How to pick the best wood

Have you ever stood in the lumber aisle at a home improvement store and wondered which board you need for your project? I want to share some tips with you that I’ve learned over the years on how to pick the best board for a project.

Board Sizing

You have probably heard of a 2×4 or a 1×2, but did you know that is not the actual size of the board. What! Why would a store advertise a board is a certain size when it really isn’t? What it comes down to is shrinkage. A sawmill cuts the wood to 2×4 but as the wood dries out its thickness and width shrink, but not length.

In general, the actual dimensions for softwoods turn out to be.

Most softwoods tend to be a half-inch smaller than the listed dimensions. Hardwoods can vary in sizes depending on how dry they are. The Spruce has a great in-depth explanation if you’d like to know more. If you are drawing your own blueprints for a project keep the actual board sizes in mind.

Hardwood VS Softwood

There are many varieties of wood out there, from Pine to Oak to Maple. Depending on your project it may need a hardwood for durability, but most DIY projects only require a softwood.  Categorizing lumber as hard and soft is based on the species of tree. Leafy trees are usually hardwoods and cone bearing needle trees (evergreen) are usually softwoods. The species of the tree doesn’t always predict the actual durability of the wood though. An industry standard to measure the hardness is ranked on the Janka Scale which is based on how much force is required to embed a steel ball half way into the wood. Below is a general ranking of woods.

Most building construction and DIY projects are done with softwoods and most furniture uses hardwoods. Hardwoods tend to have a prettier grain too so many times they are used to veneer a surface.

Choosing a straight board

When shopping for wood at our big box store, I head for the large wood pile and start sorting through boards. Usually I only need common sizes like 2×4’s or 1×6’s in an inexpensive softwood. There are different grades of wood usually labeled “standard” and “select”. Select boards are going to be more expensive, but they will have fewer knots and a stable straighter grain. If you can afford to, go for the select boards. The problem I frequently run into when picking boards is many aren’t straight! No one wants to build a project with warped wood. Trust me, it doesn’t end well.

You should always check that your wood is straight and square without cracks. Do this by picking up the board and looking at the end straight down the length of the board. It should be straight and true. If you look down the board and see any of the following, put it back.

  • Twisting
  • Bowing
  • Cupping
  • Bending
  • Diamond

There are some woodworkers who take the time straighten out boards once they get back home, but that isn’t something I want to bother with and I don’t have a planer or jointer to do that. Buy the straightest board possible for your project.

On a side note, boards can shrink and warp as humidity and environment change. When you bring wood home it needs time to acclimate to the environment before starting your project as it can warp after assembly if not. Lay your boards somewhere flat in the area you will build in for the boards to acclimate and reduce warping. Want to know more about why wood warps and changes? Check out Thriftdliving and  Wood and Shop to dive deeper!

Next time you head to the home improvement store, remember these tips for a successful project!

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