Buying Hardwood Lumber

How to Select Hardwood Lumber

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Hardwood is expensive and I’m cheap.  Learning how to select hardwood lumber isn’t an option – it’s a must if you want to find the right boards at the right price.

A top grade board can cost $50 or more and grabbing the wrong one can be costly.  Why?  Warped or “waned” lumber can result in crooked cabinet doors.  And buying lower grades for high end projects can just result in excessive cutting or a poor finish.  Worse, over-buying grades for face-only projects can waste money.

Know Your Project Needs First

Remember when every board was cheap and you’d buy extra?  I don’t either.  I remember buying four rough oak boards for $15 over 30 years ago at Ernie’s Sawmill and was shocked.  I know – it really was Ernie’s…

Before you start shopping understand your project first.  

  • Staining?  Dark or light?  Some wood species with color variation (mineral stains, sap wood, etc.) will be the same regardless.  Walnut is one.  Test it out and buy lower grades for large projects.
  • Two sided project?  Depending on your preference, the backside of a cabinet door doesn’t have to be perfect. 
  • Knots Wanted?  Don’t plan for select grades – #1 Common or below is your target.
  • Short or Long?  Short cuts can use lower grades to cut between knots.  Longer cuts for cabinet doors could do the same – but being selective on board straightness is a must.

Finally – get a board feet approximation with overage for waste and miscalculations on your project.

Understand Lumber Grading

This is where you start to save money.

While lumber grading is complex, we’ll try to keep it simple.  To do that, let’s look at grading in three categories with “clear” meaning no knots, good color:

  • 83% of board face is clear.  [FAS, F1F, Select]  Widest boards with longest clear cuts, good color on face of board.  
  • 66% of board face is clear.  [#1 Common]  Narrower boards, shorter clear cuts. 
  • Less than 50% of board is clear.  [2A, 2B, 3A Common]  Consider this for making “rustic” projects with knots and color variations.  Cutting around the knots will not be possible.

Hands Off: Pick Your Own

At all costs avoid the hardwood yard picking your boards.  They want get rid of the culled boards from the top of the pile.

For larger orders you may not have a choice – especially if you are having it surfaced/planed/ripped.

For smaller orders eg. a few boards you absolutely get to pick your own.  If the lumber yard doesn’t, take your business elsewhere.

This is after all “How to Select Hardwood Lumber” not “Let them Select”.

But why is this important?

Making the Most of the Lumber Pile

Hardwood and Exotic Lumber

So you’ve made it – you’re standing in front of the hardwood pile.  Now what?

Why a pile?  Well – it’s just that.  A sorted through, picked over “pile”.  If you are lucky the store keeps it somewhat ordered.  But most often you’ll discover what lies on top isn’t what you want.

Start by:

  • Digging.  On a large pile, assume the top 4-5 layers of boards are the lowest end of the pile’s grade.  A Select pile is a Select pile – there won’t be #1 Common in it unless someone has moved boards.  But not all Select boards are the same.
  • Sorting.  Separate out the boards you want, neatly set aside what you don’t.  
  • Checking for Wane.  Wane is twisted, warped or otherwise crooked lumber.  This is a learned skill.  If it wobbles laying flat it’s twisted.  If you look down the board end to end and it bends, it’s warped.  Take some of these if you are making short cuts.
  • Calculating.  Remember a 6″ wide board 8′ long is 4bdf.  4″ wide and 8′ long is 3bdf.  Use this and keep a tally sheet of your sorted boards.
  • Stacking.  Put everything back neatly.  Please.  Don’t make a mess for the next woodworker.  If you’ve culled boards and put on one side of the pile (neatly) then leave them.  

In Summary

I’ve sorted thousands of board feet and you get the knack for it after a few hundred feet.  Don’t rush here, make sure you grab the right amount of boards, and then watch how your lumber is calculated for board feet on the way out!

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