The first time you go to a hardwood lumber yard, you’ll realize things work very differently from how they do at the big box store.
Boards aren’t organized by length, there aren’t conveniently listed prices, and the only dimensional identifiers are these weird fractions and letter codes.
It can feel intimidating for newer woodworkers. But it doesn’t need to.
Today, I’m going to explain what you need to know about buying lumber from hardwood retailers— so you can shop with confidence and talk the talk…
And also avoid heart palpitations at the register when you realize this project is going to cost way more than you expected.
CAN YOU BUY HARDWOOD LUMBER AT BIG BOX STORES?
A quick aside for those who only feel comfortable buying boards at Home Depot or Lowe’s.
Yes, you can find hardwood lumber at these stores.
But it’s usually really thin, the available species are super limited, and you’re going to pay eye-gouging prices compared to the cost at a dedicated hardwood store.
Look up local hardwood lumber yards in your area. Go check them out. Ask questions. Support your local economy. Adopt a rescue kitten (and name it Moses).
Hardwood stores are part of the experience of being a woodworker. Drink it in.
The first thing to know about hardwood stores is the different surfacing codes — that is, how many sides of a board have been jointed and planed (if any).
This basically translates to how “ready to use” boards are right off the shelf. At least in theory.
But here are the different codes and what they mean.
Rough lumber refers to boards that are fresh off the sawmill and haven’t been jointed or planed on any side or edge.
It’s often nominally cheaper — but you’ll have to do all the milling yourself. And because of the irregular sides, you’ll probably have to mill a lot of material to get it square.
The fuzzier surfaces also can make it difficult to get a sense of grain direction and look.
S1S (SURFACED ONE SIDE)
Boards that have one face planed, but the opposite face and both edges are rough. If you own a planer and know how to joint a board without a jointer, this can work well.
S2S (SURFACED TWO SIDES)
Boards with two planed and parallel faces. You'll need to find a way to joint one edge, but can cut the other edge square on the table saw.
S3S (SURFACED THREE SIDES)
Two flat and parallel faces and one jointed edge. All you need to finish milling is rip off the rough side on your table saw.
S4S (SURFACED FOUR SIDES)
Fully milled boards with two flat and parallel faces and two square and straight jointed edges. Assuming wood movement doesn’t do a number on them, these boards are ready to be turned straight into projects.
SL1E & SL2E (STRAIGHT LINE ONE EDGE / STRAIGHT LINE TWO EDGES)
SL1E means a board has one edge jointed straight and square to the planed face of a board. SL2E means both edges are straight, square, and parallel.
WHAT SURFACING LEVEL SHOULD YOU CHOOSE?
The best surfacing option depends on your tools.
If you own a jointer and planer, rough lumber or one flat face is enough to quickly get square boards.
But if you don’t own one or both of those tools, more presurfaced sides will make your life easier.
The big problem with presurfaced lumber is wood movement. Even if a board is perfectly flat and straight at the lumberyard, it’ll probably bow, twist, or cup after a few days in your shop.
The change in humidity and temperature of different environments does weird things to boards. That’s why you always want to let boards acclimate to your shop for at least a few days (a couple weeks is better) before using them to build a project.
Hardwood boards have different grades assigned to them, which is basically a quality rating. The higher the grade, the higher the price.
Grades are determined by the length, width, number of defects (knots, stains, etc.), and “clear cuttings” of a board.
It’s a bit of a rabbit hole — but here are the basics you should know (in order from highest to lowest grade).
FAS (FIRST AND SECONDS)
FAS is the highest grade of hardwood lumber. We’re talking large and wide boards mostly clear of knots or other defects. This is the type of lumber you use when you want a big, beautiful, showface board.
F1F (FAS 1-FACE) AND SELECT
Boards with one FAS face, and a No. 1 Common reverse face (see below).
NO. 1 COMMON
No. 1 Common hardwood usually has lots of good options for clear short and long cuts — but you’ll have to work around some defects. Think of it as the standard furniture grade lumber.
NO. 2A AND 2B COMMON
No. 2A Common is standard grade for cabinets. Clear short and medium cuts, so definitely something you’ll chop up into smaller components.
2B is the same, but with stains or other non-structural defects in the clear cuttings. Good for painting.
NO. 3A AND 3B COMMON
Feeling knotty? Have a bucket of paint you’re just itching to use? 3A and 3B Common are the hardwood grades for you.
Unlike dimensional lumber at the big box store (2x4, 2x6 etc.), most hardwood retailers organize board thicknesses using the quarter system.
The thicknesses are expressed as fractions that represent quarters of an inch.
For example, 3/4 lumber (pronounced “three quarter”) refers to boards ¾” thick in the rough. 4/4 (“four quarter”) refers to boards 1” thick in the rough.
5/4 equates to 1 ¼” thick boards, 6/4 (again, “six quarter) for 1 ½” thick boards, 8/4 for 2” thick boards, and so on and so forth.
HOWEVER, the true thickness of boards is almost always slightly less than that quarter fraction denotes (oh the torment of being a woodworker).
