A Suburban Guide to Buying Lumber

by Daisy

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Back when I started building things out of wood, I had no idea what I was doing. I would go up to the man in the hardware store and describe what I wanted and he would help me the best he could. Over the years and over numerous simple projects I am not an expert by any measure, but I’ve picked up a few bits of information that might help someone who’s just starting to think about giving simple carpentry a try. I’ve put some observations together the beginner can use as a nudge into a first project.

1. Don’t fear the lumber department of the Home Center. Well, maybe fear it just a little. Look out for the forklifts and stay out when they have it cordoned off with that expanding gate. Otherwise, it’s a perfectly legitimate place for you to be even if you didn’t just step out of a crew cab with a bunch of burly guys. You might feel out of place, but don’t hesitate to ask for guidance–they are very helpful and are apparently trained not to laugh at you when you ask dumb questions. I should know.

2. Be prepared. Aside from taking your supplies list with you, it’s very helpful to bring a pair of work gloves that will protect your hands from splinters. Put some old towels or blankets in your car to protect your upholstery from dirt and splinters and dings. Unless you drive a truck, grab your tape measure and write down the dimensions of the available space in your vehicle to haul lengths of lumber. I have a station wagon and can haul up to a 10′ long board. If you know the boards you need for your project will not fit in your car, you have a few options:

a. If the actual cut-to-size length (just not the stock length) will fit in your car, take your measurements with you to the store and they will cut it for you. This is a work-saving option for you even if the stock-sized boards will fit in your vehicle. They may charge a nominal fee (in all my years having pieces cut I have never actually been charged the cutting fee), but it’s well worth it over the premium of having something built by a carpenter or buying it pre-made.

b. You can rent their truck for about $20 to drive your lumber home yourself.

c. Find a friend with a truck or other vehicle the lumber will fit into.

3. Be selective. This is where those gloves will come in handy. Once you have located the type, length and width of board you need for your project, you want to find the pick of the litter. This will make getting your project to fit together that much easier. Take a board and examine it. Look for boards that are:

a. Clear. This means a board with no knots or fewer, smaller knots. A big ol’ knot may look pretty and rustic, but it can complicate your project. Knots contain concentrates of rosin and are harder to cut through. They may also decide to chip right out while being cut. A few insignificant knots are fine unless you want to pay a higher price for absolutely clear boards, but stay away from boards chock full of “character” for most projects.

b. Straight. Take the board and lay it on an even floor. Turn it on all four faces. Does it lie flat or does it arch up off the floor? Take it and eye down its edge. Does it look straight? If it doesn’t look straight or nearly straight, put it back and try another one until you find the straightest ones. It may seem awkward at first, but soon you will know what you are looking for.

c. Undamaged. Check for milling and handling damage. Look closely all down the board. Some will have cracks along the grain that are hard to see at first glance. Make sure there are no bad gouges that can’t easily be sanded away or chunks of wood missing on the ends.

d. Clean. This is getting a little picky, but that thing is going in your car. If the clearest, straightest board just happens to be a little dirty, you may have to overlook this, especially if you prepared your car with some protection, but a dirty board means more work for you, cleaning and sanding.

There’s a lot more you can learn about lumber, of course, but these are a few starter tips.

Ivory has recently started down the path of basic woodworking by building a fence for Sylvie and Lily (her goats), and she called me up to tell me how empowering it was to tackle a project like that for herself. I know!, I told her. It can be a real charge.  Give it a try and you’ll see what I mean.


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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Emily July 27, 2009 at 7:19 am

Very helpful, TL, thank you.

Any tips on what to do with a wiggly toddler while you’re doing all this board-checking? 😉

Kenneth Moore July 27, 2009 at 11:25 am

Those are excellent tips! I could have used them before I decided to build my garden box… I <a href="learned my lessons, however, and now I have yours to help me out in future projects, too!

Emily–while I was in preschool, the teacher would regularly give me a hammer, some nails, and a piece of wood. I would clamp the wood in a random vice that was attached to the table (the classroom doubled as a workshop for the church that the school was in) and I would hammer nails into the scrap wood. I think a toddler would enjoy such a project to keep him/her occupied while you’re checking lumber.

Sharon July 27, 2009 at 11:49 am

This may be too “out of the suburb” for most people, but my daddy was a contractor for much of my life. He went to Home Depot ONCE to try their hyped-up “yellow wood” product (which is awful!) but has otherwise gone to real lumber supply places. Yes, you can buy ANY amount of wood there, and they will help you pick it out, for much cheaper than a Home Depot style place.

Tomato Lady July 27, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Hi Emily–The toddler issue, hm. Never easy. Of course if they’re strapped into the shopping cart at least they’ll be safe if not happy. You could always park them by the “need help” button and let them repeatedly summon assistance to the lumber department. The employees love that . . .

