"Shopping for Lumber doesn't have to be hard. This guide will show you how."

When I first started woodworking, choosing lumber was one of the most intimidating things to do. There are so many options to choose from and so many ins and outs to what to use and what to use it for. 

Luckily, I've learned a few things along the way. Check out this Shopping for lumber guide to learn which type of wood to use, how to spot flaws and much more.

Wood Selection

To begin your project, you first need to choose the right type of wood. In order to do that, we need to understand what different types are out there. I am going to briefly go over two main woods you should be familiar with: Softwoods and Hardwoods.


Now when I first heard of hardwood, I thought that maybe this meant this wood was a lot harder than a softwood but I learned that it actually refers to the species of tree that it comes from.

When and When Not to Use Hardwoods?

Painting your Piece? - If you plan on painting your piece, than I wouldn't recommend using a hardwood. Hardwood is normally a little more expensive, and if you plan on covering up the beautiful wood, you will probably be better off using softwood. Hardwoods like oak, walnut and maple produce beautiful pieces when stained, no need in covering it up.

DIY Plate Rack

If you are working on fine woodworking projects, hardwoods are probably what you're looking for. I built this DIY Plate Rack using poplar and stained it with a tung oil. Hardwoods already have a great wood look, I use oils and finishes just to enhance the wood grain that's already there.

Is this for the house? - Hardwoods probably aren't the best types of wood for the outdoors. If you plan on building that outdoor patio furniture, than hardwoods aren't what you need.


Softwoods are a lot easier to find than hardwoods. Most softwoods are in your local hardware stores, like Home Depot and there is an abundance of it, they are also usually much cheaper. I normally use softwoods for most of my projects and it has worked out pretty well for me.

When and When Not to Use Softwoods?

Painting your Piece? - Now if you are wanting to paint that cabinet or DIY project, than you most likely want to use a softwood. This farmhouse console utilized pine wood and was painted, man does it look good.

Working Construction? - Softwoods are usually ideal for construction purposes. You probably see most houses built with pine boards. I have heard most people say that softwood aren't the best for furniture building, but I think as long as your materiel has adapted to the environment you're in than you should be fine.

Outdoor Furniture? - Softwoods like cedar and cypress are the best types of softwoods to use when building outdoor furniture. If you want to build something like on outdoor deck, pressure treated lumber is the way to go.

DIY Chevron Privacy WallWhen I built my outdoor floating deck, I used pressure treated lumber to build the foundation of the deck and it worked out great.

Understanding Wood Flaws

Aside from determining which type of wood to use, you need to be aware that some lumber may come with defects. Be sure to thoroughly inspect your wood before purchasing it.

Piece of wood with cracks and nots

Bows - Some lumber often comes bowed, where there is a curved warp along the face of the piece. If you want to detect a bow, set the wood lengthwise by placing one end on the floor and holding the other end up. Look down the board to determine if there is a bow. If you see a curve in the wood, it is bowed. You will want to steer clear from boards that are bowed.

Cracks - Some lumber may come with cracks at the end of the board, which can sometimes be caused by the stress of the drying process. These cracks could cause fragility when building, but may not be too much of an issue if you plan on cutting off the affected areas.

Knots - Knots aren't necessarily a bad thing, but I think it's something you should always be aware of. As a beginner, I would try and stay away from knots if you are planning to paint a piece of furniture your making because it will create more prep work in the end.

Wood Flaws

Construction Pro Tips shares a great diagram for showing wood flaws. See above.

Beginner Woods

As a beginner woodworker, I worked mostly with pine wood and I think that was the right way to go. Pine wood is a lot easier to handle and a little more dense than hardwood making it easily manageable for a newbie like me.

I found Select Pine to be an even better option because it was a little finer than regular pine but had a lot less defects, making it that much better to work with. It's a little more expensive than regular pine but worth it in the end, in my opinion.

How to Read the Label

Normally, when you buy a board from a hardware store, it includes a label with either the common name of the board or the actual board measurements. If you want to get into building, you definitely need to know the difference.

Shopping for Lumber

Nominal vs. Actual Board Measurements

"Common board names are not the actual dimensions."

This can sometimes be a little confusing for beginners, and sometimes I often get confused with my math when creating plans but the common board name on the label isn't necessarily the actual dimension of the board.

Most hardware stores use common board names to make things more simple but the actual measurements reflect the dimensions of the wood after it has been dried/planned down. Sometimes, I find it helpful to have a wood dimension chart in my shop. See the chart below.

Shopping for Lumber

Nominal Size  Actual Size 
1x2 3/4" x 1-1/2" 
1x3 3/4" x 2-1/2"
1x4  3/4" x 3-1/2"
1x6  3/4" x 5-1/2"
1x8  3/4" x 7-1/4" 
1x10  3/4" x 9-1/4" 
1x12  3/4" x 11-1/4" 
2x2  1-1/2" x 1-1/2"
2x3  1-1/2" x 2-1/2"
2x4  1-1/2" x 3-1/2" 
2x6  1-1/2" x 5-1/2" 
2x8  1-1/2" x 7-1/4" 
2x10  1-1/2" x 9-1/4" 
2x12 1-1/2" x 11-1/4" 
4x4  3-1/2" x 3-1/2" 
4x6  3-1/2" x 5-1/2" 
6x6  5-1/2" x 5-1/2" 
Hopefully this information gets you that much closer to becoming a better woodworker. Thanks for reading guys, XOXO Ashley.
February 16, 2020 — Ashley Basnight