Sourcing lumber – An introduction on where to look for lumber and what it all means.

For woodworking finding a good, reliable source for lumber is essential. You can get dimensional lumber and certain other woods at your large home improvement stores but they have some drawbacks.

Going to your local home improvement store for lumber, lets say some poplar, has some pros and cons. For pros, they usually have a good selection of it in stock, in a variety of widths and lengths, and you can pick through the stacks to find good boards. The the cons, it sits awhile, and is usually stored upright and angles so it can take a bend, you are stuck buying what they have and if you need something unusual you are usually out of luck. Then there is the price.

Lumber comes in a variety of grades and is often sold by the board foot when you go to a yard. At home improvement stores is is sold by the lineal size of the board. For those not familiar a board foot, (BF) is one square foot of wood that is one inch thick. To figure a board you multiply the thickens of the board in inches by the width of the board in inches by the length of the board in feet. So a one inch thick board that is twelve inches wide and three feet long is three board feet. If you were to buy a one inch thick by six inch wide by six foot long board it would also be three board feet.

A lumber yard will have a board foot price for lumber and calculate it by dimensions, with the price varying by market. Home improvement stores have a set price. As of this writing poplar is going for 3.89 a board foot. Poplar at home dept is listed at 6.22 a linear foot for a 1×12. Even a small project can add up fast. But how do you find a lumber yard?

Some of the specialty woodworking stores have a lumber selection as well. Rockler and Woodcraft are both good chains and carry some lumber, prices vary a lot region to region. If you type in lumber suppliers near me to most search engines they will give you a list of places, mostly commercial near you that you can try. Some are open to walk in general public orders, some aren’t, calling is your best bet. Even if they don’t, ask them for references, a lot of places will have some knowledge of the competition for prices and such. It’s not uncommon to find a hobby woodworker at the counter or on the phone who has some tips on places to look. You can find things on places like craigslist on occasion as well if you look for lumber or milling. One other resource is asking friends and fellow woodworkers, often word of mouth can reveal great sources of hard to find stuff. Lastly look to clubs, guilds, and even schools. Turning clubs are pretty popular and often have good relationships and sometimes special buying deals with suppliers. Tech schools usually know the major suppliers in their areas and if you ask the instructors they can sometimes let you know who locally will sell to walk in or small order.

Some things to know. If you call a yard for lumber they talk in a different language. They will expect you to put an order in and ask for 80 board feet of poplar, four quarter select s4s. So lets break that down a bit.

We talked about board feet already. Board feet is a pretty simple calculation but it can make figuring your layout a bit tricky if you have different sized boards.

When you get lumber through a yard or a mill they don’t generally use the nominal inches measurement used in the construction industry, the 2×4, 2×6, etc system. Instead the lumber is measured by how many quarter inches it is thick, how many inches wide, and how many feet long. So a four quarter board is one inch thick, eight quarter is two inches thick and so on.

Lumber comes in different grades. Firsts and seconds, Select, and Common. In a nutshell it refers to the grain and appearance of the wood. There are factors involved for number of knots, widths and lengths, chipping and rough patches from the milling process. There are a lot of easy to find tutorials all over the internet for the standards.

S4S refers to the surface preparation of a board. If you are buying from a mill that prepares their lumber on site and sells it rough that is how they will list it, possibly as unfinished. A board with an S4S designation means it has been jointed flat, planed to thickness, and ripped parallel. All four sides have been worked and are ready to use, this is usually what you get at home improvement places, part of the higher prices. An S3S means its been jointed, planed, and one side is ripped square to the top and bottom. S2S means its been jointed and planed but the edges are rough. As you get more experienced working with wood you will find that you can save some money by doing some of the steps yourself.

One other category of wood to know about is hit or miss. Hit or miss has some defects. If may have some chipping or tear out from processing, it may have to many knots, maybe a few holes or a bend. It is sold cheaper than other grades but can be a good option if you are looking to save some money and are willing to cut creatively.

One of the other major advantages of a smaller mill is the personal relationship with the people. They can answer questions and will sometimes keep an eye out for specific lumber for you. As long as you are polite and clean up after yourself some places have no problems letting you pick through the stacks to find good pieces. Hand selecting your lumber, especially in the case of hit or miss is a great resource.


2 thoughts on “Sourcing lumber – An introduction on where to look for lumber and what it all means.

  1. Great article with good basic advice on a very confusing subject! I’ve been enjoying looking around the site lately. As I’ve gotten into more woodworking again lately I’ve found a bunch of great sources through social media. One of those is the Wood Talk podcast, which is currently the Woodwhisperer (Marc Spagnuolo), Matt Cremona, and Shannon Rogers, AKA the Renaissance Woodworker on Youtube and other platforms. The reason I’m mentioning this here is that Shannon works in the lumber industry for a large and old lumber company in US. He has a spin-off podcast called Shannon’s Lumber Industry Update – He goes into great detail about all of these topics and terms, so if anyone is interested in really getting a good grasp on the subject, you can’t beat listening to his podcast. I especially suggest the first couple of episodes on the terms used, the plywood ones, and 16-18 on where to buy lumber. They are all worth a listen though if wood is your thing.


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