Guide to Buying Better Wood

Buying lumber can be a bit intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Keep these key things in mind when buying wood for your next woodworking project.

Buying Rough-cut lumber

Rough cut walnut? Yes, please! (Photo by Dan Lipe)

My medium of choice is good, old-fashioned, made-by-nature wood. It holds magical properties (not scientifically proven). While my nearest home center offers me some selection, I really have gotten tired of working with pine and red oak (I sort of hate red oak, but that is another story). The good news? There are hundreds of species of trees available in North America. I paid a visit to my local hardwood dealer, Jeffries Wood Works in Seymour, TN, to get the scoop on what some of the options are.

Where To Get It

Sawmill

There are a number of places you can get wood. If you live in a place that has lots of trees, you can find a sawmill nearby. That sawmill might be a commercial operation or a good ole boy out in the country. Either way, you’ll want to call ahead, find out what they have, and make an appointment if you plan to visit.

Hardwood Dealer

Rough-cut lumber at the Hardwood Dealer

Boards lined up for inspection at Jeffries Wood Works

At Jeffries, they have over 150 species of wood – many of them are blanks for wood turners – but at the end of the day, they have over 60 species of dimensional lumber (boards). Many of the species are native to East Tennessee like Ash, Cherry, Maple and Walnut. Others are tropical like Bubinga, Mahogany, and Paduk.

A woodworking supply store may also be a good option for you. Mine mostly specializes in tools, although they do have some lumber.

The Home Center

The home center has some basic offerings of wood types. Outside of Pine, Poplar and Red Oak, I can get Aspen, Cedar, Fir and sometimes Maple. My challenge there is finding boards that are great quality (see below) and free of defects. To give credit where credit is due, I buy most of my poplar there because it is convenient and it is already surfaced on all four sides (S4S).

Milling and Surface Prep

Rough-cut lumber at the Hardwood Dealer

These two pieces are from the same board. The one on the left is rough-cut while the one on the right has been surfaced.

Rough-cut lumber comes straight from the mill with no surfacing. There are several in-between stages that might be referenced at the hardwood dealer or sawmill in terms of what has been made smooth. It may be one side and one edge (S2S), or even 3 sides (S3S). The amount of surfacing will be reflected in the price of the board.

The point is to determine what level of surfacing you need for your project. I have the machines it takes to surface rough lumber, but before that I had to buy all of my wood pre-surfaced. Your hardwood dealer might also be willing/able to surface rough-cut boards for you. Note: buying rough-cut lumber can save some serious dough in the long run.

Board Dimensions

Surfaced lumber is measured in fractions of an inch. This is related to the board size before it is dried and surfaced. A 1 x 4 is actually around 3/4″ thick.

Translating Lumber Mill Glyphs and Markings

The dealer will often label the boards so you know what you are buying.

Rough lumber is sold in quarter-inch increments and is usually marked as the number of quarter inches, such as 4/4 (4 quarters = 1 inch) or 8/4 (8 quarters = 2 inches). It has not been surfaced, but has been dried.

Most home centers sell their boards either by linear foot (how long the board is in feet) or for the whole board. Mills and hardwood dealers will sell based on board foot (BF). One board foot is the equivalent of 12″ x 12″ x 1″ of material. A 2′ long 1 x 6 is one board foot, as is a 1′ long 2 x 6.

Board Quality

Boards are graded and priced based on the amount of clear surface available. In my world, clear surface means usable lumber. Without going into super-nerd mode, boards are graded following order:

  1. FAS (Firsts and Seconds): expect a near perfect board with no defects.
  2. F1F (Firsts one Face): one side will be near-perfect, the other side will have some minor defects
  3. Select: one side will be near perfect; the other side can have minor defects.
  4. #1 Common: Have minor defects but also have a high percentage of clear surfaces. (This is usually my line of where a board becomes unacceptable.)
  5. #2A Common: Have some defects but also have a high percentage of clear surfaces.
  6. #2B Common: Have some defects but also have a high percentage of sound surfaces.
  7. #3A Common: Have many defects but also have a moderate percentage of clear surfaces.
  8. #3B Common: Have many defects but also have a moderate percentage of sound surfaces.

If you really want to know the whole scoop, download and read the 104 pages of the NHLA’s guidelines.

Lumber Defects

Loose Knot

Loose Knot and some discoloration are common natural defects in wood.

Natural Defects

  • Checks: These are cracks that usually run with the grain.
  • Decay: rotten wood
  • Holes: usually from worms and such
  • Knots: They may be solid or loose.

Technically speaking, wormy wood, birds eye, curly and quilted grain are natural defects. They are desirable defects and thus will raise the price of the board.

Manufacturing Defects

The wane edge is where the bark once was and should have been removed during milling.

The wane edge is where the bark once was and should have been removed during milling.

Machine defects are caused during the machining process and may be wavy places in the surface, torn grain or saw burns.

  • Shake: basically a chip on the edge of the board
  • Stain: discoloration left by the processing of the wood
  • Wane: tree bark or a rough (live) edge

Note to self: I wonder if it’s possible to get a discount at the home center for “defective” lumber?

Regardless of whether you are buying from the home center or the lumber mill, understanding what it is that you are looking at and looking for will help find that right piece of wood for your next project. And as a bonus, DIY has a nice little video on selecting boards, as well as a photo gallery on How To Weather and Distress New Wood.

2 Responses

  1. Landon says:

    Super good analysis of important characteristics of lumber. Everything in here is really important to know – seems like a lot for someone that is new to the product – but important. Didn't know what a shake was until I read this – I see that all the time in cedar. Thanks.

    • Dan says:

      You are right, it is a lot to know, but well worth it, IMHO. A few weeks back I purchased an 8/4 piece of cherry 8' long and 13" wide for less than $35. I could not have done so without being able to communicate about what it is that I wanted. The good news is that any reputable lumber supplier should be more than accommodating when it comes to this sort of thing. Even at the home center, simply knowing the grade of lumber can help one make smarter purchasing decisions.

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About Dan Lipe 

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I’m a Senior Interaction Designer, focused on creating compelling and intuitive user experiences. During my 15+ years in the design field, I’ve worked in print, corporate identity and digital media ...

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