wet and hasn’t been prepared properly, then, as the wood releases moisture, your project will likely have unsightly defects that were created during the drying process.

While this might not seem like a big deal if you’re creating something that doesn’t need to be pristine, like an outdoor bench, swing seat, etc., this is a big deal if you are working on projects where appearances matter. No one wants a warped or cracked tabletop.

Plus, if you are creating projects to sell to clients, you want to make sure that they stand the test of time and reflect quality workmanship.

With every project, your reputation is on the line, so take the time to prepare your lumber.

Lumber preparation tips and tricksA lineup of Bessemeter moisture meters

Now that you know the “how” and the “why” of lumber preparation, let’s talk about some quick tips to remember whenever you prepare your next batch of lumber.

First, if you can help it, opt for rough-cut or finished wood before fresh-cut lumber. While you can technically let the wood dry and use it, it takes a long time and a lot of space.

Next, ensure that the wood is at the proper MC. Use a wood moisture meter before purchase and during your whole project.

Third, pay attention to the grain of the wood. Are there any features that you want to stand out in your project? Any that you want to avoid? Do you want to cut the wood at a specific angle or want one side to be more visible than the other? Look for knots and variations in the grain pattern and figure out what you want to showcase and what you want to hide.

Lastly, buy a bit more lumber than you think you need. It’s always better to have too much lumber than to have too little. So, a good rule of thumb is to buy 20% more lumber than what your project requires. If you have leftover lumber at the end, you can always store it away for a future project.

Prepare your lumber or reap the consequences

Preparation—no matter what kind of lumber you’re working with—is one of the first steps you can take to set yourself up for success.

Educate yourself on the best lumber for your project, know the prep steps to take, and use a moisture meter before purchase, during preparation, and while you construct your project to keep all your pieces looking exactly as they should.

For the best moisture meter to aid in all your project preparation…