19 Tips for Buying and Using Rough Lumber

Tips for Buying and Using Rough Lumber

Buy smart
to get the
best deals
and the
best wood.

By Tim Johnson

Start out thick

Rough lumber thicknesses are
measured in 1/4-in. increments.
The thinnest rough-cut boards,
labeled 4/4, and called four quarter,
are 1-in. thick.

It’s tough to get surfaced stock
thicker than 13/16-in. from 1-in.
rough stock. Plan to lose 3/16-in.
(1/4-in.on thicker stock) when you
plane a roughsawn board smooth.

Hardwood lumberyards
commonly stock species in 4/4 and
8/4 thicknesses, with additional
sizes available based on supply and

Click any image to view a larger version.

Be prepared

Take a tape measure and calculator with you when you go to the
lumberyard so you can measure the boards you choose and
figure out how much they’ll cost. Because roughsawn boards
come in random widths and lengths (no two are alike) they’re
measured by volume,which can be calculated by using a simple
formula. The standard unit, a board foot (bd. ft.), measures
12-in. x 12-in. x 1-in.-thick, or 144 cubic inches.

Because bd. ft. is a measure of volume, any combination of
thickness (minimum 1 in.),width and length that equals 144
cubic inches also equals one bd. ft.

Rough lumber is sold based on its cost per bd. ft. Some
species are more pricey than others, and thicker boards cost
more per bd. ft. than thin ones. To determine cost, simply
multiply the total number of bd. ft. in the boards you’ve
selected by the bd. ft. price.

Buy long

Don’t expect to get an 8-ft. length out of an 8-ft. rough
board.Even though roughsawn boards are regularly cut a
couple of inches long, they usually contain checks, knots
or wild grain that must be cut off. If you need finished
8-ft. lengths, you’ll probably have to buy 9- or even 10-ft.-
long boards.

Check out No. 1 common

No. 1 Common (1C) lumber is always worth
considering. It sits only one notch below Selects and
Better (S/B), the best grade most lumberyards carry,
but costs up to 40 percent less.

In general, 1C grade has more defects,and boards
usually contain more waste. This reduces its cost
advantage somewhat.On the other hand, some 1C
boards are perfect, but too narrow or short to
make S/B grade. In fact, there’s a large gray area
between the low end of S/B lumber and the top end
of 1C lumber. It’s not hard to find 1C boards that
look just as good, if not better, than S/B boards.
Buying 1C lumber is a great way to stretch your
woodworking dollars.

Top-grade boards aren’t always pretty

Spectacular boards cost no more than ordinary ones,because lumber
grades depend on yield, not aesthetics. The presence of off-color
sapwood and funny-looking figure isn’t a factor.The four boards at left
all came from the same top-grade stack. In the eyes of the grader, the
trio of slender boards is identical to the single wide one, because
they contain the same amount of usable material.Three boards or one,
they’ll cost the same.How would you spend your money?


Buy more than enough

It’s a big mistake to buy the exact amount of
wood your project requires. If you do, you’re
gonna come up short, because rough lumber
isn’t perfect, not even top-grade boards.

A common rule of thumb is to buy 15 to 20
percent more than you need. Some species, like
red oak, consistently contain few defects, so you
don’t have to over-buy as much. Other species,
like black walnut, require more insurance than
the average.

I usually don’t bother with percentages, I
just buy extra pieces. For example, if I’m going
to build a table, I’ll choose enough stock to
make an extra leg. If the top requires seven
boards, I’ll buy eight.

Look for hit-and-miss

The landscape at the lumberyard is changing because stock
surfaced hit-and-miss (H/M) is becoming common, and
may eventually replace rough lumber altogether.

H/M planing skins the board’s rough surfaces.This makes
choosing good-looking boards easier because you can see
what they look like,without having to guess.
Even though I’ve been buying rough lumber
for years, I still get fooled. It’s just plain hard
to see the figure pattern and color in a
roughsawn board. H/M planing keeps you
from buying ugly boards. H/M boards are
also easier on your tools, because the rough
top layer,which often contains dirt and other
junk, has been removed.

Here’s the bad news. First, you’ve got less
thickness to work with. H/M-surfaced
boards are 1/16-in. thinner than the rough thickness (4/4 H/M
stock is 15/16-in. thick). Second,H/M boards still need to be
finish-planed. Their surfaces are coarse and usually contain
portions that are still rough (hence the name).And third,H/M
planing doesn’t flatten warped boards.

Tame warped lumber

Common sense tells you to choose flat boards and avoid the pretzels. Unfortunately, flat roughsawn
boards are sometimes hard to find.Lots of boards end up warped as a result of the drying process.
In lumber lingo,warp is defined as any deflection from a flat, planar surface.Warped boards can
be cupped, bowed, crooked or twisted. A single board can contain a combination of warps.
Luckily,most warped boards can be flattened, if the deflection isn’t too
severe.Knowing how to identify and deal with boards that aren’t perfectly
flat will give you many more choices as you look through the stack.


