There are many reasons why shopping at the big home improvement centers is better than shopping at the local lumberyard. To start with, lumber yards focus on carrying lumber, while the lumber yard is only a small portion of a home improvement center. When the first Home Depot opened in 1979, part of their advertising was the claim that they had everything. Lowe’s has worked hard to one up them on that claim.
But inventory isn’t everything. People don’t shop at these stores just because they can get their lumber, plumbing and paint all in one place; they do so for the service. Both chains pride themselves on their customer service, hiring people who are knowledgeable in their field. The people working the various departments in these stores can not only tell you where to find something in their department, but make recommendations of how to use them as well.
One of the many ways that these retail giants provide excellent customer service is through installing panel saws and radial arm saws in the store. Sales associates in the lumber department are trained to assist customers by making cuts for them, especially cutting sheets of plywood down on the panel saw, to a size that will fit in their vehicle.
There are limitations on this service, some established by policy and others by the practicalities of trying to take care of a lot of customers. Some people have complained about the service they have received in this area, but for the most part, they had unrealistic expectations about what store employees should do for them.
What’s Included in the Cutting Service?
Getting the most out of this cutting service requires approaching it the right way, making it easy for yourself and for the lumber associate that does the cutting. Anything that makes the job easier for them will result in the job being done more to the customer’s satisfaction.
Both chains have panel saws, allowing them to crosscut and rip plywood sheets. However, it is easier to crosscut on a panel saw, than it is to rip on one. Ripping also takes more space, which can be a problem when the store is busy. Home Depot actually says on their saw that they won’t do rip cuts, although most employees will do them, when treated nicely.
Most Home Depot stores also have a radial arm saw, which allows them to cut dimensional lumber, 1” and 2” thick to length. However, they don’t have the capacity to crosscut 4”x 4”s or larger lumber. Nor do they do any ripping of boards, even in the cases where they have a table saw available.
Architectural trim molding will only be rough-cut and will not be mitered in any way. Due to the heavy use of their tools, they aren’t able to do the fine, accurate cutting necessary for ensuring that trim pieces are ready for installation. Always count on having to recut them, having them cut a little long to allow for recutting.
Both chains will provide two cuts for free. After that, they charge 50 cents for each additional cut. Some employees will let this slide, especially if the store isn’t busy. But don’t count on it and take advantage of them.
Plan the Cuts
As with anything else in a woodworking project, planning is important. Chances are the sales associates in the lumber department are going to be busy, so they’ll appreciate a customer who doesn’t waste their time. Just like doing a project at home, planning the cuts to make the most efficient use of the wood and to cut it the easiest will help ensure that the results meet the project’s needs.
Planning, of course, includes planning what material is needed for the project. Arriving at the store and then having to decide what will be needed is a good way to waste time. Worse, for the sales associate, is someone who doesn’t know what they want, expects help in selecting it, and then wants it cut.
Neither retailer guarantees the accuracy of cutting services. Nevertheless, lumber department sales associates will do their best. However, the equipment they are working with is well-used and the blades are general-purpose, not fine cutting blades. So don’t expect them to do finish cuts, that’s not what they are doing. They’re rough cutting material, so that their customers can get it home.
Bringing your own tape measure, pencil and T-square can help, allowing you to measure and mark the wood for the store employees. This is the first part of any cut, and so by doing it for them, it makes the job easier.
The other advantage of marking the wood, rather than allowing the store employee to do so is that tape measures can vary. While the lumber associates all carry tape measures, theirs are well used and the hook at the end might be worn or bent. If the wood is marked for cutting with the same tape measure that was used to measure the project at home or will be used for further cuts, it helps ensure accuracy.
Time it Right
Cutting wood for customers is an additional duty for lumber associates, in addition to helping other customers. So the best way to ensure good service is to go during the times when the lumber department is least likely to be busy and store personnel will be available. Going during the busy times all but guarantees a long wait and an irritated customer.
The best times to go to the store, if wood will need to be cut, is between 9am and 3pm. Before 9 in the morning, there are a lot of contractors in the store, getting what they need for their day’s work. After 3 in the afternoon, the store starts filling up with homeowners, buying material for DIY projects. Saturdays are difficult, all day long, but Sundays are good, especially early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
Select and Mark the Material
By and large, it’s not a good idea to have the sales associates help load the material, unless absolutely necessary. Both chains buy lumber that is not kiln dried, so warping, twisting and cupping are all major considerations. The only way to ensure straight boards or pieces of plywood that don’t have damaged corners is to take the time to dig through them, selecting with care. Sales associates don’t do that; they just grab as many pieces as are necessary.
Selecting the wood also allows an excellent opportunity to mark it for the cuts. Sales associates are accustomed to seeing that, so they won’t think it strange. It’s considerably easier to mark plywood sheets while they’re still stacked; than it is to mark them once they’re on the cart.
Both companies have extensive websites, listing both what’s in stock at the stores and items that can be ordered. It can be very useful to go online before going, just to make sure that the desired material is available at the local store. The website is keyed to the stores’ inventory and as long as you have selected “your store” the web page will indicate if it is in stock. If it isn’t, it will say where it is.
The Lowe’s website goes a step farther than this, telling the location in the store, down to the bay in the aisle. This can save a lot of time wandering around the store, trying to find some obscure part.
The Right Cart Helps
When buying plywood, it’s best to use a vertical lumber cart, if the plywood needs to be cut. The center slot on that cart allows the sheets of plywood to be stood up, just like they need to be for the panel saw. The deck is close to the same height as the bottom of the panel saw as well, making it easy to move material from the cart to the saw. If the plywood is on a flat cart, it pretty much takes two people to unload it and load it into the panel saw.
In the case of dimensional lumber, a vertical lumber cart can be used or their higher flat carts, but not the low flat cart; that’s designed for heavy or bulky items, like hot water heaters and bags of concrete.
One nice thing in both stores is that people will generally leave carts alone, as long as there’s something on them. That one item indicates that the cart is in use and people looking for a cart will generally respect that. But if the cart is left empty, it’s fair game for anyone looking for a cart. If nothing else, place something temporarily on the cart to hold it, like a 2”x 4” and then return it to its place after loading other material.
Getting the Best Cuts
Being friendly and courteous to the lumber associate is an important part of the process, as it will help ensure that they do their best. While store policy is that they don’t provide accurate or fine cuts, if the employee feels they are being treated well by the customer, they’ll go the extra mile to make those cuts as accurately as possible.
Taking a moment to talk about the project is a good idea too. Not only do you being the associate into the work, giving them a sense of ownership, which can result in a better job, but they might offer up some good ideas to improve the project.
As much as possible, plan the cuts for plywood so that they can be made vertically. It’s easier and more accurate to make vertical cuts on a panel saw, than horizontal ones. So, if a sheet of plywood needs to be cut into four 2’ x 4’ panels, it’s easier to make three vertical cuts, at every 24”, rather than ripping the sheet at 2’ and then cross cutting each of those pieces in half.
It’s always best to load plywood into a panel saw with the face side to the back. This will help to reduce splintering made by the cut. While they use carbide-tipped blades on their saws, those blades get a lot of use, so they might not be as sharp as a new blade would be.
Finally, be helpful. If the sales associate needs the cart moved, aligning it with the saw, then do it for them. If they need help in moving a sheet of plywood onto the saw, lend a hand. Be sure to take the cut pieces as well, loading them back onto the cart.