A Guide to Buying Lumber

A guide to buying lumber. A lumberyard is a hard place to go window-shopping. It pays to know what you want before you get there.

| July/August 1987

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    All lumber is sized and priced by its rough mill-sawn dimensions, but the finished product may be reduced in size by up to one-third after the surface-planing process is complete.
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    Diagram of hardwood lumber thickness standards and softwood lumber dimensions.

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  • 106-092-01tab.jpg

This guide to buying lumber helps the regular homesteader understand what wood is best to purchase. (See the hardwood and softwood diagram in the image gallery.)

A Guide to Buying Lumber

Wood sawn from trees by section and sold by dimension is known as lumber. This wood is available as softwood (cut from needle-bearing conifers like pine, fir, hemlock, cedar, redwood) and hardwood (sawn from deciduous, or leaf-bearing, trees such as oak, maple, walnut and cherry). There are two methods of mill sawing. The most common is plain, or flat, sawing, in which cuts are made tangent to (they follow) the tree's growth rings, yielding a face-grain board. Quarter-sawing, a somewhat less economical method, entails making cuts perpendicular to the growth rings, and produces straight-grained wood with better warp resistance.

All lumber is sized and priced by its rough mill-sawn dimensions, but the finished product may be reduced in size by up to one-third after the surface-planing process is complete. Hence, a nominal 2 by 6 measures only l½ inches by 5½ inches in actual dimension.

A piece of lumber less than 2inches thick and from 2 inched to 16 inches wide in nominal dimension is a board. Boards less than 6 inches wide are called strips. Dimension lumber used for framing work is between 2 inches and 4½ inches thick and up to 16 inches wide. Timbers measure at least 5 inches on any surface. Normally, lumber is available in lengths between 6 feet and 20 feet in standard 2 foot multiples.

Lumber is sold by the board foot, each unit being equivalent to a rough board measuring 1 inch thick, 12 inches wide and 12 inches long—144 cubic inches of wood all told. Wood less than 1 inch thick is counted as a full inch, and stock over 1 inch is figured by the next larger ¼ inch. Thus, an 8 foot-long 1 by 6 contains four board feet ... as does a strip measuring 1-3/8 inches by 2 inches by 16 feet. To figure board feet, multiply thickness by width in inches, then multiply by length in feet and divide by 12. Often, retail dealers sell lumber by the lineal, or running, foot which is the standard practice for moldings and other factory-shaped wood. Discount houses even sell by the piece, to make shopping easier.

Wood is graded according to quality, which is determined by the size of the board and the number and significance of defects such as knots, checks and shake, pitch pockets and wane (rounded edges). Both hardwood and softwood are further graded by intended use, which takes species, structural integrity and appearance into account.


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