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1-2-3 of Buying Hardwoods

Buying hardwood lumber isn’t difficult, but for new woodworkers it can seem a bit intimidating. Just follow these three easy steps and you’ll be driving back to your shop with your first order of wood in no time! And remember, if you have any questions, just ask us. We're happy to help!

If you’re going to talk wood, you've got to know the lingo! Here are a few terms to be familiar with before you buy.

1 Terminology

The very first thing to know is that boards and part dimensions are listed in the order of thickness × width × length (ex: 1" x 6" x 8'). If you’re confused between width and length, follow the grain; its direction always indicates length. That goes for plywood too!

Quarters--Rough lumber thickness is specified in Quarters. 4/4 (pronounced "4-quarter".) is one inch thick in the rough, 5/4 = 1-1/4", 6/4 = 1-1/2", and 8/4 = 2" thick. The Hardwood Grading Bureau allows 1/4" to be removed from the thickness to allow it to be clean on both faces. So 4/4 will finish at 3/4". 8/4 will finish at 1-3/4".

Board footage--All lumber is sold by the board foot (bf) and 
figured by rough thickness. A board foot (bf) is 144 cubic

inches.  The formula to calculate board foot is
LENGTH  X WIDTH X HEIGHT in inches / 144.
Thus a board that is 96" long x 6.25" wide x 6/4 (1.5")
thick would be 6.3 bf. See the example at right.

How to Calculate Board Footage.jpg

FAS--In years gone by lumber was graded FAS (Firsts and Seconds) meaning the worst face of a board was FAS and the back was FAS or Better. Today, lumber is not graded FAS, but actually FAS-1F meaning Firsts and Seconds One Face. The back could be worse. An FAS-1F board should be 89% clear and usable. Sapwood is not considered a defect.

In addition, you will also see some lumber (such as Cypress) graded as Select & Better (SEL & BTR), this is basically the same as FAS but it allows for boards to be a min of 4" wide, while FAS is min 6" wide. FAS and SEL & BTR allow knots and defects. The grade is actually specified as the percent of clear material in a board.


Moisture Content--You have probably read articles that say you should check the moisture content before you buy your lumber. If it is not 7%, don't buy it. Kiln dried lumber is dried to a moisture content of 6-7% and then a shot of steam is injected into the kiln to slightly raise the moisture content and stress-relieve the lumber. This does help to relieve the majority of the stress. When the lumber leaves the mill and ships to Phoenix, Arizona, it will probably be at 7% MC. When it comes to Florida it will rise to 8.5-9.5% MC. The MC in our lumber is typically 9% depending on the weather. The MC will change from your workshop into your a/c home pretty rapidly. It is not a real issue unless you are working with some air dried lumber that has not dried enough.

2 Planning your project

Just like the examples in your favorite wood magazine or the plans you've downloaded from the internet, you'll need a materials list and a cutting plan. A materials list is a defined list of parts you'll need to cut for your project. It's a necessary step in part-layout, and--at the very least--will help you determine your board requirements. By looking at the list, and by grouping like pieces together based on thickness and/or width, you'll arrive at your board needs... For example, 3 boards at 4/4 x 6" x 96"; 1 board at 6/4 x 8" x 108", etc. Often, marking boards with chalk (we'll loan you a piece) can help you--quite literally--map out a successful cutting plan.

When you head out to your hardwood retailer, just be sure to bring your materials list, a tape measure and your calculator! Then you'll be able to figure up the material you're buying on the spot.

3 Preparing Your Wood

Remember, wood is an organic material, so not every piece is going to be perfect. And that's ok. Small imperfections can be worked out during milling or incorporated into the project. You may have the time and equipment to mill it yourself, but if not, this is where a shop's services can really help you out. Here's what you need to know:


  • S2S--This is a planing pass, top, and bottom. Usually, after running a 4/4 board S2S, it will come in at a smooth 3/4" thick. But S2S can also take a board down to almost any thickness required. The sides of the board will still be rough and need additional milling to be suitable for gluing.

  • S3S--After running a board S2S, the board is jointed on one edge to make the edge straight and smooth. This creates three surfaced sides. You'll need to rip the board to your desired width, and possibly add a join edge.

  • S4S--Just like S3S, then the board is ripped to width on the fourth edge and jointed for a smooth edge. 


Costs for each service varies, but the savings in your time, labor and equipment to prepare the wood, may be worth it for your project. 

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