Tomato Lady July 27, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Sharon–Yep, I like my neighborhood lumberyard. I’m lucky to have one. Personal attention, rustic atmosphere AND lots of sleepy, bored cats draped over the place. I admit to frequenting the big box, too. The lure of one-stop shopping is strong.

Tomato Lady July 27, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Thanks, Kenneth. I’ll have to check out your garden box.

brightlight08 July 27, 2009 at 4:03 pm

“Your comment is a bit too short.” Obviously the internet has no idea how to talk properly… The only thing I wanted to say was “Amen, Sister!” -Now how is that too short?! 😀

Tony @ mma gear guide July 27, 2009 at 5:59 pm

These are excellent tips and very helpful to take work gloves to move the lumber after purchase, it makes things flow so much faster and avoid nasty splinters.

Emily July 27, 2009 at 6:31 pm

haha…oh yeah, the buttons are big time popular with my little guy. He can press buttons on the ‘price check’ box all day. I was being tongue-in-cheek actually, but that’s not a bad idea!

Tomato Lady July 27, 2009 at 9:37 pm

I didn’t know it did that. I wonder why? Amen! is good enough for me!

Tomato Lady July 27, 2009 at 9:39 pm

Aha, another good button box. I hadn’t thought of that one!

Brown Thumb Mama July 27, 2009 at 10:01 pm

Thanks for the tips! I’m about to do Serious Construction and build a worm box bench for the backyard. Here’s hoping everything comes together OK!

JavaLady July 27, 2009 at 10:32 pm

Earlier in the year, when purchasing wood for my chicken coop, I did just as you suggested here. Great tips !! I am a single, divorced mom of three… haven’t dated much in the past couple of years. Well… I got THE BEST Compliment Ever while in Lowes. The man who helped me carry out my lumber, after I had picked it all out by myself mind you, says to me ” ain’t nothing sexier than a woman who can tackle a do-it-yourself job with confidence!” I am still grinning ! Yes, same fella helped me load gardening supplies last month.

Tomato Lady July 28, 2009 at 12:17 am

JavaLady–An admirer! Well! I can’t promise results like that for everybody, but you’re doing something right! Mmhm.

Tomato Lady July 28, 2009 at 12:18 am

Brown Thumb Mama–Oh, now, I’m gonna have to hear more about this worm box bench. Sounds dual-purpose and I’m a sucker for that!

SweetSophie August 2, 2009 at 7:34 pm

I read # 1 to my husband (who used to work at HD) and he replied with this: “We weren’t trained to not laugh, we just heard stupid stuff so much that it wasn’t funny anymore.” Not a dig about asking questions, just thought it was funny to hear about it from the other side.

Tomato Lady August 3, 2009 at 12:23 am

SweetSophie–Yes, I can see how it would get old. They are typically very patient and helpful no matter the level of knowledge of the customer.

Joe November 17, 2009 at 3:09 pm

I think too many people make the mistake of not being selective because they dont want to be perceived as a pest. Do you agree?

Tomato Lady November 17, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Joe–I’m sure some people feel that way. I figure as long as I don’t make a mess and don’t do anything hazardous, it is expected that the customer picks the nicest boards they can find. Like anything, though, you can take it to the extreme.

Chris Carroll December 15, 2009 at 7:27 pm

Here in Canada, Home Depot has a Saturday course for kids to help them learn basic carpentry skills (right down to their little tool belts). It may be a good compromise to sit still while your looking at the lumber.
Too bad I found your site 6 years too late. My husband grew up in a hobby farm on the outskirts of a city. They were grandfathered into the bylaws about farm animals no longer being legal after being rezoned from township (country) to city. When we got married they had sheep, ducks (for the freezer of course) a couple of African geese, and silkie chickens. And to this day I do not know why my m-i-l had to buy eggs instead.

Jon Conley June 24, 2013 at 8:26 pm

About being selective, or a “pest”.. Be A Pest! That’s what these employees are the for. No, you don’t want to yell at them if you can’t find something, but they are usually more than happy to answer questions. I have been a carpenter for many years now, and I still ask questions. You never know when they think of something that you haven’t 🙂

Gloves are another great tip. No sense in messing your hands up before the real work starts on the project.

Also, for things like chicken coops and “rustic” fences and the like, ask about discounted lumber that was either returned for being crooked, or slightly out of shape stuff right off the shelf. They know that they won’t sell every piece of lumber on the floor at full price because not all the lumber will be perfect. Irregular bards are fine for some projects. A 12 foot long bard that looks like it was part of the arc might be fine when cut into shorter lengths. Just some thoughts.

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