How to Choose the Right Lumber for Your Projects

How to Make a Folding Cedar Lawn Chair

As a beginner woodworker, you may be stumped by the sheer number of lumber varieties to choose from for each project. You look at your plan and it mentions something about softwoods, hardwoods, resinous woods, and other equally confusing terms.

You can always go to your local mill and turn to the owner for help and hope they have time to discuss the basics of lumber selection with you. You can also spend hours reading tens of web pages to find what you need.

And then you have us! We have put this short and sweet guide together to teach you how to choose the right lumber for your projects. We do not promise to make you a lumber expert in the five minutes it will take you to finish reading this article, but we do promise to cut your research time in half.

Items Needed for this Project

  • Tape measure
  • Wood moisture meter
  • Block plane

Step 1: Know where to find the best lumber.

The best places to shop for lumber are local mills because you can see the lumber for yourself, and their prices are usually much lower than those of big dealers.

If you do not have a local dealer, you can settle for the nearest Home Depot or Lowe’s. Their prices are understandably higher than those of local dealers but at least you can see the wood for yourself at the store.

The final option we would recommend would be online or mail order lumber dealers. They should be your last resort mainly because you can’t see the products for yourself first. Also, a lot of costs get added on to the price of the lumber itself because of logistics.

Step 2: Decide if you need hard or soft wood.

Whether a wood species is of a hard or soft variety depends on the Janka hardness test. That method involves embedding a steel ball into a wood sample and measuring the latter’s resistance to the pressure.

The nature of your project is one of the main factors that decide the kind of wood you choose. If you are making furniture, for example, you may have two wood varieties. You want hard wood for the parts that take a beating. You can use soft wood varieties for the other parts.

Musical instruments require different wood varieties for resonation and sound quality. Maple and spruce are popular woods for violins because of how they improve sound.

Hardwoods are commonly more expensive than softwoods, and we can’t really complain. If constructed well, a piece made of hard wood can withstand a lot of abuse and will cost less than a piece made of soft wood in the long run.

Step 3: Look at the grain.

A lumber’s grain structure can tell you how it was sawn and how stable it is. If you notice that the end grains are slanted, that means the lumber was flat sawn. Flat sawing is a cheaper way to mill for companies. However, it produces unstable lumber that may twist or cup in the direction the grains are cupped.

You want something with vertical end grains (“quarter sawn” lumber). The more vertical the end grains, the more stable the wood. The grains of quarter sawn lumber are usually angled between 60 and 90 degrees.

You can settle for something in-between. Rift sawn lumber has end grains with 30- to 60-degree angles. They are not as stable as quarter sawn wood but you may like them if you are looking for relatively straight grains on the face.

Unfortunately, when you go to a mill, the woods are not going to be labeled or grouped by grain. Also, sometimes the end grains are difficult to see because of paint, discoloration, dirt, and so on. Have a block plane ready so you can see the end grains yourself.

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Step 4: Look for defects.

Inspect the woods closely for imperfections that may be too troublesome to repair or remove. These include knots, wormholes, twisting, splits, and cracks, to name some.

Step 5: Consider board thickness.

One of the things the guys at your wood dealer will ask you is the board thickness you need. They even have their own jargon for it. It is simple, but it takes some getting used to.

In this industry, board thickness is measured in “quarters.” An inch is “four quarter” (4/4). 2 inches is “eight quarter” (8/4). 1.5 inches is “six quarter” (6/8), and so on.

Step 6: Calculate the board feet.

Like board thickness, board feet has got something to do with size but you want to remember this more than thickness because most lumber dealers calculate price based on this.

So how exactly do you find the board feet? Multiply the thickness, width, and length (in inches), and divide their product by 144. The result is your board feet. Multiply that by the mill’s unit price (price per board foot) and you now have an idea how much they are going to charge you.

Step 7: Measure moisture.

The moisture level of the lumber affects the quality and longevity of what you are making. Also, it determines whether you still need to acclimate the lumber when you bring it in your shop.

You can use a cheap and handy wood moisture meter to do this. If the reading is anywhere below or equal to 22%, you do not need to acclimate it. If it is any value above 22%, you will have to put spacers in between the boards for a while first.

Helpful Material

If you want to learn more about this topic, watch this video, which is where we learned about these tips. It is made by Wood and Shop, a channel dedicated to traditional woodworking.

Even as a newcomer to woodworking, you should not have to wonder how to choose the right lumber for your projects. We had fun compiling this guide for you so we hope you enjoyed it. Leave a comment and let us know what you think.

  • June 29, 2017
  • DIY