How to buy wood

When learning how to get started woodworking, you will soon take the much-anticipated trip to the lumberyard or the specialty hardwood store to buy the stock for your first project.

I wasn’t taught how to buy wood. I also didn’t know there’s a completely different lingo that goes with the lumberyard.

Going to a lumberyard or hardwood store is a lot like going to a bakery in a foreign country. You can clearly see the bread and pastries, but you don’t have the words to tell the salesperson exactly what you want. You can point and use just enough of the local language to make yourself look like an idiot. Then they answer you in a strange dialect you never heard before and act as though you should know what they are talking about. It can definitely be an intimidating and frustrating experience.

Neighborhood Bread Shop, 2009

On my first lumberyard trip, I had no idea there were so many variations in a board! I told the flannel-clad sales guy I needed a one by six by 6 foot Maple board. He just looked at me and said:

“Well I ain’t got 1 x 6, would a four-quarter or eight-quarter do? I have some eight-quarter rough-sawn planks that you could have re-sawn into four-quarter. Oh, and are you looking for it quartersawn or riftsawn... surfaced or skip-planed?? How many board feet did you say?”

When I finally got to the counter to pay they charged me in board feet, and the entire time I felt like I was being taken for a ride.

By the end of today’s post, you should be able to walk into a lumberyard or hardwood store with confidence and a pretty clear idea of the type of wood you are looking for and how to describe it to the salesperson. I hope you find it helpful.

Helpful hint: There can be a big difference in price and variety of wood available depending on the type of store you go to.

  • A big box store like Home Depot or Lowe’s is generally going to have a limited selection, like a fast food restaurant.
  • A specialty hardwood store is like a fine dining restaurant with an extensive menu.
  • Lumberyards or lumber mills that process the Hardwoods on site can be like going to a grocery store where they are limited by stock on hand but they have a whole bunch of it and you have to be willing to search for what you want.

The Wonderful World of Wood

Hopefully, we all know that wood starts out as a tree or “timber” and once cut and trimmed it is called a “Log” ☺.

buy lumber online

Types of wood in a log:

How to Buy Wood

Board terminology:

  • End grain: the small end of a board where you can clearly see the rings of the tree.
  • Edge grain: the longest and narrowest side of the board.
  • Face grain:  the large flat sides of the board.

Types of Boards or Planks:

How to buy hardwood

Plain-sawn: planks are sawn at a tangent to the curve of the log. Notice how the growth rings are seen as an even curve across the end grain. Face grain will form “Cathedral” patterns.

Quarter-sawn: planks are cut at a radius to the center of the log. The growth rings can be seen almost vertically across the end grain. The face and edge of the board will have straight grain. This type of cut will shrink and expand less than others.

Rift-sawn: the end grain of these planks show growth rings at a 45-degree angle. The edge grain and face grain run straight.

rough cut hardwood lumber

Board surfaces:

Rough-sawn: planks that have just been cut at the lumber mill. No squaring or smoothing has been done.

board feet
Skip-planed Lumber

Skip-planed: planks that have been partially smoothed on one side to show some of the wood grain. Can also be called “hit-and-miss planing”.

S4S (Surfaced on 4 Sides): planks that are planed smooth on both faces and both edges are straightened.

S4S Lumber

Helpful hint: For anyone wanting to go "down the rabbit hole" with understanding hardwood grades and the rules for evaluating. Check these links out: NHLA Rules Book (National Hardwood Lumber Association) and the NHLA website.

How to Calculate Board Feet:

Rough-sawn boards are measured in one-quarter inch increments.

  • A four-quarter board will be 1 inch thick.
  • An eight-quarter 2 inches thick and so on...

One board foot is equal to 144 cubic inches. So “board feet” are really the volume of the board, not its length.

This means that a 1-foot long board could contain more than one board foot.

Examples: If you have boards with the following measurements...

12-inch wide x 12-inch long x 1-inch thick= 144 cubic inches 1 Board Foot


12-inch wide x 12-inch long x 2-inch thick= 288 cubic inches 2 Board Feet

more examples…

6 inch x 24 inch x 1 inch = 144 cubic inches =1 Board Foot


1 Board Foot = 6 inch x 12 inch x 2 inch = 144 cubic inches

So you see the dimensions of a board can change a lot,.. but the number of board feet can remain the same. It’s all about measuring.

Knowing this, you can calculate in advance how much the wood for your project will cost.

An easy calculation for the number of board feet in a plank is to multiply the thickness by the length and the width (all in inches and divide by 144.

Thickness x Length x Width (all measurements in inches) ÷ 144= Number of board feet

Example:  2 x 68 x 9 ÷ 144 = 8.5 Board feet


You now have the lumberyard lingo at your fingertips so you can go and buy wood with confidence.

You can even practice evaluating the different cuts of wood everywhere you see boards!

A good place to practice is on a fence.

Usually, you’ll find every type of board  making up an average plank fence.

What do you think of this topic? After reading it I hope you're not "board" ☺ I’d love to hear from you in the comments! Check out more information at

4 thoughts on “How To Buy Wood”

  1. My husband recently purchased some wood for some kitchen shelves he wants to build. He asked me what kind of wood I wanted and I showed him something that looked nice to me, he said, “that’s not real wood,” he showed me three different types of wood that he recommended for our shelves and explained why each would fit well in our kitchen.

    It’s still a blur to me. 🙁

    Next time, I go shopping for some wood with my husband, I’ll make sure I have a copy of your article with me to sound like I really know what I’m talking about…that will certainly impress my husband! 🙂

    Thank you for this great article. When I realize that the harwood floors and wood shelves in our homes were once trees, it’s truly amazing to me!

    1. Thanks for your interest! Wood is a truly amazing and renewable resource. I hope your kitchen project turns out well. Enjoy the process Christie!

  2. I did property management for 12 years and had to hire people for all sorts of remodeling type projects and often times I would be sent to Lowe’s or Home Depot for materials. That was truly exciting considering i know absolutely nothing about home repair, remodeling, or maintenance!

    I have had to purchase wood before and didn’t know the difference between any of them. If I ever have to purchase wood again, I’ll have your post to refer to!

    1. Hey Chas, Thanks for taking time to comment. I hope you continue to find valuable information here!


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