How Wood is Sized
Lumber is commonly referred to by its rough-cut size before milling, but is actually slightly smaller after it is milled. For example, a 2x4 board (“two by four”) is actually only 1 ½” inches thick and 3 ½” inches wide. We’ve included both the common name (2x4) and the actual size (1 ½” by 3 ½”) into the shopping lists in our plans. Check when ordering your wood that the actual sizes of the wood you’re buying match the actual sizes in the shopping list.
Where to Buy Wood
For most folks, there are three main places to buy wood.
- Your local hardware store. Most big-box hardware stores like Home Depot and Lowes will have a decent indoor lumber yard. The wood they sell is generally construction-grade, not for fine furniture, but completely suitable to this project. Their boards tend to be hit-or-miss, so be sure to review the section below on selecting good boards, and the video on our Building Techniques page.
- A true lumber yard. These spots are also geared more toward construction-grade indoor and outdoor projects and generally serve large customers. But most are more than happy to put together a small order for you. They will likely have a larger selection than a hardware store, and their boards are usually more consistent. This is good, because you may not be able to walk around here and select your own boards.
A hardwood mill. These shops serve the fine woodworker and furniture builder with high-quality wood that is consistent and straight. They order wood in rough sections, and then “mill” it, or cut and plane it down to the size the customer needs. Wood from a hardwood mill is a joy to work with, but will likely cost a little to a lot more than what you can get at a lumber yard, depending on the species you choose. If it’s within your budget, we highly recommend it.
Do a Google Maps or yellow pages search for a hardwood mill in your area, and ask them to put together an estimate for you. If you’re a new woodworker, tell them so and they will be more than happy to help. Also, specify that you want “S4S” lumber which indicates it is “surfaced” or planed on four sides (the two faces and the two edges; the ends you’ll cut yourself).
What Species to Buy
There are dozens of possible species of wood you could buy for your project, but we recommend a few for their combination of beauty and affordability. In all cases, avoid “pressure treated” wood which is for outdoors and not suitable for indoor projects.
- For plywood, birch is a great choice. We like Baltic or Russian birch, as it has more layers and better stability, plus a beautiful edge grain. If you’re opting for a fine wood like oak on your project, your local lumber yard or hardwood mill will likely have furniture-grade plywood available in that species as well.
- If you’re shopping at a hardware store, you’ll probably have to choose pine boards. Pine is soft and easy to work with, but tends to warp which makes it difficult to find straight boards. Take your time selecting these. Look for the “whitewood” or "select" section of the store, which will have higher quality boards, or ask an employee for their recommendations.
- If you’re shopping at a lumber yard, you may also have to choose pine, or they may have some of the species we mention next.
- If you’re shopping at a hardwood mill, you’ll have lots of choices. Start by considering whether you’ll be painting or staining your project. If you’ll be painting, ask the mill for their recommended “paint-grade” wood. This will be their most inexpensive wood that looks good painted. Poplar is a common paint-grade selection and looks great. If you’ll be staining your project, ask for their “stain-grade” wood. Basswood is an affordable and lightweight favorite here and matches well with birch plywood. If all else fails, talk to the employees, have a look around, and see if you find something you like.
Selecting Good Boards
This is a key step if you’re buying from a hardware store, or a lumber yard where you can select boards yourself. Because wood is a large percentage water when harvested, the drying process can cause twisting and warping. Hardwood from a mill will be “kiln dried” reducing the chance for this warping. But hardware store lumber often faces these issues.
To select good boards:
- Pull the board off the rack, lay one end on the floor, and hold the other end up to your eye. Look down the narrow edge of the board, not the wider face, from one end to the other. This will make it easy to see any sign of bowing or cupping in the board.
- As you look through the stack, you’ll get a sense of what’s reasonable and what’s unacceptable. If it seems bad, put it aside and find a better board.
- Look through all the boards if you have to. No sense paying for a bad board, and your project will be much more fun if you have good lumber.
Getting Your Wood Home
This can be a challenge if you don’t own a truck, but here are some tips.
- Most hardwood mills and lumber yards offer delivery. Some may even be free if you don’t live too far away and/or have a minimum order size.
- Hardware stores often have truck rental available for as little as an hour at a time.
- If the plywood sheets are the main issue, see if your shop will make a cut in the sheets for you. Most places will do at least one cut for free, or something nominal like $0.50. Bring your plywood cut diagrams, perhaps visit at an off-peak time, and ask the employee to take their time to ensure a straight, accurate cut.