Buying lumber for DIY projects can be intimidating for beginners with all the different types of wood and sizes available. Here is a full guide on how to buy lumber so you can confidently walk in and get what you need.
The lumber aisle can be intimidating.
I still remember when I had just decided to start making woodworking projects. I am a completely self-taught DIYer and woodworker. I had no idea what aisle to go to, which board to pick, or what was the difference between all those boards… I just picked what I thought best… and I wasn’t always right.
Buying lumber isn’t like shopping for other items – you can’t just pick up the first piece you see on the shelf. There are a few considerations that go into it. Once you understand them, walking in and out with the right board will be a breeze.
Table of Contents
Why Is It Important to Pick the Right Board
When picking a board for your project, you want to pay attention to the wood species as well as the physical appearance of the board.
Having the right board for your project defines:
- Ease of building the project – Straight boards will ensure your project looks great and turns out exactly how you wanted it. If not, you can end up with pieces not being square or fitting well.
- Strength and durability of the finished project – Using low-quality or weak wood can result in a project that is prone to breaking or collapsing.
- Final outcome of the project – Different types of wood have different grain patterns and colors, and respond differently to stains and paint. Using the wrong type of wood can result in a project that doesn’t look the way you intended.
Where to Buy Lumber
There are two choices for buying wood for your next DIY or woodworking project –
- A big box home improvement store like Home Depot
- A local lumber yard
There are a few main differences between a lumber yard and a big box store :
|Home Improvement Store
Most common sizes and wood types are available. Consistent day to day
|Wider variety of sizes and types of wood. Also, exotic wood species are available.
May need to spend time looking for a good board.
|Higher quality – goes through more rigorous checks.
|Higher due to higher quality of material
|Multiple locations and extended hours
|Limited hours and not easily accessible
Another great resource to find wood is your local woodworking Facebook groups and community. Many times people have access that they like to trade or sell at a discounted price. They may even be able to help you acquire reclaimed wood or pallet crates.
95% of my projects are built using lumber in common sizes and types from my local Home Depot.
If you are just getting started, I highly recommend getting your boards from a Home Improvement store as opposed to a lumber yard because it is a lot less intimidating.
The only time I go to the local lumber yard is when I need special hardwood lumber in large quantities which is TWO times in the last 7 years of building (when I built this record player cabinet and the bar cabinet).
You don’t need to get furniture-grade wood from a lumberyard to be able to build amazing furniture, decor, or home projects.
Types of Wood and Their Uses
Let’s dive into the most confusing part of all – which type of wood to buy. Lumber can be divided into 2 types – softwoods and hardwoods.
What Is Softwood
Softwoods are the most common wood type of lumber used in woodworking projects. They come from coniferous trees such as spruce, pine, and fir. Softwoods are:
- Generally easy to work with.
- Relatively inexpensive compared to hardwoods.
- Tend to be lightweight
- It can be stained or painted to create a wide variety of looks.
All of these qualities make softwoods ideal for beginner projects.
What Is Hardwood
Hardwoods come from deciduous trees such as oak, walnut, mahogany, and maple. Hardwoods are typically more expensive than softwoods but are also much more durable.
They are ideal for furniture projects, cabinetry, and flooring due to their strength and durability.
Here are the most commonly available wood species in home improvement stores and lumber yard:
|inexpensive and easy to work with, but it is not as strong as other types of wood.
|Similar to pine, but a little stronger
|framing and construction
|strong and durable, more expensive than pine and spruce
|framing and construction
|known for its resistance to rot and insects
|outdoor projects that need to withstand harsh weather conditions.
|similar to cedar, but even more resistant to rot and insects. It is more expensive than cedar
|outdoor projects that need to withstand harsh weather conditions.
|Versatile. Used in both painted and stained projects. Light-colored wood with a straight grain and a fine, even texture.
|trim, molding, making furniture, cabinets, etc
|known for its strength and durability. Has a strong grain pattern.
|furniture and flooring, but it can also be used for construction.
|Smooth and even grain
|beautiful grain and color
|rich dark color and beautiful grain pattern. strong and durable but expensive
|furniture and veneers
Not all of the above wood types may be available in your store depending on your location. For example, Cedar is not available in CA but redwood is readily available.
