How to Buy Lumber: A Trip to the Hardwood Dealer

woodworking grain patterns
Quartersawn, riftsawn, and flatsawn grain patterns

A woodworker walks into a hardwood dealer and the owner says “Say, I’ve got a special on some S2S six quarter white oak.  Are you interested?”  Do you respond with “A”, the deer-in-the-headlights look or “B”, “riftsawn or quartersawn?”  “B” is the correct answer.

 

One of the most daunting aspects of getting into woodworking is buying the lumber.  Sure, you can buy wood at the big box stores, but eventually you’ll want to make something using premium hardwoods that aren’t available in the big box store.  In that case you need to seek out your local hardwood dealer.  I recommend Googling “hardwood dealer” and see which ones are closest to you and then doing some homework before going to visit. In my case, there are several dealers within about 45 minutes that have met all my needs so far and the service has been excellent.  You need to go armed with a few pieces of information, though.  As we talk about in another post, learn to fish before going fishing.

Before you start the project, ask the client (or whoever you are building the project for) a lot of questions such as: What color do you want?  What type of wood?  What is your budget?  Answers to those questions may drive you to a big box store if they are on a tight budget.  If they want something a little more heirloom-quality, you probably want to hit a hardwood dealer.

Wood dealers measure wood in something called “board feet” which is often abbreviated “BF” on their price sheets.  The cost per BF is the cost for a 1 foot by 1 foot by one inch thick piece of wood.  This equates to 144 cubic inches.  You’ll need to calculate the volume of wood for your project in order to get a rough estimate before you go to the dealer so you know how many board feet you will need.  For example, multiply the length and width and height of the wood for your project in inches and divide by 144 which will give you the estimated board feet.  You may be able to look up the wood dealer’s price sheet online in some cases and estimate the cost before you go.  In addition, dealers don’t measure thickness in inches they measure in quarters.  For example, an inch thick piece of lumber is called “4/4” or “four quarter” and a 2 inch thick piece of wood is “8/4”, or “eight-quarter.”  The nice thing about going to a dealer is when you buy 4/4 wood it’s usually very close (measure before you buy) to an inch thick, whereas if you go to a box store, an inch thick means 3/4″.

Before I lose that train of thought, take advantage of the tremendous selection of wood sizes at the dealer and design using non-traditional thicknesses.  It will make your piece stand out.  Anyone can buy 3/4″ lumber.

A couple more things you need to know are how milled wood is described and the description of grain patterns.

Milled wood is described as S2S, S3S, or S4S, which stands for Surface ___ Sides.  For example, S2S is planed on the two flat sides and the edges are rough.  I prefer this type of cut since I like to cut the edges at home.

The last thing you need to be aware of is the difference between flatsawn, riftsawn and quartersawn boards (see picture at top).  The rectangles in the picture represent where the various types of boards are taken from the log.  Quartersawn grain runs vertically when looking at the board’s end grain and is best because it is more stable, but it is also more expensive.  Flatsawn grain runs horizontally (more or less) when looking at the board’s end, is the least expensive, but expands and contracts the most.  Riftsawn is a compromise between the two and the grain pattern is approximately 45 degrees when looking at the end grain.

One more note for you…if you’re not buying a lot of wood, Woodcraft (www.woodcraft.com) can be a good option.  It’s a little more expensive, but for single boards may be more convenient.  In addition, the staff is very knowledgeable.  Most of the employees have been woodworking for decades and will help you do things the right way (more on that in another post).

Best of luck on your hardwood buying journey!  Let me know how it goes.

5 thoughts on “How to Buy Lumber: A Trip to the Hardwood Dealer”

    1. Thanks, Lisa. I think one of the most important things for beginning woodworkers is to “just do it” as Nike says and make that first trip to the hardwood dealer. When I went to the dealer for the first time, I knew how many board feet I wanted because I had a cut list, but I couldn’t have discussed S2S versus S4S or riftsawn versus quartersawn. The good thing is today we have the Internet so getting up to speed doesn’t take much time. Thanks for the comment!

  1. Thanks for the information on buying lumber. I want to build a deck in my backyard, so I am planning on making a trip to the lumber yard soon. Thanks for mentioning that wood is measured in board feet. That should make it easier for me to figure out how much I need.

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