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How to Buy Wood: Everything You Need to Know

The first time I ever walked into Home Depot for the purpose of buying wood, I was ridiculously nervous. I was absolutely convinced everyone around me could tell I had no idea what I was doing, and was judging me accordingly.

In retrospect, I’m sure they weren’t. But I was nervous anyway!

And in my defense, there is a lot to know about buying wood, and I didn’t know it. Luckily, I’ve learned a lot since then, and now buying lumber is just an annoying chore, not something that gives me a panic attack.

So lets dive in and find out all the details you need for a stress free trip to buy lumber.

Note: This blog contains affiliate links. If you click and make a purchase, I may receive compensation (at no additional cost to you.)

Part 1: Where to Buy Lumber

You might already have a place in mind, but I want to make sure we’re all on the same page before we keep going.

Why You Should Buy Lumber From A Home Improvement Store

If this is the first time you’re buying wood, you should buy it from a home improvement store, like Home Depot, Lowes, or Menards.

I feel like I have a million reasons why, but I’ll try to keep the list short.

  1. Price – The big box home improvement stores have the best prices on wood, hands down.
  2. Cutting – Home Depot and Lowes are both able to cut wood for you. If you don’t have all the tools you need at home, this is a big plus. And even if you do have the tools at home, you might not have a truck or a trailer to get the uncut wood home hassle free.
  3. Selection – Yes, home improvement stores don’t have as much of a selection as specialty lumberyards. Consider this a plus. A smaller selection means fewer decisions to make, which makes things easier for the first time wood purchaser.
  4. Simplicity – Not only is there probably a home improvement store near you, home improvement stores are a pretty simple place to buy wood. Things like wood grade and moisture content might be stamped on the wood, but it’s pretty easy to walk out of the store without thinking about them at all. That’s a good thing – you really don’t need to be worrying about this on your first project.

Specialty lumberyards are a great place to buy lumber when you have more experience. They have some really beautiful hardwoods that can really enhance a project.

But beautiful hardwoods are expensive. I mean really expensive. Oak starts at $25 for a single 3/4″ thick 8′ long board, and that’s a pretty common type of lumber.

Frankly, I’d be terrified to use that kind of wood on my first project. Practice with cheap home improvement store wood, and work your way up.

Creatively Sourcing Lumber

I’m sure you’ve seen a pallet project or two in your lifetime. That’s not what I’m talking about. As cool as pallets are, they’re a pain to use; they have to be broken down, checked for nails, and sanded significantly. I’ve never bothered, but kudos to the people who have.

Instead, I’m talking about where to find higher quality wood on the cheap. While you probably won’t start sourcing your lumber this way, as you do more projects, you’ll spot deals worth grabbing, knowing that you’ll use the wood eventually.

And where to find these deals? Thrift stores.

First off, many Habitat for Humanity Restores sell used lumber. I have no idea where it comes from, but it’s there, and you can dig through the selection to find high-quality budget pieces.

How great your deal will actually be depends on your local program. When I lived near St. Louis, I could get major steals; everything was priced less than $5. My current Habitat in the Minneapolis area doesn’t price things very competitively, so I rarely check them out at all.

Secondly, old wood furniture can be broken down into lumber. I once grabbed a $5 bookshelf, and got seven 4′ long pieces of oak out of it. I was absolutely giddy that day.

Wood desks are another great find – the top piece of wood can be removed and used in other ways.

Be careful that what you’re purchasing is actually wood; manufacturers have gotten better and better at faking a wood look, and breaking particleboard furniture down for parts is a giant waste of time.

If there are drawers, check for dovetails. If you can see the end grain of the wood, does it look like wood? What about the inconspicuous parts, like the underside of a tabletop. Does it look like wood? These are all things I look for to evaluate if a piece is actually wood.

Part 2: What Type of Wood To Buy

Since we’ve already established that home improvement stores are your best bet, I’ll be focusing on what they sell.

