By Dick Burrows

One of my woodworking specialties is the art of cajoling lumberyard workers into letting me sort through their lumber piles, looking for that perfect board for my next project. Sometimes I have to pout and threaten to take my big-time business elsewhere. Usually, though, I get permission simply by promising to restack everything when I'm done.

And so, I've spent many a morning working in another guy's business, lining up about a quarter ton of lumber just to get a few boards that suit me.

I've met quite a few fellow woodworkers during these hunts. Some know exactly what they want, be it wood free of knots, splits, and ugly dark streaks, or that elusive "pretty board." But others bypass all the sorting and just buy the top-read that as most expensive-grade available, whether or not they need it. There are times when the best grade is the best choice, but more often, you can save money and get the perfect wood for your project by using lower grades if you know a few basics about buying lumber.

Finding Diamonds in the Rough

The first thing you need to do is rid yourself of the idea that you have to use top-grade lumber or a perfectly clear board for everything you make. Most furniture makers don't. They use fairly short or narrow pieces that can be cut from even the lower grades of lumber. You can, too. Just take the time to analyze the size and type of parts you need before you start.

"The average woodworker should be buying more of the common grades for framework and stiles," says lumber dealer Steve Wall of Mayodan, North Carolina. "A lot of people don't realize that the price range for common grades can be less than half the price of select grades."

It's especially cost effective to get thicker components out of lower grades of wood. If you want 8/4 table legs, for example, you can usually cut around the knots to get them out of No. I common boards at considerable cost savings.

Wall often speaks to woodworking groups throughout the Southeast. To make his point on how much good wood there is in a common board, he will cut a board apart, and then separate the clear wood from the waste.

The loss in a typical 12-ft. common oak board is pretty minimal.

Another thing to consider when buying wood is what you want to build. This might sound exceptionally long, clear board, something like a clear 14-ft. 1 x 10, to build a coffee table with no component longer than 36 in. Many apparently just total up all the needed components and specify that size board. This strategy is expensive and wasteful and can be aesthetically unwise, too. Often, better boards don't display as much beautiful figure and character as lower-grade ones.

Another fan of less-than-clear stock is Kelly Mehler, a furniture maker in Berea, Kentucky. I worked with Mehler a few years ago and found him very picky when selecting lumber for his Shaker-inspired furniture. Still, he says, "I'm not a big fan of clear stock. The wood is light; you can feel it. Wood with knots is denser, has more character."

Looking Beyond Wood Grades

The question of lumber grades can be confusing, so it's best not to get too hung up on them when picking stock. Grades give you an indication of the number of defects in a board, not the board's total quality.

Instead of grade, concentrate on the yield, which tells you the grader's estimate of how much clear wood a board contains. Select grades offer a yield of 83 percent or better clear stock. A No. I common board yields 66 to 83 percent clear stock, and No. 2 common yields 50 to 66 percent, usually in lengths that are still adequate for small projects. Another common-grade term is log run, which basically means the whole cut-up tree as it comes from the mill. "It's mostly No. 2 common or better. About 20 percent will be select, " Wall says.

But, how do you figure the amount of wood you need when you have to work around all those knots? The easiest thing to do is buy 20 to 25 percent more wood than you think you'll actually need. "Working wood is not like slicing loaf bread," says Hil Peel, manager of Wall's lumberyard. Waste is inevitable even if the board is free of defects because you lose to saw kerfs, jointing, and other milling operations. Don't underestimate the waste from kerfs; some carbide blades take nearly 1/4 in. per pass.

And, stay away from the elaborate cutting diagrams sometimes found in project articles. These diagrams are supposed to show you how to cut lots of little parts out of a board, but they can become very restrictive. Peel tells of one woodworker who spent hours making four pages of diagrams and then had to spend another couple of hours searching for boards to fit the diagrams. "I think it's better to buy about 100 bd. ft. and get the stock you need without worrying about cutting diagrams," Peel advises. "Plus, if you buy at least 100 bd. ft., you usually get a quantity discount and can use what's left on the next project."

