The Basics on Buying Lumber

The Basics on Buying Lumber

When buying lumber, options can range from Rough Cut to S4S.  Here is a basic breakdown of different types of lumber finishes you will find in stores:

  1. Rough Cut vs Surfaced Lumber
  2. Lumber Suppliers
  3. Cost vs Convenience
  4. What Should You Buy?

Rough Cut vs Surfaced Lumber

Rough cut lumber and surfaced lumber refers to wood that has undergone different levels of processing and finishing. Rough cut lumber is in its natural state, retaining rough textures and imperfections, while surfaced lumber has undergone additional processing to create a smooth and refined surface for immediate use.

Rough Cut Lumber:

Initial State: Raw and unfinished wood that is cut directly from the log. It retains the natural texture and roughness from the sawing process.

Surface Condition: Uneven, with saw marks, bark, and other imperfections present.

Dimensions: Typically, slightly larger than the nominal size, and it may vary in thickness and width.

Uses: Often used when a rustic or natural appearance is desired. It requires additional processing and finishing before being used in construction or woodworking projects.

Surfaced Lumber:

Processing: Undergoes additional processing to smooth and refine its surface. This involves planning or jointing to remove imperfections and create a smooth, flat surface.

Surface Condition: Smooth, with a consistent thickness and width. It is free from saw marks and other rough textures.

Dimensions: Sold in standard dimensions, and the actual dimensions closely match the nominal size.

Uses: Ready for use in construction and woodworking without further processing. It is suitable for projects where a polished and finished appearance is desired.

Surfaced Lumber is referred to as surfaced on a certain number of sides, abbreviated as SxS. The three standard versions you will see include:

S2S: Surfaced on the top and bottom coplanar with each other but with both sides left rough.

S3S: Surface on the top and bottom coplanar with each other with one side jointed square with the top and bottom.

S4S: Surfaced on all sides, coplanar and square on all corners.

Lumber Suppliers

Two general sources of lumber for the amateur woodworker.  Lumber Dealers and Retail Stores.

Lumber Dealers: 

Customers: Main customers are fine woodworking businesses (cabinet makers and carpenters) but many are open to the public. 

Inventory: Generally stock hardwoods in rough cut and S2S through S4S varieties and premium engineered woods.

Retail Stores: 

Customers: Main customers are construction businesses and the public doing DIY projects.  

Inventory: Generally stock softwoods and lower grade engineered woods for construction use but many have a small selection of SxS Hard and Soft wood for sale.

Cost vs Convenience

The general rule of thumb is the more work that goes into the lumber, the more expensive it is going to be.  For example, Kiln Dried is more expensive than Air Dried or S4S is more expensive than S2S. Retail prices will be more expensive than Dealer prices.

An other consideration is that the closer the lumber is ready to be used, the more convenient it is.  You could spend a few hours getting rough lumber ready to be used for your project, but S4S lumber is generally ready to go without fine tuning.

What Should You Buy?

There are a few things you need to consider when deciding what lumber to buy.

Tools:  Do you have the tools you need to surface and joint rough lumber into project boards?  If you are a hobbyist, it will make sense to pay extra for S4S boards rather than invest in the tools required to work with rough lumber.

Time: Do you have the time to mill the rough lumber into usable project boards?  If you are making a small quick project, you could double your time spent having to mill rough lumber to usable boards.

Money: If you are not in a rush and have the tools, taking the time to mill your own lumber can save you money, especially on more expensive hardwoods.

My Recommendation: I bought a rough-cut board early in my woodworking journey, and it sat untouched for a few years as I was trying to learn what to do with it.  My first +10 COMPLETED projects were all built with S4S Premium Pine boards bought at the local home improvement store.  You can pick out the straightest boards in various S4S sizes to minimize waste and maximize your project time in your shop.  As you are learning woodworking and the different techniques with a limited set of tools - this is the best place for a beginner woodworker to balance Tools, Time and Money.

As you start to grow in the craft, start experimenting with other types of wood and surface finishes - you will quickly find out if you have the patience and desire to get into milling your own lumber from rough cuts.

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