First off, realize that the name of the board is only an approximation of its size, not the exact length and thickness. For example, a 2″x4″ is actually 1.5″ thick by 3.5″ wide. Here’s a table comparing the nominal size of the board with the actual size of the board:

Nominal SizeActual Size
1 x 2.75 x 1.5
1 x 3.75 x 2.5
1 x 4.75 x 3.5
1 x 6.75 x 5.5
1 x 8.75 x 7.25
1 x 10.75 x 9.25
2 x 21.5 x 1.5
2 x 41.5 x 3.5
2 x 61.5 x 5.5
2 x 81.5 x 7.25
2 x 101.5 x 9.25

This is standard for purchasing wood, regardless of where or what type of board you’re buying.

Knowing that, lets take a closer look at the types of boards available at the home improvement store. Before we get into the details, here’s a quick price comparison, so you know what you might be paying as you read about each type. All prices were of 8′ long boards from Home Depot at posting.

Type of Board1×21×41×61×81×10
Furring Strips$1.54$2.98N/AN/AN/A
Common Lumber$2.03$4.15$6.41$7.59$12.23
Pine Select$3.92$6.82$11.82$17.61$26.49
Hardwood Oak$7.12$11.84$18.00$25.12$37.68
Type of Board2×42×62×82×10
Construction Lumber$5.52$9.56$13.12$15.15
Pressure Treated$7.88$14.27$19.57$21.98
Cedar$12.98$22.27N/AN/A

I’ll also do my best to order these from least to most expensive, although the “plywood” category is a little tricky, so I tacked that on at the end (and didn’t include it in the above table.)

Furring Strips

Furring strips are dirt cheap. As you’d probably guess, they’re also low-quality. Most furring strips in the pile have some sort of defect: they’re warped, cracked, twisted, have massive knots… the list goes on and on.

Learn everything you need to know to successfully purchase wood from the home improvement store! Know exactly how to buy lumber with this complete guide! #woodworking #lumber

That said, I love furring strips. Yes, you have to dig through the pile to find wood that’s salvageable. Yes, you have to do a bit of extra work once you get the wood home to make them pretty. I actually have a whole post on my system for making furring strips pretty here.

But furring strips are inexpensive, and they make projects affordable. If you’ve never bought wood before, let me introduce you to a heartbreaking fact: wood is expensive.

If you’re thinking of getting into woodworking to save money on furniture, let me save you the trouble. Ikea is cheaper.

Even if you’re building an entire piece out of furring strips and construction lumber (the next category,) Ikea prices will still probably beat you.

So, you won’t be able to brag about the quality of your wood if you’re using furring strips. You’ll need to do some extra sanding to make them useable. If you’re using stain, you should apply with a rag (not a foam brush,) or use gel stain to control stain absorption.

But furring strips can make nice projects, I promise (see TV lift cabinet, box spring, cat tree.) They just require some extra work.

Construction Lumber

If you’ve ever purchased a 2×4, you’ve purchased construction lumber. Construction lumber is best defined as lumber that’s used primarily for framing and building purposes, like 2x4s, 2x6s, 2x8s, etc.

I often build my projects with a combination of construction lumber and furring strips. Both are affordable, and can look nice with a bit of work.

Most construction lumber is considered softwood (furring strips are as well,) which means it dents easily, and requires extra consideration while staining.

I don’t really mind either of these things; rustic wood is still attractive, and with a little practice the staining issues are easily overcome.

This Pikler Triangle was built with construction lumber for the legs, and I’m really pleased with how it turned out.

Pressure Treated Lumber

So, first off, pressure treated lumber is really a type of construction lumber. It’s intended for construction purposes where the wood comes in ground contact outdoors.

Pressure treated lumber is pretreated with chemicals to help the wood resist rot and decay outdoors. It’s never something you’d want to use on an indoor project.

It’s also something I try to use pretty sparingly outdoors as well. At one point in time, pressure treated lumber was treated with arsenic, and was a major health hazard because of that.

While arsenic treatments began being phased out in the early 2000s, construction experts (aka, my former professor) still advice caution around pressure treated lumber, and don’t recommend it used on pieces that will come in direct contact with humans or animals.

Other options for outdoor projects include putting a good coat of paint or polyurethane on your piece, or using cedar instead, which is a naturally rot-resistant wood.

Cedar, however, is significantly more expensive than pressure treated lumber, which is why pressure treated wood is the default for many people when they do outdoor projects.

I tried to find a happy medium in this outdoor sofa. Most of the piece is built with cedar, but some of the hidden support boards underneath are pressure treated.