Wood Movement

Once you've chosen your wood, consider how the new environment of your shop will affect it. I like to buy wood at least a week or two before I need it so it can adjust to my shop's humidity level. This generally reduces problems with wood movement from differences in humidity between the shop and the lumberyard. To minimize chances that kiln-dried stock will pick up moisture after it leaves the lumberyard, keep the wood inside in a dry, perfectly flat area. Lumber dealer Wall also advises against putting stickers between layers of kiln-dried wood, saying they promote air circulation and moisture changes.

Moisture can wreak havoc on surfaced stock, and that's a good reason not to buy lumber that way. Wall said some of his customers have been especially discouraged with surfaced stock after seeing how much a species like oak moves and twists shortly after they get the lumber to their shops.

Here's another tip: It's often more economical and easier to mill part of a rough-cut board to produce a project than to process the whole board. If you only need a 3-ft. long piece, it doesn't pay to joint, flatten, and thickness-plane an entire 8-ft. board. Besides, cutting the board into shorter segments can significantly reduce warp in the leftover piece and make subsequent milling operations easier.

Processing your own wood gives you an opportunity to learn more about the material and how it changes with the seasons, says Wayne Raab, head of the woodworking program at Haywood Community College in Clyde, North Carolina.

Raab encourages people to use moisture meters, although the actual moisture level of a piece of wood is not as much of a problem as mixing stock with divergent moisture levels in the same project. "If you mix a piece at 12 percent with pieces at 8 percent, there's a good chance that you're going to have popping joints," he says.

Once you learn to deal with wood movement and to work with the random widths in which hardwood comes, you can build anything. Gluing up narrow stock to make wider boards produces components that are stronger and more stable than many wider boards. For Raab's students, "Working with narrow stock makes them more appreciative of wide, exceptionally beautiful boards and convinces them to hold these special pieces for more decorative work. It helps build an appreciation for material, " he says.

Buying by the Log

Furniture-maker Mehler says he finds some of his best wood when buying whole logs. When he goes to a lumberyard, Mehler looks in the pile for boards from the same tree. He says he can identify these boards because they have similar color and because the knots are in the same general location on each piece. "Even if you have two boards that are clear and pretty but not out of the same tree, you can tell the difference when they are glued up in a tabletop."

Like Mehler, I enjoy buying a whole tree when I can afford that much wood. What I like best is the abundance it offers and the exceptional grain matching that is possible when working with adjacent slices of the log. One cherry log I purchased provided enough wood for a dining room table, a couple of end tables, some molding, and several other items. Not much of the tree ended up in the scrap box-the projects just got smaller. And I sold enough bowls and weed pots I'd turned from the scraps to pay for the whole log. I did do a lot of planing and cutting, but that's part of the fun, isn't it?

If I were trying to turn a profit rather than enjoy my hobby, I would pick graded lumber, buy the minimum grade that would provide the sizes I need, and take care to get thicknesses more suited to my work. Resawing has never been one of my major profit operations, and I often have to do a lot of it when processing whole logs.

The next time I have extra wood, I'm going to enjoy an exercise Raab uses in his classes. Each student has to find a distinctive piece of wood, defects and all, get out a sketch pad, design and then build something that will make that piece of wood special. Working with those beautiful figures and textures was one of the things that drew me to woodworking in the first place. It would be fun to rediscover that kind of enthusiasm.


Wood grading is part art, part science for the pros, but mostly confusion for novices. Not only is the grading system complex, but also the rules applied to hardwoods differ from those applied to softwoods. Plus, each species is likely to be eligible for several exceptions to the general guidelines.

Fortunately, you can take advantage of the grading system without actually knowing much about how a lumber grader does his work. You just have to understand a few basic terms.

When a grader evaluates a board, in a way he is actually doing some of the preliminary work for you by gauging the number of defect-free areas, how large they are, and what percentage of the board they make up. Of course, he's not evaluating beauty, figure, and other design variables.

