Construction Lumber for Fine Furniture?

When I started woodworking I began with tutorials you find on different DIY websites. All of these sites advocated for the use of construction grade lumber or SPF which stands for Spruce, Pine and Fir. You know, the stuff you find at your big box store, 2×4’s and 2×6’s. The same lumber that was used to frame the walls in your home. Honestly, at the time I didn’t realize there was a significant difference between wood species and types.

Dauglas_fir_lumber

As I continued woodworking and gained more knowledge I soon realized that SPF was not the ideal lumber to use for building furniture. Although there is something to be said for buying your lumber that is already dimensioned to a specific size. That makes building a project around those specifically sized pieces of lumber pretty easy. SPF, while kiln dried, is not dried to the same standards as rough cut hardwood that you’d find at a lumber yard. Typically SPF has a moisture content of around 25% or so. The ideal moisture content for furniture construction is around 6% or 8%. This is a HUGE deal. All wood moves, it expands and contracts but wet wood moves SIGNIFICANTLY more. It cups and twists and bows and bends. That relatively flat table top you just built from 2×10’s will not be flat in six months. That thing is going to look like a potato chip.

So, once I realized this I stopped using SPF for furniture. Now I build from hardwoods, mostly oak, maple, mahogany and walnut. I can’t help but think about the old SPF though from time to time. It’s easy to work, readily available and very inexpensive when compared to hardwoods. You do give up some durability. It is much easier to dent, ding and scratch SPF than it is oak.

So, my first thought here is this. Can you even build a piece of “fine” furniture from SPF. That depends on your definition of what fine furniture is. To me, generally it means a piece that was built with traditional joinery, think mortise and tenon and dovetails and the like. It also has to be built from good materials. Now, the joinery isn’t an issue with SPF. Pine will join together just as well as the most expensive pieces Purpleheart will. But what about the quality of the material? I’m not 100% convinced that SPF is up to par. That being said it can be finished beautifully if it’s done right. But that is not an easy task to undertake. The biggest hurdle is the blotching you get when you try to add color to SPF. I suppose that SPF is durable enough, certainly not the most durable but we build workbenches out of it, a piece of “furniture” that is meant to take abuse. So for the sake of argument, lets say that SPF is choice enough for furniture construction.

How do you get around the moisture issue? Well, you could buy it and let it sit in your shop for months and dry it out. Who wants to have a lumber rack filled with SPF though? Not me. Are any of the boards off the big box store rack drier than others? Well, only a moisture meter will tell you that. I have read that buying 2×12’s that are 12′-16′ will give you the driest SPF in the store. But that negates any convenience of buying dimensioned lumber because you’ll have to cut your pieces out of all those 2×12’s. Not necessarily a bad thing but it’s something to consider. Does SPF warrant the extra work that you’d put in to building a piece from walnut?

I began this post by saying that I’ve built several pieces from SPF.  Some I still use today.  This is my coffee table and it’s one of the first pieces that I ever made.  It’s built from nothing but a bunch of 1 by lumber.  It’s several years old at this point and I intend to build a new one in the future.  All in all it’s held up pretty well.

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SPF Lumber coffee table
IMG_6942Here is another photo showing how much the table top has contracted since I’ve built it though.  This is because the wood has dried out and is physically smaller than when I bought it and built this piece.  It has shrunk about 1/8″ on each side.  Not exactly my idea of “fine” furniture.

I do feel like SPF could be a viable material for furniture.  Would I call it fine furniture, probably not.  But it could certainly be a way to let those who can’t afford a custom built walnut piece enter in to custom, handmade furniture.  I’ve certainly considered offering it as an option for my clients.  I haven’t as of yet though.  Perhaps I need to get myself some 2×12’s and do a few experiments.

What are you thoughts on SPF and fine furniture?  Do you build furniture from SPF, do your customers care or even know the difference?  Have you had issues with SPF moving dramatically on you after building a piece?  Let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading.

9 Replies to “Construction Lumber for Fine Furniture?”

    1. Generally I agree. I definitely don’t use it. I’d like to find a reasonable way to though. I might take my moisture meter to my big box store and see if the 2×12’s are any better.

  1. I started a coffee table that I decided to make out of only 2×4 , just for an exercise. Since laminating the top and the legs I’ve all but given up on it. It surprisingly hasn’t moved all that much, lately I’ve taken to flattening the top a little here and there. Definately not a nice looking wood but solid as heck. I can see a limited run in the living room before it becomes outdoor furniture then firewood as my burning pile gets smaller

    1. Yeah I agree. It’s definitely not pretty. At least not when compared to some of the premium hardwoods out there. From a builders perspective it really is crap. From a consumers perspective the price is right and unfortunately they don’t know any better. I always educate my clients about lumber choice. I feel like I lose a lot due to the price of hardwood though.

      Additionally they always show me photos of someone else’s DIY project that used construction lumber and want me to do something similar. I’m fine with that but I won’t use SPF and they are generally taken aback by the price of quality wood.

      1. The price of nice hardwood is definitely up there. I’m in Saskatchewan so I can’t image finding really good deals on wood. Most of my projects thus far have been built using s4s knotty pine because it is really affordable. I’ve gotten comfortable enough with my skills now that I think I will take on a project in hardwood after my tool cabinet is finished. Where are you and what kind of prices do you pay for lumber? For hardwood shorts I’m looking at $5-7/bd foot

        1. I’m in Maryland. The price really depends on the species. For example 8/4 Poplar is around $2 bf while 8/4 Walnut can be upwards of $11 bf. Oak, maple, cherry and mahogany are somewhere in between. Then of course the exotics like wenge and purple heart are more expensive.

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