Common Lumber

Common boards are boards that are nominally 1″ thick, and come in a variety of widths. They’re always softwoods, and while frequently pine, the wood species is often not named.

These boards are usually in better shape than furring strips, and it’s easier to find straight and usable boards.

While they’re less work to prepare, I find this dangerous sometimes, because they still need to be sanded thoroughly, even though they may not seem like it. Otherwise, manufacturing marks may show through after staining.

While less work is required to prepare common boards, the tradeoff is a slightly more expensive product. At posting, a 1×4 furring strip from Home Depot costs $2.98, while a 1×4 common board from Home Depot costs $4.15.

This admittedly doesn’t seem like much, but it can add up fast if you need to buy fifteen 1x4s for a project (oh, hello, box spring.)

To be honest, whether I purchase a common board over a furring strip largely depends on what the selection looks like on the day I go to the store. The furring strips look nice that day? Awesome, I’ll get furring strips. The furring strips are crooked messes? Common boards it is.

Also keep in mind that common boards are only an option for nominally 1″ thick products. If you’re looking for nominally 2″ thick boards, you’re pretty much going to be using construction lumber.

Select Pine Boards

Select pine boards are the next level up from common boards, and they tend to be straight and nice-looking. While more expensive than common boards, they’re still pretty affordable. At posting, Home Depot priced a 1×4 at $6.82.

I’ve used select pine boards exactly once: for this coffee table top. Honestly, in retrospect, I wish I’d gone with common boards.

Learn everything you need to know to successfully purchase wood from the home improvement store! Know exactly how to buy lumber with this complete guide! #woodworking #lumber

At the time, I was traumatized by a past project, and I was really worried that I wouldn’t be able to stain common boards nicely. Frankly, I was dumb back then, and if I’d used gel stain and a rag they probably would’ve stained just fine.

As for why I regret buying the select pine – the post says I spend $60 on the wood, and that’s similar what I remember. I’m just not sure it was worth that price. The base of the table was a $15 thrift store flip. Did I really need to put $60 on wood on top of a $15 table?

Either way, select pine is certainly easier to work with than furring strips or common boards. And if you don’t have the appropriate tools (i.e. a good sander) for making cheaper boards look good, then it might be worth the extra money.

Hardwood Options

As you’ve probably gathered from this post so far, I am not a wood snob. So, full disclosure, I have never actually purchased hardwood from a home improvement store.

I have worked with hardwood before; as I mentioned above, I’ve had great luck disassembling thrifted furniture for oak. But getting 7 boards for $5 made me rather adverse to paying $30 per board at the hardware store.

Regardless, most home improvement stores have some selection of hardwood available. Almost all stores have at least oak, poplar and cedar. You might also find another variant or two, depending on what your store stocks (my Home Depot has Aspen.)

Poplar is known for begin a good wood to paint. It’s green tints don’t stain well, and so most woodworkers avoid it for staining. Cedar is rot-resistant and good for outdoor projects, while oak takes stain flawlessly.

It’s worth noting that hardwood is sold by the linear foot. That price on the sign isn’t for a whole board, its for one foot of the board. So if you were thinking those prices didn’t look so bad, multiply them by 8 to get a comparison to the prices listed above.

If this is your first project, I don’t recommend buying hardwood. It’s just so expensive, and you’re likely to make a few mistakes along the way. It’s much less stressful to make a mistake on a $2 board than it is a $30 board.

Plywood

Large, wide pieces of lumber are rare and costly, which is why plywood was invented as an alternative. Made up of multiple manufactured layers, plywood typically comes in 2’x4′ or 4’x8′ panels, and can range from 1/8″ to 3/4″ thick.

If you have a large area to cover (such as the sides of this TV lift cabinet,) plywood is an affordable alternative to wood. The quality of plywood varies, with higher qualities and larger thicknesses being more expensive.

Unlike wood, the edges of plywood don’t tend to match the rest of the piece, and often are covered up in some way. Edge banding, an iron-on veneer, exists to tackle this problem, but I’ve found to be a hassel, so frequently I’ll just make my plans so that any plywood edging gets covered up.

To be completely honest, I rarely used plywood until I got a table saw, and that may be a reason you want to shy away from it as well. While most home improvement stores can cut plywood for you, having them chop the plywood into 15 precisely sized pieces probably won’t make you any friends.