Graders judge hardwoods using standards the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA) has administered since 1897. The grader checks each board with a lumber rule to gauge the number of board feet, then uses several fairly complicated systems to determine how many clear cutting units the sawyer can obtain. Typical diagrams for firsts and seconds (FAS) and No. I common boards are shown in Fig. 2. The fewer the defects, the higher the grade and value of the board.

Wide boards are much more expensive than those less than 9 in. but are more prone to cupping and cracking in the drying process, so the sawyer must rip them apart for the maximum yield of high-quality lumber. This is one reason hardwoods are sold m varying lengths and widths.

Wide boards are much more expensive than those less than 9 in. but are more prone to cupping and cracking in the drying process, so the sawyer must rip them apart for the maximum yield of high-quality lumber. This is one reason hardwoods are sold in varying lengths and widths.

Pine is graded and processed differently because softwoods are used primarily for construction. Rather than expect the builder or manufacturer to process the lumber, the m& do it and produce stock in standard widths and lengths.

"Whatever you do in hardwood grading, do the opposite in pine and you'll probably be doing the right thing," says William 0. O'Kelley, chairman of the Haywood Community College wood products department, which runs a sawmill and kiln. "With hardwoods, you try to put a defect on the edge so it can be ripped off. On framing lumber, you put the biggest defect in the middle where it will have least effect on strength."

Hardwood grades generally are based on the poorest quality face. Withpine, the best face sets the grade for boards likely to be used by furniture makers. Many defects are prohibited in some grades of hardwoods, but you can have a little of everything in pine, although the grade drops with the increased number of defects.

Pine graded for construction follows rules that would sound very familiar to a builder. There are bans on defects that would destroy the nailing edge, limits on how much pieces can be out of square, and standards that permit crooking to the degree that it can be removed with the pulling force of a nail.

For additional information, check Rules for Measurement of Hardwood and Cypress, ($6, NHLA, Box 34518, Memphis, TN 38184, 901-377-1818), Standard Grading Rules for Southern Pine Lumber ($5.25), and Grader's Manual for Boards and Two-in. Dimension ($5) (both available from Southern Pine Inspection Bureau, 4709 Scenic Highway, Pensacola, FL 32504, 904-434-261 1).

These technical manuals won't make anyone's top 10 list for exciting reading, but they do contain a lot of interesting information on various species as well as concise definitions for defects and other woodworking terms. The pine manuals offer a rundown on types of knots and how they affect the strength and appearance of boards. -D.B.


AIR DRIED-Wood dried without application of artificial heat.

BOARD FOOT-A system of measurement. The standard board foot is I in. thick by 12 in. wide by 12 in. long, but any combination of dimensions yielding an equivalent amount of wood counts. Board feet are rounded to the nearest foot and are based on the thickness of the wood before surfacing. Lumber less than I in. thick is counted as I in.

CLEAR-FACE CUTTING-A board with one clear face (ordinary season checks permitted) and a reverse side that is sound.

CUTTING-A piece of wood free of knots or other defects. It can be obtained by crosscutting or ripping, but not by making diagonal cuts.

HARDWOOD-Lumber from any tree with broad leaves usually shed in the fall (deciduous). Many hardwoods are not that hard. Poplar and willow, for example, are generally softer than pine.

HEARTWOOD-The darker section of wood extending from the pith, or center of a tree, to the sapwood. Unlimited amounts allowed in most wood grades.

KILN DRIED-Wood dried with artificial heat in a kiln.

LINEAR FOOT-A system of measurement in which only the length of the lumber is considered. This method is often used in home centers and similar outlets that mostly market pine.

MOISTURE CONTENT-The amount of moisture trapped in the cells of the wood. Moisture levels for air-dried wood vary according to region. In Arizona, air-dried hardwood may reach 6 percent, in New England about 12 to 15 percent. Generally, hardwoods in the U.S. are dried to 7 to 9 percent moisture content.

SAPWOOD-The growth section near the outside of the log that is generally paler in color than the center. Unlimited amounts allowed in most wood grades.

