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How to Shop At a Lumberyard


So you’ve caught the woodworking bug. Great! You’ve got an idea of something you want to make, and you even have the tools (or access to them) to make it. So, all you need is wood. But where do you buy it? How do you buy it? How do you know you’re getting a fair deal? And (most importantly) how do you buy the right wood for what you want to make?

If you’re new to woodworking, you probably have questions along these lines about buying wood. I know I did, when I fell down this particular rabbit hole. Unfortunately, the few times I visited a lumberyard, I didn’t have much in the way of answers- and boy, did it show. “Four quarter? Rift sawn? Speak English, man!", I'd yell at anyone I thought worked there. The sales staff would quickly figure out that I had no idea what I needed, and I’d just wander around lost until I was asked to leave. As I was being escorted off the premises so they could close the store, I vowed to one day try and demystify the process for those of us not “in the industry”.

All joking aside, buying lumber can be a little intimidating if you’ve never done it before. But don’t worry! After you read this article, you’ll be picking out quarter sawn white oak like a seasoned pro. Here’s what you need to know:

  1. Lumber-speak. Like any other industry, the lumber business has its’ own language. Luckily, there’s only a few terms that you need:
    • “Four-quarter”, “five-quarter”, etc. This is lumber-ese for the thickness of a particular piece of wood, measured in quarters of an inch. Four-quarter translates to “one inch thick”. You’ll most often see it expressed fractionally (4/4, 5/4, 6/4, etc.).
    • “Flatsawn”, “riftsawn”, or “quartersawn”. This refers to how a log is cut into boards. Without going into too much detail here, flatsawn boards will typically have a “cathedral” looking grain pattern on their face, while rift and quartersawn boards will look fairly straight-grained. For more information on how logs are milled, you can read this article.
    • “S4S”. If you see this, it’s an acronym for “surfaced 4 sides”. This means the board has been milled flat on both faces and both edges. This also usually means that the price is higher, since work has been done to get the board to that state.
    • “Board foot”. A board foot is just the volume of a 12” by 12” by 1” square. To calculate the board footage of a piece, just multiply its’ width (in inches) by its’ length (also in inches) by its’ thickness (inches again), and divide by 144. For example, an 8/4 board eight feet long and eight inches wide would be: (96 x 8 x 2)/144 = 10.6 board feet.
  2. Nominal sizing. A “nominal” size of a board refers to a board in its’ rough state, before it’s been milled flat and square. For instance, a board that a lumberyard may call a “1 by 6” may actually only measure ¾” thick by 5 ½” wide. If you see a sign that says (for instance) “2x6, S4S”, know that it’ll probably measure less than a full two by six inches.
  3. Cut policy. Some lumberyards will have what they call a “cut policy”. Say you have a project where you need five board feet of wood, and you find a piece in the species you’re after. Only problem is, the board has WAY more than five board feet in it. Some places will take the board over to the saw and cut a piece off the end, and just sell you what you need. Other places will do this, but will only sell it in increments (six feet at a time, for instance). And some places don’t have a cut policy at all- if you want the piece, you buy all of it. If you don’t see a sign referring to a lumberyard’s cut policy, just ask.
  4. Avoiding warped boards. When you pull a board out, make sure you sight down the edge of it to see if it’s straight or not. Wood is an organic material, and it will change shape depending on the environment it’s in- which can lead to a board that has some “twist” or “bow” to it. Make sure you buy a board that you’re comfortable with milling down, if need be. Lots of lumberyards won’t accept returns, so be sure you get a good piece.
  5. “Figured” wood. If you see any of the following adjectives: “curly”, “quilted”, “burly”, “birdseye”, “fiddleback”, “ray fleck”, or “bee’s-wing”, chances are you’re looking at wood with “figure” in it. Figured wood has grain that isn’t straight up and down- and when you cut into it, it can reveal some beautiful patterns. In the right light, it can almost look three-dimensional. If you’ve ever seen a guitar top that almost seems to shimmer, chances are good you’re looking at figured maple. The downside to figured lumber is that it is rare- which means that it’s usually at least twice the board foot price of regular wood. It’s good for trimming out a project or adding an accent piece, so sometimes you can get away with buying a smaller piece.

So with all that knowledge under your belt, you’re now ready to go forth and invest in some beautiful pieces of wood! Just remember- if you have any questions, feel free to grab someone who works there and ask. If they still look at you like you’re wasting their time, feel free to take your business elsewhere! There’s no excuse for bad customer service. But if they’re helpful, friendly and patient, let them know! We were all new woodworkers once upon a time, too. Now get out there and make something beautiful!


If you're still in need of resources, tools, or shop space, be sure to check out some of our friends in Portland:


The Guild of Oregon Woodworkers

Oregon College of Art & Craft

Portland Community College