A couple weeks ago, I published a post that reviewed my first year of early retirement. Both the good and the bad parts of that first year.
The article eventually got picked up by RockstarFinance (thanks J. Money!) and was my most popular post yet.
After the ‘Rockstar’ excitement settled down, I started reading through all the emails, death threats, and friendly comments. Readers were curious about my new woodworking hobby — How did I go about getting free wood?
Well my friends, it’s surprisingly easy to find….
How Much Wood Can A Woodchuck Chuck?
Anyone who’s read this blog for very long knows I’m not big on expensive hobbies. I think people waste WAY too much money on hobbies that generate very little in return.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t have any fun in financial independence! Instead of spending money on my hobbies, I choose to be resourceful instead.
Being resourceful means I find my materials instead of buying them….which is why wood is such a great material to build things with. From my perspective, the world is absolutely awash in wood!
I’m not exaggerating either… In just a few months of barely trying, my wood pile has grown considerably.
Remember this picture from last April?
That was the beginning of my ‘free’ wood pile.
Now (6 months later) you can see how the pile has grown:
I’ve collected some great materials in the last couple months: Pine, Hemlock, Red Cedar, Maple, and a bunch of Oak. All of it was absolutely free (other than a little gas to pick it up).
I have so much wood for projects now, I’m starting to get really selective about what I collect.
So where do I find it all?
For most people, the easiest wood to find is going to be pallet wood. It doesn’t tend to be the highest quality wood, but there’s literally mountains of it out there.
Just hop in your car and drive to your nearest industrial park. I’m sure you’ve seen one around — Look for the large concrete buildings, huge garage doors, and forklifts parked haphazardly around.
Every town has one of these industrial areas, and every industrial area has more pallets than they know what to do with. They probably have a pile outside that may even be labeled “free”
Here’s a sampling from a recent drive to my own industrial area:
Tip: If it’s not clear the wood is being offered for free, remember to ask before you take anything.
Craigslist is also a great place to find pallet wood, under the ‘free’ listings. Many businesses find it convenient to dispose of their pallets this way. A quick Craigslist search resulted in over 30 listings within 5 miles of my home. Want to see a perfect example of a free pallet mountain? Here’s one from Craigslist that’s only one mile from my home:
Many of these pallets are going to be in great shape, and can be used for all kinds of projects. Using pallet wood for a rustic look is quite popular too… Search Pinterest for “pallet wood projects” and you’ll get a few million examples.
There’s other places to get free wood besides pallets too: Some companies actually generate so much scrap wood they put “Free Wood” bins outside in the parking lot. Don’t believe me? There are a dozen of these bins within a few miles of my home:
Now for a caveat: a lot of the wood in these bins is going to be pretty worthless. These bins get picked over pretty quickly, and what remains is often poor quality or very small scraps. Probably only good for firewood. If my home had a woodstove, I would never be cold again!
That said, if you get in the habit of checking your local ‘free’ bins regularly, there will occasionally be gems amongst the crap.
For example, I collected these interesting pieces outside a millwork company (in the free bin) yesterday:
Hardwood And Other Fine Wood.
These days I prefer wood that’s a little nicer than pallet wood — I try to scrounge for fancy hardwoods. And hardwoods are expensive. Really expensive! A single 1 X 4 walnut board at the Home Depot costs $50 for a 6-foot length. Outrageous!
If you need to buy hardwood for your projects, the costs can grow into hundreds of dollars very quickly. That’s definitely not my style. I prefer to find it instead.
Probably the best place to find hardwoods, fine quality plywood, and other exotic wood is going to be your local free groups — either a Buy Nothing Group or Freecycle. Why is this a great place for finding hardwood?
Imagine an old scratched up table that someone wants gone. They offer it for free to their local community. Most people will look at that table and see a craptastic scratched-up table. When I look at it, I see a gigantic piece of solid maple being given away for free.
Yes, free! True story! One man’s trash is truly another man’s treasure…
There’s tons of opportunities like these in your free community groups. Sometimes it’s out-of-date furniture. Other times it’s excess building materials from a DIY project. Whatever the case, a little patience can generate some superb building materials.
Even More Hardwood
Unfortunately, most people don’t buy solid wood furniture anymore. It probably costs too much these days….something most wage-slaves (and former wage-slaves like myself) are not going to be able to afford.
Real hardwood furniture is getting far more rare, and it’s a terrible shame. The vast majority of new furniture ends-up being made from particle board, which only lasts a few years before it spontaneously explodes into a cloud of tiny particles. Spontaneous Furniture Explosion. SFE for short. It’s a technical term.
There is still one place where hardwood is frequently used though…in hardwood flooring. People around the world are tearing up their carpets and replacing them with hardwood floors. Wood floors are popular again.
Inevitably, these same people are also consuming more wood flooring than they need. Flooring companies will push people to purchase more material than necessary “just in case”. The typical excess is about 1 box worth, and the flooring company will NOT provide a refund.
While I might not agree with the sales tactics, I do like being the recipient of free unopened boxes of oak hardwood flooring.
It doesn’t show up too frequently, so patience is key. That box will sit in someone’s garage until they eventually decide to get rid of it. Be ready.
Cleanup & Processing
Inevitably, you’ll find out exactly what I did after starting this hobby. The world is absolutely drowning in free wood…but much of it isn’t in a very usable state.
Once you manage to collect a bunch of free wood, you’ll realize most of the work isn’t in the finding, it’s in the cleanup. Pallet wood is usually filled with nails and staples that need to be removed. Holes need filling. Old wood furniture needs to be taken apart, and prefinished hardwood flooring needs the finish removed.
Nearly all free wood requires some form of cleanup to make it usable for woodworking projects. It’s 90% of the work and 50% of the fun. (Yes, those are scientifically accurate percentages!)
Good quality tools are going to be a essential at this party. For me, that means quality time with my buddies Mr. Hammer and Mr. Pry Bar. If I want to get extra fancy, I’ll invite Mr. Vice Grips and Mr. Belt Sander to dance with us. They get the job done.
Final Woody Thoughts
Whether you’re building an ark (to survive the flood of saved money) or just a simple stool for your kids, there is absolutely no reason to go out and buy wood. It literally grows on trees (at least in my part of the world), and I’ve only touched on a few of the more common free sources. There are more ways than I’ve listed here, and I hope you’ll share your favorites in the comments.
I realize this post isn’t going to be for everyone. The entire world isn’t going to be interesting in building things out of dead tree carcases.
Maybe you lack the time, or the space for such a hobby. But the principles of frugality should still hold true, whatever your hobby. Photography, rock climbing, sewing, or even underwater basket weaving…whatever your passion, there’s always ways to do it cheaper (or free).
Once we free ourselves from the seductive ease of purchasing everything the human brain begins to turn back on. We become resourceful beings once again. Instead of blatant consumerism, we begin to think about what can be re-used and re-purposed to meet our needs. Resourcefulness and creativity are not lost, they’ve only been forgotten.
Remember them my friends — It’s both good for the Earth, and good for your pocketbook.