So even though a board is labeled as 8/4 — it’s true thickness will be less than 2”. Probably between 1 ¾” and 1 ⅞” true thickness.
To be safe, assume these minimum thicknesses:
- 4/4 ≈ ¾”
- 5/4 ≈ 1”
- 6/4 ≈ 1 ¼”
- 8/4 ≈ 1 ¾”
HOW THICK OF BOARDS SHOULD YOU BUY?
You’re going to lose some board thickness to milling — so I usually buy lumber ¼”–½” thicker than the final thickness I’m after.
If you want a chair leg with a finished thickness of 1”, for example, I’d probably go with 6/4 lumber.
But it also depends on your project. Longer boards are going to require more milling to get flat, so give yourself some extra meat — maybe ½”.
On small projects with shorter boards, you won’t have to take off as much material (assuming the boards aren’t super wonky). ¼” of extra thickness should be enough.
LINEAR BOARD FEET
Buying boards by the linear board foot (LBF) often leaves new woodworkers’ heads spinning.
Contrary to what you might first think, LBF does NOT mean the price of a board is simply determined by its length.
LBF is actually a calculation of the VOLUME of a board (with 12"x12"x1" equaling 1 linear board foot). The formula is as follows:
(Length in feet x Width in inches x Thickness in inches) ÷ 12 inches = Board Feet.
To find the price of a board, multiply the board feet by the price/LBF.
For example, say a lumber yard has walnut at $14/LBF (I’m sure this price will be dated one day), and you want to buy a 6/4 board that’s 8’ long and 7” wide. The formula would be:
(8' length x 7” width x 1 ½” thickness) ÷ 12” = 7 board feet
7 board feet x $14/LBF = $98
(Notice how even though a 6/4 board is probably less than 1 ½” thick, you're still paying for the full 1 ½”).
You can see how the price of a board can quickly add up. If you’re on a budget, it’s good to do a few calculations before taking boards to the register so you don’t get a rude surprise.
To make shopping at hardwood stores easier, we have this Linear Board Foot Calculator on our website available for you to use.
Just plug in the numbers and you’ll have no problem budgeting your projects.
OTHER THINGS TO KNOW WHEN BUYING HARDWOOD
Every hardwood lumber yard is different, so none of the following are always the case.
But these are a few of the other common differences between hardwood retailers and the big box store.
Hardwood pricing is a bit like the stock market: it constantly fluctuates and makes a lot of people cry.
Because of this, a lot of hardwood lumber yards won’t have prices listed. Even if they do, they’re often not up to date.
The best way to stick to a budget is ask at the register before you start loading up your cart, or even call ahead. Ask about the price/LBF for the species and thickness you’re interested in. You can even take notes if you’re looking for multiple species and thicknesses.
Keep in mind that some lumber yards have a higher price/LBF for “wide” boards — often 10” plus wide.
From there, just plug the numbers into our Linear Board Foot Calculator and you’re ready to go.
MILLING / CUT FEES
Many hardwood retailers can cut or mill boards at your request. Say if you want a really long board cut in half, or want a face and edge remilled for greater flatness.
They’ll probably charge you a cut/milling fee — but it’s usually super reasonable and can be a good option to consider.
Some might even offer slab-flattening services… and some even build completed furniture.
But you’re a woodworker. You can handle the grunt work yourself.
Some hardwood stores have minimum board lengths you need to leave behind. That sentence sounds confusing, but here’s what it means.
Say you want a short board of walnut and find an end of a 12’ board you like.
The lumber yard can cut it for you — but they might require you to leave them with an 8’ board. That means you’d be able to get 4’ off that board.
They do this so they can sell sizable pieces of lumber and not just have a bunch of scraps laying around too small for the shelves.
Like I said, every lumber yard is different. So be sure to ask their policy at the register if you want shorter boards.
Offcut bins are like little treasure chests of randomly assorted offcuts. They’re basically all the pieces too small to go on the racks.
Not every hardwood retailer has one — but they can be a great place to get lumber for small projects or find affordable sizes of exotic woods.
Planning to pick up some hardwood over the weekend? You might have to rethink that.
A lot hardwood lumber yards are only open Monday to Friday — and often from 7 am – 4 pm. At least this is the case for all the hardwood retailers where I'm based.
Just make sure you check the hours before driving out on a Saturday morning bright-eyed and bushy tailed... only to find the doors shuttered.
BUYING HARDWOOD SHOULDN’T BE HARD
Buying hardwood doesn’t have to be intimidating — and with the knowledge above, you’ll feel right at home in any lumber yard.
I promise you’ll quickly fall in love with trips to buy hardwood… even if your spouse and wallet don’t.
Can’t wrap your mind around milling? Check out our blog Milling 101: How to Get Boards Flat and Square (and Keep Them That Way).
Got any advice for first-timers at the lumber yard, or a good story about your first visit? Share them in the comments below!
And as always, STAY SAFE IN THE SHOP!