When you are ready to up your woodworking game, it’s time to start buying wood straight from a distributor instead of the big box retailers. You’ll have a lot more hardwood options to choose from, and you’ll save money in the process.
Visiting a lumber distributor can be an intimidating process for the uninitiated. For starters, the terminology and pricing is different from what you would find at Lowe’s or Home Depot, as well as the sheer amount of wood options in regards to species, grade, thickness, and type of cut. This guide will take you through these options in hopes that your first visit to the lumberyard isn’t your last.
Know How They Measure Board Thickness
Hardwood thickness is measured in quarters, not inches, when buying from a distributor. A 1-inch thick board is written as 4/4 (stated as “four quarter”), a 2-inch board is written as 8/4 (stated as “eight-quarter”).
Lumber can also be found in less common thicknesses like 5/4, 6/4, 12/4, and 16/4.
Keep in mind that lumber is often pre-milled and then dried, so the board that started out 4/4 inches thick will be closer to 3/4” to 7/8”.
No matter what the actual stated thickness is, you’ll be charged at the max rate being 1″ thick for 4/4 stock and 2″ thick for 8/4 stock. There is no discount because the wood is thinner.
Understand “Board Feet” Volume
Wood from a distributor is sold by volume which is measured in “board feet”. This makes it easier to determine pricing across hardwoods that are cut at various lengths, widths and thicknesses.
The basic formula is length (in inches) x width (in feet) x thickness (in inches) / 12 = 1 Board Foot (BF). The above illustration from Popular Woodworking visually explains this measurement well.
In case you forget your calculator on your trip to the distributor, keep this tip from the Wood Whisperer in mind: a 4/4 board that’s 6″ wide and 8′ long is 4 board feet. Since many boards are cut to this approximate size, you can easily estimate the board feet on the fly by multiplying your number of 4/4 boards by 4.
The Main Types of Wood Cuts
A sawmill will cut a log in three main ways that yield lumber with different characteristics: plainsawn, quartersawn, and riftsawn.
Plainsawn is the most common cut you will encounter, yields the most wood per log, and is the least expensive cut. Roughly 90% of lumber is cut plainsawn.
Quartersawn is cut when the wood species and grain is more attractive and is mostly used for tabletops, cabinets, and flooring. Riftsawn is similar to quartersawn but cut at a slightly different angle which shows very uniform lines and like quartersawn is popular for flooring.
The Important Lumber Grades
You can get deep into lumber grades, which is the amount of usable material in a board. The higher the grade of wood the less imperfections, such as knots, it will have.
FAS and Select boards are the highest grade, followed by #1 Common and #2 Common.
Your wood grade selection will depend on the type of project you are doing. For a general DIY project, you could get away with “cabinet grade” #1 or #2 Common and save a lot of money. If you are building furniture or installing molding, you’ll want to a higher grade of wood.
To Mill or Not to Mill Yourself
Rough lumber is rarely straight, so it must undergo a milling process that evens out the thickness and straightens the edges. If you have your own thickness planer and jointer, you can save some money and do it yourself, but a distributor can offer these services for a small fee.
In the video above, The Sawdust Maker shares his recommendations for lumber milling. He does his own milling and states why he feels that’s the best option for him.
How to Find a Distributor
If you’re ready to make your first trip, contact your local woodworkers guild or association and ask them for recommendations for distributors and hardwood dealers. Avoid general lumber yards and building supply stores, as they cater more to the commercial construction crowd and will have fewer wood options.