And while I did have this awesome Kreg Rip-Cut guide, and it did allow me to cut plywood decently well, it still wasn’t as easy as running the plywood through a table saw. I was only inclined to break out the jig if I really had no other options.

Pro Tip: If you are planning to have your home improvement store make annoying cuts for you, call in advance. When I did my wainscoting, I had Home Depot rip my plywood into 6″ long pieces, which they happily did when I called the pro desk and asked if it was a possibility. I ordered online, and my cut plywood was waiting for me the next day.

As for what plywood to buy – next time you’re at the Home Improvement store, head over to the plywood section and walk around a bit. Get an idea of what plywoods are both affordable and nice looking.

In my opinion, cheap plywood looks bad in a way that cheap wood just doesn’t (after some sanding.) It also tends to be less structurally sound. While I’m not saying to break the bank when buying plywood, I don’t typically buy the furring strip equivalent.

I typically go with Home Depot’s SandePly, which I’ve found to be a happy medium between the expensive plywoods (oak/birch/maple plywoods) and the cheap construction plywood.

It’s also worth noting that just like lumber, plywood isn’t the exact size advertised. It differs by brand, but plywood is typically a little thinner than the 3/4″ (or 1/4″ or 1/2″) it’s marketed as. The 4’x8′ width and length measurements are correct.

Part 3: Choosing Your Lumber

Once you get to the store, it’s important to pick out the best lumber you can. Warped and twisted lumber is difficult to work with, and should be avoided.

I have a whole (free!) checklist that I go through on all of my boards to make sure they’re flaw-free. Note that sometimes, I’ll settle for a board that has a minor flaw (say, some knots or cracks) that I can work around, over a major flaw like twist or bowing that I can’t.

Here are the tests I go through, in the order I typically perform them:

Test 1: Straightness

Look down from one end of the board. Is the board straight, or does it curve at all?

Straight boards are great! If there’s a curve, pick a new board.

I typically rotate the board as I look, simply because seeing things from a different angle might make a slight curve stand out.

This is always the first test I perform, because working around warped boards is really tricky. I can deal with a knot or a crack most of the time by using other parts of the board, but if a board is warped, it’s hard to save.

Test 2: Twist

Twist is what it sounds like – the board is slightly twisted. This is also really hard to see until you’re mid-project and you’re struggling to line your board up with the fence because it’s twisted.

The best way I’ve found to test for this is to lay the board flat on the ground. Does it lay flat, or not? Is the left side higher than the right? When you press the board down, does the other side pop up?

I rotate the board to test all four sides. The less flat the board lays, the more warped it is.

I take boards home all the time that are a little bit off, especially if I’m digging through furring strips. But try to minimize warpage the best you can.

Pro Tip: I always forget to do this, but bring a pocketknife or scissors or something with you when buying lumber. That way, you can cut new bundles open if you need to.

Pro Tip 2: If you forget a pocketknife or scissors (almost always me,) take out your car keys and try hacking at the plastic tie. It wont work, but somebody with a pocket knife almost always notices my plight and offers to help.

Test 3: Visual Inspection

After I’ve found a straight board, then I start looking for other problems, like cracks or knots. My level of pickiness distinctly depends on how expensive the wood is, and how much luck I’m having finding straight boards.

I’m not going to pay for pine select or higher boards that are anything less than perfect. If the selection on the day I’m shopping is lacking, I’ll postpone the project and come back next week.

For furring strips, common boards, and construction lumber, perfect boards are an impossible dream. How many flaws I’m willing to settle for depends on what the rest of the selection looks like.

If I’ve dug through 15 boards already, and this one is the first straight board I’ve found, there’s a 90% chance it’s coming home with me. It would take a massive crack through most of the board for me to leave it behind.

If I’ve dug through 15 boards and found 10 straight ones, I’ll probably be more picky.

Either way, whatever you choose should be wood you can work with.

Plywood

Frequently the top few boards of plywood in the stack will look visibly cupped. I avoid those boards, and grab one of the boards lower down that’s still flat.

I almost always have an employee helping me with the big sheets of plywood, and they’ve never seemed to mind when I say I’m trying to get the 2nd or 3rd board off the stack.

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