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Knowing Lumber Grades can Save Money on Home Improvement Projects

Don’t Overbuy on Hardwood and Pine

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A box made of zebrawood and poplar.

A box made out of zebrawood

This article was updated on 02/12/20.

Lumber Defects are Typically Cosmetic

Many defects encountered in the lumber you buy for building furniture or home improvement are merely cosmetic, not structural. In fact, for some purposes, defects are valued. Take knotty pine for instance, which was a trendy wall paneling choice for many years. Another good example is hardwood with burls.

Other defects, other than knots, include bark pockets, splitting, checking, bug damage, warping, and more. Many of these can give your projects character. For example, burls are highly cherished. Yes, you can end up paying a premium for a cosmetic “defect”.

In most cases, you will primarily be concerned with staying away from checking, warping, and splitting, as these kind of defects make joinery difficult and the resulting project less than satisfactory.

National Hardwood Lumber Association Grading

The NHLA has been in the business of grading hardwood for over 100 years. Keep in mind that their grading is more focused on yield, not looks. But their opinion is still important to the woodworker; if you shop with their guidelines in mind, you can save some serious money.

Here are how they see things from the best (most expensive) to the worst:

  • FAS (First and Seconds). This stock must be at a minimum 6” X 8’. The most defective face must be 83 1/3% defect-free. How they came up with the 1/3 part I have no idea.

  • FAS 1F or F1F. This is the same as FAS, except that it is graded from a basis of the best side of the board. This is a good choice when you are only concerned with what one side looks like (and isn’t this usually the case?).

  • #1 Common. Similar to FAS, this is graded from the most defective face. The difference is that the minimum board size is reduced to 3” X 4’. Another big money-saver for appropriately sized projects.

  • # 2A Common. This simply reduces the size to 3” X 2’. You can see where we are going here. On smaller woodworking projects, the opportunity for savings are greater.

Shopping for Lumber is Not Grocery Shopping

Unlike packaged consumer goods at the grocery store or the local Walmart, choosing the appropriate stock at your local home improvement store or lumber yard can really make a difference. While the grading discussed above is important, size is often critical.

One hardwood vendor in Houston that I like has a room relegated to what carpet shops call “remnants”—off-cuts from orders that are too small for big projects like entertainment centers, but a treasure trove for box-builders.

For example, a couple of years ago I got a beautiful length of zebrawood that supplied the goods for several small projects. See the drawer faces on the box in the photo at the top of this article. I carved the drawer pulls out of rosewood that I picked up on the same shopping trip.

If you are not lucky enough to live close to a store that stocks exotic wood for your projects (i.e. not Home Depot) I suggest you try ordering from a woodworking store like Rockler Woodworking and Hardware. The bottom line? Armed with a cut sheet and a knowledge of lumber grades can save you money and result in superior woodworking projects!

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About the Author:

Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.

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