SEASON CHECKS-Lengthwise separations resulting from stress as wood dries. Season checks usually don't affect grade if they will dress out at standard surface thicknesses.

SOFTWOOD-Lumber from needle-leafed trees, usually evergreens that bear their seeds in cones (coniferous).

SOUND CUTTING-A section of wood free of rot, pitch, shake, and wane. Sound knots, worm holes, and several other defects are allowed.

STAIN-Describes the initial stages of decay in hardwoods. Not usually allowed in most grades unless it will dress out when wood is surfaced to standard thickness.

SURFACE 1 EDGE (S1E) or SURFACE 2 EDGE (S2E)-Rough or surfaced lumber dressed on one edge (SlE) or two edges (S2E). Nominal width can be 3/8 in. scant of specified width in lumber less than 8 in. wide, and 1/2 in. less than nominal width in lumber 8 in. or wider.

SURFACE 2 SIDE (S2S)-Surfaced both sides

THICKNESS-Hardwoods are usually measured according to 1/4in. units of thickness, referred to as quarters. A rough-sawn 4/4 (four quarter) equals 1 in., 6/4 equals 1 1/2 in., 8/4 equals 2 in., and so on. Most 4/4 is cut about 1 1/8 in. and planes down to 3/4 in. or 13/16.

Information derived from materials provided by National Hardwood Lumber Association, Southern Pine Inspection Bureau, Educational Lumber Co., Steve H. Wall Lumber Co.-D.B.


I used to shy away from mailorder lumber, figuring I just wouldn't be satisfied with anything I hadn't personally picked. Then, one day a co-worker asked me to go in with him on mail-order purchase; he wanted to meet the minimum for free delivery. The price was good, so I took a chance.

The selection I received was pretty good. The boards had defects, but there was plenty of clear stock, lots of interesting color and figure. What's more, working the stuff and finding the parts I needed was fun.

Since then, I've had good luck with purchases from the five or six companies I've dealt with. If the company offers free shipping for a minimum order, I always buy enough to take advantage of that. If I have to pay the freight, I shop around until I find a deal where the cost of the lumber plus the freight is competitive with local sources. Now and then, I get a board that is unusually difficult to work, but that can happen even if I select each board personally. I chalk it up to the witchcraft of wood, not really a problem worth complaining about.

One way I've found to assure a successful purchase is to study the company's catalog and call the customer-service department to discuss any concerns or questions before ordering. If the dealer seems too busy to bother with questions, I assume that's my hint to do business elsewhere.

When you decide to buy by mail, begin by telling the dealer what you are building. "Speak in English, and don't try to be Mr. Professional Lumber Buyer," says James Heusinger of Berea Hardwoods, Berea, Ohio. Talk about grades might sound good, but it can actually make it difficult for the dealer to provide what you want. If he knows what you are planing, Heusinger says he has a better chance of providing wood that best matches your project.

The two most common ordering problems Heusinger encounters stem from customers too precise about the sizes they need and customers who don't provide enough information about the wood's use. He says his company will try to provide exact sizes if possible. Most of the time, he tells customers that it's best to concentrate on stock that's suited to their project and to size it themselves rather than order specific sizes and end up with lumber unsuited for the planned project.

Once the dealer understands what wood is needed, the customer should ask what it will cost. Sometimes, the dealer can't provide the stock at a price that suits the customer, Heusinger also recommends customers ask up front about how to handle problems: Can the wood be returned? Under what circumstances? What about reimbursement? Does the buyer get a product credit or a refund? Who covers shipping costs, which can be considerable because of the weight of the material?

To help buyers get used to mailorder purchases, dealers often have specials that allow customers to try various hardwoods. One dealer I know offers a 30-pound box of mixed hardwood shorts delivered prepaid in the continental U.S. for $29.

Heusinger advises hesitant customers to "place a small order and see what happens without taking a great risk." If the first order works out, he advises to order more and start building a good relationship with the company.-D.B.

This article is from the Sept-Oct issue of AMERICAN WOODWORKER 1992