Choosing the right lumber for your project can be a daunting task. Although the words wood and lumber are often used interchangeably, lumber is the commercially available material made from wood that is generally cut in standard sizes and increments. By arming yourself with some basic knowledge before your trip to the lumber yard, you will be able to ask better questions and make better choices.


About 90% of the wood you will find at the lumber yard is softwood. These common woods such as spruce, pine and fir are typically used for home building. They are also suitable for many utilitarian projects such as cabinet building, simple furniture and paintable projects.


Hardwoods are often used in projects where the beauty of the natural wood is featured, such as stained furniture, architectural building features, musical instruments and flooring. Hardwood trees take much longer to grow than softwood, which is why hardwood lumber is considerably more expensive than softwood.


Wood is a natural product and, as such, no two pieces will be identical and defects will sometimes be present. Examine boards for cracking, twisting, bowing, cupping, knotting and warping.


Often lumber in large home improvement stores will be sold in linear feet, meaning it is being measured for sale by length only. Lumber sold in lumber yards, will be measured in board feet, which is the board length multiplied by width and thickness. It is worth noting that common board sizes like 2X4s are actually smaller (1.5”X3.5”) once the milling and planing process of making the boards commercially available is complete.


Lumber is also graded based on intended use and quality. Higher graded wood will have fewer defects and cost more. Prices of lumber can increase drastically from one grade to the next. It’s not necessary to buy a better grade than needed for your project.


With these lumber basics, your next trip to the lumber yard will be a much more pleasant and productive experience.