Lumber Buying Guide: What to Expect at a Hardwood Lumberyard

If you are new to woodworking, going to a hardwood lumberyard for the first time can be intimidating. If you don’t know exactly what you are looking for and wouldn’t know how to ask for it even if you did, it’s easy to feel out of place. Use this lumber buying guide to get to know some key concepts and basic terminology for visiting your local hardwood lumberyard.

Stacks of lumber

Hardwood lumber stacked to the ceiling. Photos via Good Wood.

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Why go to a lumberyard instead of a home center?

Home centers just don’t stock a variety of hardwoods for making furniture. They sometimes stock things like poplar trim, but their selection is geared toward construction lumber, mostly pine. If you want hardwood to use for making furniture, you need to go to a real lumberyard.

Inside a lumberyard, you’ll find stacks and stacks of lumber, grouped by species, sometimes to the ceiling. Increasingly, you can also find reclaimed lumber from barns and other old buildings. The photos in this post are from Good Wood Nashville, a lumberyard in my own neighborhood.

Reclaimed lumber

Using lumber reclaimed from barns and old buildings is very popular.

Key things to know for your first trip to the lumberyard

Sold by the quarter

Thickness is probably the most important consideration and is the dimension used to categorize lumber. Wood is sold in a few standard thicknesses, which are based on the dimensions of the lumber when it is cut at the sawmill. Thickness is in ¼” increments, called quarters, so a 1” thick board is known as 4/4 (pronounced “four quarter”). You can also get 5/4, 6/4, 8/4 and up.

Keep in mind that boards are never perfectly flat. If you have to have a final dimension of 1” thick, it makes sense to buy something thicker and plane it down. If there is a cup in the board, you will have to remove material on each face to make it flat and parallel. Make sure you have enough wood to start.

Priced by volume

Lumber is sold by volume in units called board feet. One board foot is 12” by 12” by 1”. Pricing is based on this dimension.

The way to calculate board feet is to multiply the width by the length by the thickness (all in inches) and then divide by 144 (12” x 12” x 1”).

As an example, here is how to calculate the board feet of a 4/4 board that is 10’ long and 7” wide:

Thickness (1”) X length (120”) X width (7”) = 840.

Divide 840 by 144 and you get 5.83 cubic feet, which would probably be rounded to 6 cubic feet. If the cost of this lumber were $5 per board foot, the price for this board would be $30 ($5 X 6).

Thick slabs of wood

Wood cut in thick slabs is perfect for making tables influenced by woodworkers such as George Nakashima.

Dressed or rough?

The main options for surfacing are rough and dressed. Rough means the lumber is straight off the sawmill with a rough, uneven surface. You will actually see the marks left from the sawmill. Dressed means the wood has gone through a planer.

If the board is designated S2S, it has been surfaced on two parallel sides. S2S means “surfaced two sides.” S4S is surfaced on all four sides. You pay for the wood being 4/4, for example, but you will end up with somewhat less — usually around ¾”. For that reason, I usually buy lumber rough to get the most flexibility in thickness. You never know when you’re going to need something at a finished dimension of 7/8”.

The main advantages to dressed lumber are being able to see the figure of the wood clearly and being able to have the wood start off smooth if you don’t have a jointer. You will pay a bit more for surfaced lumber.

Cut-offs and premium lumber

I love the cut-off pile. If someone has to cut off a foot or so to fit a board into a truck, they often leave it behind because they can’t do anything with it. I find great wood often at a discount in the cut-off pile, which is perfect because I usually make smaller items anyway. There is often a premium lumber section also, where they put boards that are exceptional in terms of figure or color.

Lumber with live edge

Lumber with a live edge, which means the bark is left intact, presents lots of options for being creative.

Board width

The width of boards is variable. A common complaint among woodworkers is that boards have gotten more and more narrow. A hundred+ years ago, boards 30” wide and more were plentiful. They offered woodworkers a great opportunity to make large pieces with beautiful, uninterrupted figure. Boards like these are rare today and highly prized. You will definitely pay a premium for wide boards. Most of the boards you find will be 6” to 12” wide.

Go visit your local lumberyard

There are lots of other things to learn about, such as air dried wood vs. kiln dried, highly figured wood and salvaged wood. But the bits of knowledge in this lumber buying guide will put you well on your way. Now go to your local lumberyard and check it out. Be a kid in a candy store.

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