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Understanding Hardwood Lumber Grades and Jargon

After walking into a lumber yard for the first time many new woodworkers are instantly confused with the jargon. Purchasing hardwood requires understanding hardwood lumber grades and is not like buying wood from a big box store.

For example, if you wanted a half dozen 6-inch boards you might have expected to buy them individually like a 2×4.

But, when it comes to hardwood, you’ll face a language barrier.

In this article learn how to understand the terminology, how best to shop prices and what services you’ll want to select from a hardwood supplier. And, more importantly, what you’ll want to avoid.

Hardwood Lumber Grades

First up: when buying lumber it is best to understand the grading scale that goes with wood.

As an industry, lumber is generally sold in the following grades:

  • First and Seconds (FAS)
  • FAS One Face
  • Select
  • No. 1 Common
  • No. 2A Common
  • No. 2B Common
  • No. 3A Common

The lower the grade, the less clear cuts of a specific size that you’ll get from each board.

The higher the grade (FAS) the more expensive the price per board foot will be. Top grades are also clear on both sides, while lower grades may only have a guaranteed percentage of clear wood on the “face” of the board.

For example, if your project requires perfectly clear wood, no knots and no sapwood then a Select or FAS grade is called for. However, if you are making wood panels and using dark stain then a No. 1 Common grade may work fine.

Hardwood Thickness: Rough vs. Finished

If understanding the grade of lumber wasn’t difficult enough the thickness of hardwoods is important.

With hardwoods and softwoods at a lumber yard you’ll typically buy wood in a board foot. A board foot is defined as a 12-inch by 12-inch by 1-inch thick unit of wood. So, a 12-inch board that is 8 feet long and 1″ thick is 8 board feet.

However, lumber isn’t sold as “1-inch thick”. Instead, it is sold in quarter units of thickness:

  • A 4/4 board is about 1-inch thick rough, but when “hit and miss” planed it is usually around 13/16-inches thick.
  • A 5/4 board is, you guessed it, 1-1/4 inch thick. And, when planed is just over an inch thick.
  • And so on, with some lumber reaching 16/4 or thicker as you look at mantle pieces

The trick, then? When buying hardwood you’ll need to consider the finished lumber thickness and order accordingly.

Lumber Yard Services

hardwood lumber near me
Close-up of neatly piled stack of natural brown uneven rough wooden boards inside attic room under construction. Industrial timber for carpentry, building, lumber material for construction.

Unless you’re a fully functioning cabinet or furniture shop, odds are you don’t want to bring your expensive hardwood home and plane it.

In fact, it is a great idea to purchase pre-surfaced hardwood. And, most of the time, its best to also have your hardwood “straight line ripped” and purchase the wood as S3S. S3S is just a fancy way of saying the wood is surfaced on three sides (face, back and one side). The advantage of S3S is the boards are ready for the table saw. The disadvantage, though, is the folks at the mill will slice 1/2″ (or more) of the edge off your hardwood.

With that in mind, look for hardwood dealers that:

  • Surface lumber to a finished thickness
  • Straight line rip one edge (never pick two, it’s generally a waste)

With that in mind, combining hardwood lumber grades with surfacing may require buying “100 board feet of FAS, S3S”.

Buying Tips for Hardwood

While nobody likes to pay a premium for hardwood, good quality wood is rarely the cheapest.

However, when ordering, the following tips can save you considerably:

  • Buy in bulk when possible. Most hardwood dealers offer a 5-10% discount for orders over 100 board feet. And some will further discount over 250 or 500 board feet.
  • Scan the dealer website for trade affiliations. Some states have woodworker guilds that you can join and enjoy the purchasing benefits of.
  • Plan for 10-20% waste, depending on the finished grade of your project. Buying more on the first trip will save you in the long run. But, unless noted on the sales receipt, most hardwood is non-returnable.

Store Your Wood Wisely

Lumber Storage Rack Store Wood
Use a Lumber Rack to Keep Wood Off the Floor

Chances are you’ll either have leftover wood or will need to store your hardwood for a period of time.

The biggest mistake most new woodworkers will make is improper storage that will damage hardwood. To avoid turning your $50 board into a twisted, water damaged waste be sure to:

  • Never store wood directly on concrete. Concrete is continually releasing moisture and wood is like a sponge. This includes
  • Avoid putting hardwoods into direct sunlight. Direct sunlight will dry out one face of the board and cup the wood.
  • Store wood flat with proper support. A pile of wood has a surprising weight to it, and storing hardwoods on an uneven surface for even short periods of time can introduce twists and bends.

The best solution is to use a lumber storage rack to store your wood horizontally.

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