Scrap and Cutoffs: Are they Worth Saving?

The perennial problem: how to manage odds and ends of material. September 30, 2010

The other day after completing a job, I had to stop and address a problem that comes about every year. When is a cutoff (sheet stock or lumber) too small to save? I do a job in walnut and when I see the cutoffs, I think "Hey, I could use that... maybe." And they get put to the side. Then a job in cherry, red elm, etc. and the pile grows until I don't know what is in it and it is starting to get in the way and slow production. Then I have to clean it up and burn it. Am I a hoarder? When is a piece of birdseye maple too small to save for that special project?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor D:
You are not alone. Rather than burn it, try a local community association who run craft workshops for disadvantaged people. They are always looking for materials.

From contributor J:
I used to save my scraps, but the pile just got way too big. Now, whatever is left after the job goes in the dumpster. The only thing I save is 1/2 sheets of the common stuff. If it's not something I use regularly, or around the size of 1/2 a sheet, I chuck it.

From contributor M:
I predetermine how much space I am willing to give this probable waste, then divide my small sheet goods (cutoffs) into 2 piles by similarity of size. Every time my waste gets outside of its area, I go through and toss things until I am back inside the border. I do the same thing with length cuts on mouldings. I also predetermine what will most likely never get used, such as a length of material under 12". This helps the shop employees throw things away as well.

My wife does organizing, so I have adopted a few of her practices as well. If I have not used something for 12 months, I get rid of it. If I move a pile of wood twice, it goes. Then about once a month I go through everything and clean up again. I find saving that small piece of beautiful wood that I paid good money for can distract me when I need to be focusing on the work at hand, which can end up being more expensive than just buying more wood when I need it. I actually moved some ash and mahogany cutoffs through 3 shop relocations before I realized that a $75.00 pile of wood had probably cost me 3x as much by taking up space and time.

From contributor K:
What contributor J said, unless it's a custom or lam panel (just in case).

From contributor R:
Buy a lathe and turn segmented bowls. Now there is nothing much left to burn. The bigger stuff we glue up to make drawer boxes.

From contributor B:
We have the same problem and have a similar approach to contributor M. Set of racking with smaller spaces; if the space is full, it is scrap.

We have a second problem. The guys are told to get rid of things, but each of them has their own stash hidden by their bench. I tried to throw out some old cabinet doors the other day by putting them in the bin. The next trip through the shop, there they were behind a guy's bench. They are still there weeks later.

From contributor E:
Tiachi Ohno said, "The more inventory you have, the less likely you will have what you need." This is a fact statistically speaking. If you are inventorying 100 things you have a1/100 chance. If you have 1000 things, it is 1/1000.

My optimizer keeps track of off-cuts larger than 6 sq feet with one side not smaller than 16 inches. Even with this, the scrap pile grows very fast. So I cull it out once a week or so. My optimizer will use these off-cuts in the next job, but in practice it takes too much time. The way off-cuts are utilized most of the time is when a saw or boring machine operator makes a mistake and the part needs to be remade. The saw operator will pull a piece from the off-cut pile to replace the bad part. This way there is no need to redo the optimization report.

I am actually able to sell my scraps for a small amount of money, but I do not think that would be possible in the USA.

Keeping laminated stock from a special job is a horrible practice. Once the job is installed and paid for, keeping the leftovers is ridiculous. No matter how expensive the materials were. You will almost certainly never use it. If the client damages a door, they can pay for a whole sheet. Not our fault.

From contributor I:
I have actually got my routine down to a science and I don't have very much scrap any more. I build face frame cabinets only. I start out with the widest pieces first, which is drawer fronts. When I have those ripped I rip crown, then frame stock which is 2 inches (by this time I am ripping frame stock from the scrap from the crown and drawer fronts). Then I rip shelf supports which are 1/2'', then I rip trim strips which are 1/4''. The occasional piece that is left over goes under my extension which will become a tomato stick for my garden. I do have some scrap 2'' face frame material, but like another poster said already, I turn segmented bowls for a hobby and they go into that.

As far as sheet goods go, I cut out the biggest cabinets first and go down the line to the smallest, using what scrap I can as I go. I have different stacks and when a piece comes off the saw, if it's at least 4 x 19 with the right grain direction, it goes into the drawer stack pile. If it's at least 5 1/2 wide cross grain, it goes into the toe kick stack. If it's at least 2'', it goes into the drawer slide bracket stack. After that it gets thrown away.

I keep track of how many sheets I use on every kitchen. I did a kitchen about 10 years ago and last year had another come that was the same house plan. The customer said they wanted the exact same kitchen as I did in the other house like it 10 years before. I pulled the old print up and built it and it took 16 sheets. I looked back on the old drawing and it took 21 back then. For the last 3 or 4 months, we have had a burning ban, and I had a pretty decent size pile to burn.

A local craft guy asked if he could go through it and get stuff for bird houses, and I told him to go for it. He found enough for 2 birdhouses, so I felt sorry for him and gave him some toe kicks.

This stuff costs a lot and if you can get a routine down that will work for the way you build, you can use more and buy less. Countertop laminate is a different story - I've got a ton of that scrap and don't know what to do with it.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the responses. It is good to know that I am not alone. I was afraid someone would see my scrap pile and I would wind up on that hoarding television show.

Contributor M, I like the idea of the border and I never really considered the cost of saving scrap.

Contributor I, we build mostly face frame and furniture and your method is great. I will adopt some of it.

From contributor W:
What we cannot or should not cut up for common parts like toekick stretchers gets donated to local high school shops (and man are they grateful).

From contributor T:
I saw all of my scrap 3/4" plywood into 3/4" x 3/4" strips, and use them for assembly of future cabinetry. This keeps most all of it out of the dumpster.

From contributor L:
Don't forget Lots of people will pick up scrap for firewood or carvings. Our local town has a carving club and these guys love getting some of the odd species for their hobby.

From contributor O:
If you truly have a large problem with scraps, a shaving mill can turn scrap wood into wood shavings. You can then sell the shavings with your other planer shavings and sawdust for animal bedding privately or contracted to collectors. Some also buy and shave slab wood or pulp wood to add in, and turn it into a nice side venture. Jackson Lumber Harvester has been manufacturing the machines since 1961.

From contributor S:
We do a couple of things. First, we sell scraps in 20 lb boxes on the internet for the cost of shipping and handling. Free(ish). Second, we bag scraps in 50 lb. onion bags. One of our employees heats her house with them, and the rest we give to anybody who wants firewood (and this stuff makes very nice firewood indeed!). If the firewood needs to be stored outside, we use plastic contractor's garbage bags. We never have enough scrap for these uses and it generates a lot of goodwill. Our biggest client is an old vet who uses it to heat his trailer - keeps him warm and us warm/fuzzy.

From contributor W:
Waste leads to waste. Cut-offs, drop-offs, damaged materials need to be disposed of immediately. A wood hog is an ideal solution for reducing waste to chips and dust and can be placed in your dumpster and delivered to the dump. If you can reuse the off-fall within 30 days, keep it. Otherwise, you may have to state it as inventory. This will become an indisposable cost that will consume your time, space and energy. In most cases, you would rely on specific departments to utilize the stored waste. In fact, new orders being processed will create more waste and more than likely the old waste just sits there. Your time is better spent moving inventory to completion. When you costed the job, you included the waste as part of the job. Don't let the waste consume your profit.