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When I build my first real bit of furniture I didn't have a jointer (hand or power) or a planer, and basically I knew nothing. So off I went to Constantine, which was then in the Bronx, and I bought a pile of ready planed cherry.
I got it home, it warped, and I never got the record cabinet square.
Since then I learned never to buy pre-surfaced wood for anything important.
I've broken that rule for poplar because I can get pretty stable poplar, but nothing else.
Fast forward to today. A salesman for a big lumber yard stopped by to say hello. Then he volunteered the information that his lumber yard, which is one of the few places left in New York City that stocks Walnut and Cherry, no longer stocks it in the rough. And the wood is shipped to them from the mill already planed.
The official reason is that it's what most of his customers - professional cabinetmakers - want. A lot of professionals who use wood, mostly use it for parts of furniture - doors, trim, etc. and don't or can't want to take the time to let the wood settle. Also he says that a lot of his customers can't read the grain unless the wood is planed.
For anyone making traditional hardwood furniture this is a major problem. The minute wood enters a normally heated shop it will start moving and the only way to have a stable project is to first sticker it and then let the wood acclimate to the workshop climate. Then mill it. For project lasting a long time it even make sense to let the wood acclimate to your shop, then mill to a fat dimension, sticker it and let it settle more, and then joint and plane to final dimension.
I should mention that all accurate milling starts with a jointer (either by hand or machine) before using the planer to get the material to thickness. The planer rolls flatten the lumber so you need to joint to first to get a flat reference surface.
If you need to see the grain, ask the lumberyard to skip plane it for you. Skip planing just takes a light pass off the wood removing the high spots and that way you can see the grain.
You can buy planed wood, let it settle and plane it again, that will waste a lot of wood (and if you are milling by hand - more time) and of course cost more.
I don't know where my next solid lumber order is coming from (probably not from around here). :(
This "Tools & Craft" section is provided courtesy of Joel Moskowitz, founder of Tools for Working Wood, the Brooklyn-based catalog retailer of everything from hand tools to Festool; check out their online shop here. Joel also founded Gramercy Tools, the award-winning boutique manufacturer of hand tools made the old-fashioned way: Built to work and built to last.