A board that bends across the width of its face is
cupped. Cupping, which occurs mainly in plainsawn
lumber, affects a board’s finished thickness.

Boards that are slightly cupped are easy to flatten.
Joint them with the concave side down. This keeps
both outside edges in contact with the jointer’s bed, for
stability. To flatten a severely cupped board without
sacrificing its thickness, rip it in half and joint both
pieces separately. Don’t rip a cupped board on your
tablesaw,however. It’s too likely to cause a kickback.Use
a bandsaw, circular saw or jigsaw.Glue the pieces back
together, after jointing their mating edges.Then make
a final smoothing pass on the glued-up face.

Check for cup by looking
at the end of the board.


A board that bends across the length of its
face is bowed.You’ll lose length when you
flatten bowed boards,because you have to
remove more from the ends than the
middle. Joint with the bowed side down,
and don’t press the board flat against the
jointer bed. The only way to deal with a
board with a pronounced bow is to cut it
into shorter lengths.The short pieces will
still bow, but not as much, so they’ll be
easier to flatten. If the bow is confined to
one end of the board, cut it off or make
repeated jointing passes on that end only.

Bow is easy to see when
you sight
down the
edge of the


A board that bends along its length is crooked.
Straightening a crooked board reduces its width.
Boards with a minor crook are common.They can
be straightened by jointing and/or ripping.(Again,
don’t rip a crooked board on the tablesaw without
a sled to hold it; kickback is too likely.) Jointing or
ripping won’t work on a board with a major
crook—you’d end up with nothing. Instead, cut
the board into short pieces.


A board with one high corner has twist. It’s
best to let twisted boards be someone else’s
nightmare. They’re difficult to flatten, and
even if you’re successful, the twist has a
tendency to return. If you must use a twisted
board, cut it as short as possible, to minimize
the deflection.

Sight down the face of a board. If the opposite
ends aren’t parallel, it’s
twisted. Put it back.

Riftsawn blank for legs

For table legs, choose a riftsawn blank; one on which the end
grain runs diagonally.Because the blank is riftsawn, all
four faces of each leg will exhibit the same
straight-grained figure pattern.Look for a
blank that’s slightly more than twice
as wide and slightly more than
twice as long as one leg,
so you can get all
four legs from the
same piece.

Riftsawn faces show straight,
vertical figure.

Take advantage of milling services

Rough lumber is rarely flat or straight. Milling your own is
backbreaking work,takes forever and produces gobs of sawdust.

Why not let the lumberyard do it for you? Most yards will rip
one edge of a rough board straight (called SL/E, straight-line
edge),plane both faces (S2S, surfaced two sides),or mill both
faces and edges (S4S, surfaced four sides). In addition to a setup
fee of $15 to $45, the cost ranges from about 15 to 30 cents per
bd. ft.,depending on which type of milling you choose. It’s not
worth the expense to have only a few boards milled—for
small amounts, it’s usually cheaper to head straight to the
yard’s inventory of surfaced lumber.The set-up fee usually gets
waived for large milling jobs,over 150 bd.ft.,for example.Check
with your yard for specific costs and minimum amounts.

A straight-line edge cut (SL/E) made at the lumberyard makes ripping and crosscutting at home safer because it gives you
a straight side to work from. It also saves you the frustration of trying to joint a long board on a small jointer.

Beware of ovals

An oval figure pattern on the board’s surface
signals a change in grain direction that may cause
significant tear-out. You’ll be planing with the
grain on one side of the oval, but going against it
on the other, so there’s gonna be trouble.

Instead of sanding like mad to get rid of tearout,
use a scraper or hand plane.Check the edge
of the board to see how and where the grain
changes, then smooth the oval by working from
opposite directions, following the grain.

Edges reveal the curl

Spectacular figure may be hidden by
a board’s roughsawn surface. If you
suspect a board contains curly figure, look at its
edges for closely spaced light- and dark-colored
stripes. Pronounced stripes indicate heavy figure.You can
check an entire stack of boards for figured ones just by looking at the
stack from the side.

Resawing saves money and material

Even though thicker wood costs more, you
can save money by using it effectively. Say
you need two 1/2-in.-thick panels. Instead of
milling two pieces of 4/4 stock, and wasting
almost half of each board, resaw a pair of
panels from a single piece of 6/4. Besides,
resawing produces bookmatched pieces that
can make a great-looking pair of doors.

Do-it-yourself butcherblock

Butcherblock tops are best made from quartersawn wood, so they
don’t expand and contract as much. Instead of buying or searching
out quartersawn wood, simply buy
plainsawn. After milling your boards
smooth on top and bottom, rip them in
half and rotate both pieces 90 degrees.

Be fussy about color

One off-color board can ruin the appearance of an
entire project.Trust me, that dark (or light) board will
bug you every time you see it! You can usually tell
when boards don’t match, even in the rough. Stand
them alongside one another in good natural light, so
you can compare.

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker October 2001, issue #89.