Nominal Lumber Knowledge

2x4 nominal lumberdon’t know exactly when I learned that a 2×4 isn’t 2″ x 4″, but I’m quite sure it was well before I joined the staff of Popular Woodworking. I studied English literature and journalism in college, and took one shop class in grade school that covered little more than basic turning – no construction.

When I was a kid, I was busy playing soccer and bugging my mom to let me take riding lessons, not building stuff. And neither of my parents built stuff, either (though I recall hearing some cursing during a DIY tiling job). My grandfather built stuff, but it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I ever joined him in the shop.

Yet I knew as a kid that “2×4” was a nominal measure (though I wouldn’t have at the time used that term), not the actual width and thickness of the stick in question. And just look at a 2×4 – it is clearly not 2″ x 4″.

Commercial construction lumber hasn’t matched its nominal S2S size when dry since 1906, according to the 1964 the Forest Products Laboratory “History of Lumber Sizes” report. And the current standards have been around since before I was born – they were proposed in that same report.

Rain is wet. Everybody poops. A 2×4 isn’t 2″ x 4″.

My house was built just before construction lumber began shrinking; the interior framing is 2″ x 4″ (some of it with axe marks in evidence). For my renovation project I at times need to match it; I have to cut my own studs out of thicker and wider material. I can’t just run down to the home center and buy it. This causes me inconvenience, costs me a bit and slows my progress. It causes some people to call a lawyer.

It seems ignorance has become an acceptable excuse. (See: Coffee is hot.)

All three of the large home center companies in the United States have now been sued for the size of their wood, and while two of those suits are recent and pending, Lowe’s has already had to pony up.

In 2004, a Marin County California superior court judge directed the company to pay a $1.6 million settlement for inaccurate description of building materials. Lowe’s has since updated its signage to indicate both the product name (2×4) and actual dimensions (112” x 312“).

Home Depot and Menard’s didn’t heed that judgment.

In June of this year, suits were filed against those two companies; plaintiffs are asking for $5 million in each case. The suit against Menard’s alleges the “defendant has received significant profits from its false marketing and sale of its dimensional lumber products.” Home Depot faces accusations of being “false and misleading.”

Both of these accusations are, I suppose course, arguably true – but it has been more than a century since a 2×4 was 2″ x 4″. So in effect, the plaintiffs have filed lawsuits for failing to properly inform themselves before making a purchase…or perhaps because they were a bit short of dough.

If you’re unfamiliar with lumber and can’t be bothered to learn enough about it to know what you’re buying, take up fishing instead. But don’t tell any fish tales; those could land you in court.  PWM

— Megan Fitzpatrick

 

7 thoughts on “Nominal Lumber Knowledge

  1. chicov

    Think “nominal”. It means what we call it, not what it is. Nominal : Name. If your name is Baker, are you one? Names are used for convenience. Going to sue Subway because their 12″ is really only 11 1/4 ” ? What about McDonalds and Quarter Pounder. Well, it WAS as quarter pound before freezing, thawing and melting half the grease out while cooking. Supposedly a 2X4 WAS 2×4 just after cutting from the tree and before drying 10% moisture out, planing smooth and losing more moisture on the rack in a dry environment. Also, “Could have used tape measure before purchase” What a HOOT. Thanks Megan, always enjoy your articles.

  2. Jim Dee

    For years I heard about the lady who “sued McDonald’s for having hot coffee.” Then one day I happened upon a detailed account of Liebeck v. McDonald’s and it became pretty clear McDonald’s got off FAR too easily. Treat yourself to reading about Ms. Liebeck sometime when your blood pressure needs a quick boost.

    The bozos who want lumber retailers to make them whole for the (what? inconvenience? embarrassment?) of bringing home inadequate studs (I KNEW there was a “that’s what she said” joke in there) are in a different league than an elderly woman who suffered third-degree burns requiring skin grafts in her “pelvic region.” Yeah, let that sink in for a moment.

    1. jeffko

      The documentary “Hot Coffee” really turned me around on that—for years, I’d been cracking the same lame jokes about that poor old woman. When you actually see the severity of her burns—her entire midsection essentially melted—and learn the details of the case, those jokes stop being funny real, real fast.

    2. taddwilson1

      Thank you Jim and Jeff. I assume that Megan meant to refer to this case, and my annoyance meter pegs whenever Liebeck v. McDonalds is used as a punchline. Megan, I would urge you just to read the Wikipedia page about the case.

      Now I will play devil’s advocate for a minute. If “[c]ommercial construction lumber hasn’t matched its nominal S2S size when dry since 1906,” why do we use these nominal sizes at all? Seems like an odd practice, right? I am struggling to find a similarity in my life, but I guess it is akin to the legal or medical profession using latin terminology when no civilization speaks the language anymore.

      1. ItsDan

        I too came here because I was bothered by the ongoing use of that case as a punchline. There is of course some cosmic irony that the author wants those who “can’t be bothered to learn” to take up another hobby, yet even though that case was decided more than 20 years ago never bothered to learn the details. Perhaps she should take up fishing.

        As for the case at hand, obviously asking for $5million in damages is absurd, but as was pointed out Lowes already went through this. Why the other stores declined to act when they saw Lowes lost the case I do not know. No one is asking them to change their inventory to be actual 2″ x 4″, we’re talking about a paper sticker, and one that’s frequently changed as prices change. When ‘half gallons’ of ice cream started being sold as 1.75 quarts, the packaging and labeling changed so as to not be misleading.

        The last thing would be to consider the impact on woodworking as a profession, hobby and art. For any such activity there are going to be barriers to entry, tools and equipment, workspace, and of course knowledge. Many of these barriers are neccessary, you should know how kickback occurs before using a tablesaw, you should own safety glasses before touching a tool, etc. But the labeling of lumber is an artificial barrier, it adds no value to the person trying to learn to have this piece of information disguised from them, when a set of parentheses stating “Actual size: 3.5 x 1.5” would remove this barrier. This one thing doesn’t mean much, but remove as many barriers as you can and you’ll find more people enjoying and practicing woodworking.

  3. matt1979

    I may have dumpster dove once or twice when I see houses in my neighborhood undergoing renovation. A hundred year old 2×4 sticking out of the top of a dumpster is hard to resist.

  4. Jonas Jensen

    If you have a local sawyer near where you live, I am pretty sure he has got regular 2×4 in stock. You just need it straight from the saw mill be it either a circular or a band saw mill.
    But I know that it might involve a bit more planning or having a stack of wood at home which is not always the optimal situation while renovating an old house.

    I have a problem since the insulation mats are no longer 50 or 100 mm thick. Now they are all 45 mm or 95 mm, to fit to the size of our dressed 2×4 lumber.

    Brgds
    Jonas

Comments are closed.