I know this statement is usually based on the fact that we feel we don't have the woodworking experience to warrant using expensive wood to build a project, that we may mess up and then we wasted a good piece of wood for nothing. I've seen this excuse used with woodworkers that have actually been building for awhile but still lack the confidence to spend some money to buy beautiful lumber instead of shelving boards to build a project.
So let me make something perfectly clear before continuing; there is no right or wrong answer for this, but there are definitely two totally different ways of thinking about choosing lumber for a project (especially in the beginning). I've always been on the opposite side of the fence with this one. I've always felt that if I allowed myself to think that way, then I was giving myself an excuse to fail or screw up.
This started very early for me, in fact when I was in 9th grade shop class. We were to design and draw a set of plans for a project we would build later in the school year in wood shop. I drew a set of plans for a shelf unit to hang on the wall with 3 small drawers along the bottom. Later when I started wood shop, my instructor ask me what type wood I was going to make it from. We had a choice of pine, poplar or a wood called obeece.(looks a lot like Mahogany). Most of the other students where building their projects with poplar because it was cheap and easy to work with. Nope, not me, I decided I wanted to work with the obeece. I really liked the looks of the wood and since nobody else was using it, I had the best selection to pick from. It was more expensive then either the pine or poplar and I believe my teacher even tried to talk me out of it since this was really my first serious woodworking project, but I had no intention of failing and I was going to give it my best shot not to mess up or ruin any of the wood.
Here's the moral of the story; You can't make a silk purse out of a sows ear! The project turned out great because I took my time and made sure I thought out each process of building before I cut anything. At the end, I was very proud of my project and my Mom loved it.
Remember I said I built that project when I was in 9th grade, well I'm 63 years old now and when my Mom passed away this past October, I took that shelf down from her den and it's now in my home. (and I'm still proud of it!).
I never regretted building it with expensive wood, but I would have kicked my ass if I had spent all that time and effort and built it with some cheap wood. I'm just saying......Don't let the lack of confidence make you choose what lumber you build a project with, but let it motivate you to do the very best you can and you'll probably surprise yourself.
Over the years, I've realized there are a lot of reasons we may choose a certain wood for a particular project. It may be for strength, durability, color, beauty and yes, even the cost factor, but let's hope that's because of other reasons then just the lack of confidence in our abilities.
What else is important when choosing your lumber for a project? Selection, quality, variety and the ability to hand select my own lumber are all important factors for me. The big box stores don't give you much choice when it comes to different species of hardwoods. Your hobbyist woodworker stores like Woodcraft may give you a little more variety of hardwoods, but your selection in each species is usually pretty limited and you do pay a premium for their lumber.
It will take some searching and time to find a real lumber yard that carries a good selection of hardwoods, exotic woods and sheet goods, but it's well worth the effort. That's why I've always enjoyed buying lumber from the Hardwood Store in Gibsonville, NC. When I first started woodworking, one of the hardest things I had to learn was where to buy lumber and supplies. Finding a reputable lumber dealer should be one of your first priorities if you plan on doing much woodworking at all, even as a hobbyist.
When I'm selecting lumber for a project, I'm looking for a number of things from each board. I want as much consistency in color from one board to the other, I'm looking at grain pattern and/or figure. I'm not real particular with width, as long as it's not ridiculously narrow or way too wide. I'll forgive a little warp, twist or bow if it's got great color or grain pattern. It's it's not too bad, I've learned to work around some defects. Speaking of which, even if a board has a bad spot in the middle, if the rest of the board has the color and grain I'm looking for I'll consider it. One thing I've learned over the years is to buy a little more lumber then you might have figured in your plans. If I figured I need 100 bd. ft. of Cherry to build a project, I will probably pick out 115 to 125 bd ft. just to be on the safe side.
I would much rather have a little lumber left over at the end of a project, then have to try to squeeze some scrape lumber into my project to finish it or even worse, having to go get more lumber to even finish the project. If I have 10, 15 or even 25 bd ft. of lumber left over from one project, you can bet your bottom dollar it will get put to good use down the road. It's always handy to have a piece or two of different hardwoods available at any given time.
Once I select my lumber and get it back to the shop, I start the selection process all over again. I like to lay out all my lumber so I can see all the boards at once and select which boards I'm going to use for each part of the project. For example; if my project has a lot of raised panel doors and drawer fronts like a set of kitchen cabinets or even a large wall unit or home entertainment center, I would pick out the lumber I want to use for the panels since that will be making the biggest statement when looking at the front of the project. I want the most consistent color and grain pattern for those so when everything is built the wood flows nicely from one door or drawer front to another and one cabinet to another. Next I'll pick out the lumber for the stiles and rails for the doors trying to keep color as close as possible to the lumber I picked out for the panels and drawer fronts. The grain pattern won't be quite as important for these since they will only be a few inches wide and usually have a profile around the edge, so the grain doesn't show up as much. Next would be the stiles and rails for the cabinets and finally moldings, etc. I will even mark each board with chalk so I can keep track during the building process.
Another thing I will do and I'm sure a lot of shops won't do because it's not the most effective way to use your lumber, but if I find a board that I really like the grain pattern in the middle, but the rest of the board is just so so, I've been known to take that piece right out of the middle of a board so I can use it for a door panel or something that I feel the grain pattern will highlight the best. I can always use the rest of the board for something small and insuffinicant elsewhere. Sometimes not the best use of wood, but as long as I get the look I'm looking for, then it's worth it. I don't waste wood, just selectively use it elsewhere.
That brings me back to what I said earlier about sometimes buying a board that may be a little warped or twisted simply because the color and grain is what I'm looking for. If it's not too bad, then a lot of times you can either straighten it out when you get to the shop or work around it. Example: I always cut my long stiles (whether it's for a door or cabinet front) from the flattest, straightest boards I have. A lot of times, the rails are so short that you can work around a board that has a small about of bow or warp to it. That's why I like to select the different lengths because I would much rather work the bow or warp out of a shorter board then trying to work it out in a 8 or 10 ft. board first and then cut it down to shorter lengths anyway, besides, if the board has much bow or twist then you will end up having to take way too much off from a long board to get it flat.
Also going back to what I mentioned earlier about buying more lumber then the project may call for gives me a chance to pick out a board or two that is really different then anything else in the pile. I've found some really awesome boards in the middle of a bundle of lumber. There may be only one board like it, so it's almost impossible to use it in a bigger project, but I love adding something like that to my order just to have for making a special box or an accent piece.( for the really fun projects).
I realize most of the projects I've built have been large and requires a larger quanity of lumber then maybe what you would normally use doing a project or two as a hobbyist, but I've also built hundreds of small projects and I like to be just as fussy about picking my lumber for those also.
I'll finish by challenging you to try this if you are a beginning woodworker and have been a little intimidated by using more expensive lumber on a project. I would challenge you to pick a very small project (maybe a small box) and buy a really nice piece of lumber and build it for a friend or loved one. Take your time, keep it simple and let the beauty of the wood make the statement. It will make you feel good and I'll guarantee they will love it.