Online Lumber is bought differently
10 or 15 years ago buying lumber online consisted of scrolling through eBay looking for pen and bowl blanks. Occasionally a pool cue or pepper mill blank would show up or maybe some thin knife scale exotic boards. Today there are retailers who list large percentages of their stock online in slick shopping cart set ups. Here you can view both sides of a board, zoom in, and practically smell the figured goodness.
Still even with a wealth of opportunities to buy just the right board online, the way we go about buying lumber online is a bit different than a trip to the local lumber yard. Usually we are buying that special board that will be the focal point of a project. Or in my case, I'm impulse buying because a pretty picture in an email got my attention and I couldn't resist the incredible figure.
Shipping Lumber is Expensive
Online lumber sellers are not really the place to go and buy "regular" boards. These are the humble plain sawn boards that make up the sides of the cabinet or the baseboard moulding. While they may be available from that same online retailer, it just isn't economical to buy this way.
First, a typical shipping carrier has very strict limits on maximum length they will take. Many have a magical "girth" formula they apply and if you exceed that there is an automatic surcharge of $60 or more added on to the shipping total. Because of these shipping restrictions, most of these online specialists just don't stock longer boards. Close attention must be paid to the girth of the total shipment to keep things affordable. Buying by volume isn't really the way these places work. Instead we are buying by the piece with always an eye on the total weight and size of the shipment. This further reinforces the idea of buying for a specific part of your project over buying all the lumber for that project.
Even so several online lumber dealers have started offering project packs where one can buy all the boards for a project. In these cases the retailer has access to a parts list and has broken down the boards into sizes close to the finished parts list to keep the length and width down. Moreover these larger orders are handled differently with different carriers more used to overweight shipments. With the right supplier this can be a great way to buy lumber. You have to have a strong idea of what you need before buying and I wouldn't advise sending your parts list to them and expecting them to custom cut the lumber. This really only works when they are doing these project packs on a larger scale.
Test drive New Species
In the end buying lumber online offers a great opportunity to sample a wide variety of species that you may never have had access to. You can pick and choose the specific board you buy and buy as little as a single piece. Its a great way to expand your lumber species knowledge and spice up your projects with boards that you can't pronounce the name of the species.