Plywood is a versatile material – you can buy large sheets and panels for a fraction of the cost of boards. They have pressed sheets of wood composite and glue with a veneer on top which defines the final look of the plywood.
They are available in various thicknesses – 1/4″, 1/2″, and 3/4″ are the most common. The sheets themselves are available in 2×2, 4×4, 2×4, and 4×8 feet sizes.
Which Wood to Use in Your Project
The type of wood you pick for your project will depend on a number of factors. Here is a guide that will help you decide what you need for your project.
- Strength: If your project requires a lot of weight-bearing or structural support (like a bench), you’ll need a stronger type of wood such as oak or fir. But if your project is more decorative (like an end table) and doesn’t require as much strength, you can use a softer wood like pine or spruce.
- Durability: If your project will be exposed to the elements, you’ll want to choose a wood that is resistant to rot and insects. Cedar and redwood are good choices for outdoor projects.
- Finish: Some wood like poplar and pine are great for painting but can be splotchy when staining. If staining you may want to go with oak or cherry. If painting and using pine, you can also consider pre-primed pine boards which are a little bit more expensive than pine but cut down on your time so may be worth it.
- Appearance: If the appearance of the wood is important to you, consider the grain and color of the different types of wood. Oak has a distinctive grain, cherry has a beautiful red color and walnut is absolutely gorgeous!
- Cost: Lumber prices can vary significantly based on the type of wood and where you purchase it. Softwoods like pine and spruce tend to be less expensive than hardwoods like oak and cherry.
Before we go shopping for lumber for DIY projects, it’s important to understand the difference between actual and nominal sizes.
- The actual size of the wood refers to the size of the wood after it has been planed and sanded down to its finished dimensions.
- The nominal size refers to the size of the wood before it has been planed and sanded.
This is because lumber is cut to nominal size, dried, and then planed down to its finished size aka actual size.
The difference between actual and nominal size can be confusing, especially for beginners.
It’s important to pay attention to the actual size of the wood when planning and building your project. If you purchase lumber based on the nominal size and don’t account for the actual size, your project will not turn out as planned.
It’s also important to note that lumber can vary in size even within the same nominal size category. For example, two 2x4s may not be exactly the same size.
To ensure that you have consistent and accurate measurements for your project, it’s a good idea to measure the wood yourself rather than relying on the nominal size.
Shopping for Lumber in a Home Improvement Store
If you are just starting out, the home improvement store is the best place to start off when shopping for wood for your project.
Softwoods are sold by the board meaning the price you see will be the price you pay for the entire board.
Hardwoods on the other hand (as well as molding, baseboards, etc) are sold by linear feet (lf) meaning the price indicated is for one foot of the board.
Here are the commonly available main types of wood in home improvement stores:
These are the cheapest type of wood you can buy. But you get what you pay for. When I started out I was amazed by the prices. I could buy a 1×2 for under $.80 and a 2 x 2 for about a dollar! Which meant that I could actually build a little table for under $10!
But I soon realized that it was nearly impossible to find good quality boards without warp or bow. The edges have an uneven rounding and they are very rough. The amount of hard work and headache required to make it look good is it just not worth it.
The purpose of furring strips is to level out surfaces or create gaps in construction or home-improvement projects. So they are never really meant to be seen.
Common boards or also referred to as “white wood” are usually made of pine, spruce, or fir. These are the best options if you are trying to build on a budget.
They are :
- Easy to cut and drill into.
- Have a knotty look – making them great for rustic-looking projects
- Dents and scratches easily.
- Can be easily prepared for painting.
- Stains are splotchy but can be prepared to take stains well.
They are usually 3/4″ thick and are available in various widths ranging from 1 1/2″ all the way to 11 1/4″. You might also find wider boards in certain locations.
As the name suggests these are the boards I use very often and a lot of my projects like the DIY kids desk, lap desk, etc.
Select Pine is an upgraded version of the common boards. As their name implies they have been selected carefully making it so that:
- there are little or no knots
- the boards are smooth
- Most boards are straight. However, you always want to check the board before purchasing (we will cover that shortly)
- They are almost 3 to 5X the cost of common boards however the amount of time saved in trying to prepare a common board for a project is vastly cut down making it completely worthwhile.
- They do dent or scratch easily because they are still pine
- They stain splotchy but when prepared well can produce beautiful results.
