Getting the correct amount of lumber for a job
I've recently started making furniture for a living and am working on transitioning my mindset from hobby to professional. Buying the right amount of lumber for a project has always given me a hard time, but it never really mattered as a hobbyist because I was never constrained by time or budget much. It was no big deal if I needed to run out for some more lumber. If I end up with extra, no biggie, I just put it in with the rest of the lumber stash. Now that time is money and space for materials is at a premium, I really want to dial in my lumber purchases. 

I can do the math at home and figure out board feet easily. Then based on plans, I can get a good idea of what size boards I need. For example, maybe I need four 1x4 and two 1x6. It all seems straightforward enough but once I get to the lumber pile, things can fall apart. Part of the issue is that I don't have any really good hardwood dealers around that have a great selection of organized boards. Maybe there will be a few 1x4 but no 1x6. But let's say there are lots of 1x5 or 1x7.5. This is where I fall apart trying to convert my needs into a bunch of random widths. Does anyone have any good tips, advice, or apps that can help with this issue? 

I already know some folks will say just to over-buy and don't sweat it but because space is super tight, the 'buy extra, you'll use it eventually' approach isn't great for me. And for my current project, the clients choose red oak. I personally never use oak and don't want extra hanging around. I know it's nearly impossible to buy the perfect amount, but I'm just looking to find some tactics that help me feel confident that I'm driving away with the "right" amount.
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When I figure exactly how much material the project will require, I figure 20 - 25% waste and that is figured into the bid. If there is some left over "store it or throw it". Most of the lumber comes in 10 ft lengths "skip planed" or "hit and miss". Depending on the size of the project will determine how much waste you will have.
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Any lumber I get from my hardwood supplier is random lengths, random widths straight line ripped one edge and random  lengths, thickness planed both sides, none is standard lumber sizes.     Figure how many board feet you need and add 10-20% or more..    Don't try for a exact amount unless you measure each end of every board and calculate what you can get out of each.
 It doesn't hurt to have a stash of scrap in case you need a small piece to repair or replace a piece .   It won't be the last red oak job if you are doing it as a business as many people have red oak furnishings.  The only place I have seen standard size hardwood is at the big box stores if you can pay the price.   Roly
There are some online cut calculators that can be useful to an extent. If you have a list of the pieces you need, you can put those into the calculator when on site and seeing actual dimensions. Some allow specified kerfs, etc.

I haven't found calculator that I use regularly, and some require some sort of subscription or account. But you should be able to find a few options through Google.

That being said, allow for some extra depending on your comfort with the project. A mistake may mean you need a bit extra. Or for practice cuts or for trying finishes.

Normally I buy rough cut hardwood so I add 50%.  Recently I built a walnut and steel pulpit; only needed 32bf but I ordered 70bf.  They loaded 80bf.  The grain and color was so crazy I had one piece maybe 5" X 4' left over that was usable.  I cut poster board patterns of each size, placed, and traced them to make sure the grain matched when the boards were joined.  An app would not have been much help.

I'm not fond of red oak but my next project requires red oak 1x2 trim. I spent a long time sorting through the red oak looking for similar grain.

Pecan, hickory, and ash are much more predictable, at least for me.

I wish you good luck, I'd much rather have too much than to go back and find the newer stock did not work with what I had.
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You need to find a good lumber supplier.  Traditional lumber suppliers near me either only sell to large commercial accounts or target well-heeled hobby woodworkers with outrageous prices.  I had to look for another source and found a millwork shop that also sells lumber and sheet goods.  Their prices are fair, they offer volume discounts, and the quality of the lumber they stock usually is very good.  

If you are pulling the boards yourself I'd buy 20% extra.  If your supplier is pulling them, 1) you really need to develop a good relationship with them, and 2) you should buy at least 40% extra until they understand your needs.  If they don't/won't learn, move on.  Have lumber shipped in if you have to. 

Thanks for the replies.

I did find what looks like a real useful calculator called Cutlist Optimizer. I've heard of it related to sketchup but I didn't know it was a standalone thing too.

As far as suppliers go, I did start reaching out to millwork and cabinet shops. I just have to send in what I need and they'll get me a quote.

I certainly recognize the importance of having extra material. The fact is, I'm so poorly calibrated at picking lumber that I struggle to know whether I'm 20% under or over my target. I posed this same question to a FB group and a number of answers mentioned that it gets easier with experience. As a hobbyist, I'd built lots of pieces over the years but never more than a couple of big ones a year. At that rate it's hard to get very meaningful experience picking lumber. Now that I've been making a few trips a month I'm hoping to hone my skills.
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mr_skittle Wrote:I did find what looks like a real useful calculator called Cutlist Optimizer. I've heard of it related to sketchup but I didn't know it was a standalone thing too.

One thing worth pointing out that limits the usefulness of these calculators is that it doesn't account for grain matching and figure optimization. Maybe you want to use a particular board for some high visibility areas. Or very carefully selected particular pieces for grain matching on a table top. I find the calculators to be more useful for everything else where particular grain is a little less important.

If your planning to purchase "what you need" for each job, you're already losing money IMHO. I know you said you dont wanna hear the buy extra route but from my experience its really the way to go. If you don't have space, rent a storage unit. If you cant afford $100-200 a month of overhead, your not a business, your a hobby.

Not only that, but you save a LOT of money buying lumber in bulk. Find a good supplier. If your just starting out and dont have the working capital, thats cool....but have a plan to build that up in 3-6 months and hustle till you get there.

Looking back at the growth curve of my business, the biggest blocks to my growth was offering too many species, and trying to make things work in a small space and not spending that couple hundred dollars monthly for a storage unit. Its really hard going to the lumber yard constantly. Time is money, and you're paying more too for the lumber itself. Double wammy. When I got over myself, I got storage unit, and within a year I had two, and now business has grown to the point I was able to lease a 2500 sq ft shop. That wouldnt happen if I ran to lumber yard every order. 

Ill use an example that might be easy to relate to. Glue. You use 16 oz a week. You wouldn't buy a 16 oz bottle every week. That costs more plus the time to go to the store to buy it every week. You would buy a gallon, once. It costs less per oz, and it would last 8 weeks.

Once Favre hangs it up though, it years of cellar dwelling for the Pack. (Geoff 12-18-07)  

Find a commercial lumber dealer. In Chicago we have Aetna, Rainer Rinn Scott and others. My father had a business far west of Chicago in a similar vein. All the cabinet shops would purchase skip planed lumber and often SLR to save time.

The big dealers typically pull from similar length units and for a little extra $ would be happy to match color, grain, widths to suit your specifications. Time is money and lumber costs depending on how complex your builds are will be at most 20%-30% of the sales price.

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