This is essentially a pine board but it has already been primed. This is the perfect board to use when you intend to paint your project.
The pricing is comparable to select pine and helps cut down on the priming step saving you time and making it totally worth it.
I specifically like to use them when working with accent walls as I did with my bedroom board and batten wall, the kitchen island slats and trim, and even this bookshelf because I was going to be painting it.
Construction lumber includes the 2x boards like 2×3, 2×4, 2×6, etc. They go all the way up to 2×12. 4x boards are also included. These are also Spruce or Fir.
The most important thing to look for when buying these boards is to make sure to look for the word “kiln dried” or “KD” in the description.
These are the boards that have been baked to make sure that they don’t have any excess moisture content and are ready to build with. Moisture content is extremely important in the long run for the longevity of your project. Do not use “green” or wet boards.
You should be able to find basic hardwoods like poplar, red oak maple cherry, and even walnut in various weights and thicknesses.
Seen here from left to right are maple, walnut, poplar, and red oak.
Hardwoods are sold by linear foot. You will have to ask the store to cut down the exact length of board you need and then you pay for that length at the checkout counter.
You can also purchase hardwoods in precut smaller pieces starting at 1 foot long that you can purchase or small projects.
How to Choose Wood Boards for Your Project
Now that you’ve decided exactly which boards you need let’s pick them. It is important to spend a few minutes looking for a good quality board to get the best results for your project.
Here is what to look for:
Warping essentially means that the board is not straight.
To check the board for straitness, hold the board down and look down along the length like you were looking down at an arrow loaded in a bow. Turn the board around and look down at each side.
You want to look for:
- Bowing: When the board is arching in one direction and does not follow a straight line down along the sight.
- Twisting or winding
- Cupping: when the edges and the center of the board are not aligned i.e., make a slight u-shape.
If you don’t see any of the above deformations on all edges of the board you are golden.
Next, you want to inspect the board for visible imperfections. These include
- Knots – these are remains of dead branches. Dead knots tend to fall out when the wood dries. So you want to steer away from large knots. Also, the grain of the wood surrounding a knot is irregular which makes it hard to work with.
- cracks – caused by rapid drying of the surface
- in-grown bark
- splits – these are pretty common and are caused by rapid drying off the ends. You can usually cut the ends of the boards off if the splits are small.
If you are using construction or common boards, it is extremely rare to find a board that will not have any of the above.
You want to make sure you get the boards with the least amount of visible imperfections.
The more imperfections, the more time you will have to spend prepping the boards. Some imperfections like ingrown bark and splits can also cause your projects to not be as strong so you want to steer away from that as well.
Will you ever find THE PERFECT board?
You probably will not. The goal is to find the best possible board with minimum defects. If a board has a tiny warp at the end which can be cut off without wasting a lot of material, I usually get it. If I can cut off the end with the splits and use the boards, I get them.
How to Buy Wood?
Once you have picked the board you need after inspecting it for defects, you want to place it in a lumber cart. Lumber carts are readily available in all home improvement stores – usually near the entrance to the lumber yard. They can be used for the longer boards as well as plywood sheets. Do not use shopping carts for this as it can be very dangerous.
How to Get Lumber Home?
Once you have picked the boards you need for your project you can have the store, it is time to bring it home. But what if you do not own a large SUV or a truck that fits the boards?
You can have the home improvement store or lumberyard cut it down for you so it fits in your car.
The caveat is that they don’t make precise cuts. In fact, they are not supposed to make precise cuts. I always pre-calculate the cuts I want them to make for me including a buffer so when I bring the boards home I can cut them down to the precise lengths I need.
If your project needs larger boards or sheets of plywood that will not fit in your car, you can always get a quick rental from your home improvement store (as of writing this it is $19/hour). I have done this a couple of times as well.
Once you get lumber home, you need to store it properly to ensure that it doesn’t get damaged or warped over time. Read more about how to store lumber here.
You are now ready to confidently walk into any store and pick the perfect board you need for your project. You got this!
Anika's goal is to inspire and empower beginners with woodworking, DIY, home improvement, and home decor ideas.
She wants everyone to unlock their creative potential and experience the feeling that comes with making something. Nothing feels better better than seeing something and saying "I can make that!"