Rough-Sawn Lumber Buying Guide

An expert's guide to selecting and purchasing the rough-sawn lumber for your next project.

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Rough-sawn lumber

There are more than a few reasons you should consider buying rough-sawn lumber for your next project. Rough-sawn is the best way to go if you need really thick boards, plus you can save yourself a ton of money converting rough-sawn lumber to finished product. Plus, a lumberyard that specializes in rough-sawn lumber will have a much, much larger selection of species to choose from than a home center.

However, there are a few things you should know before heading to the yard. That’s why we took a field trip with a pro woodworker to Youngblood Lumber Company in Minneapolis. He clued us in on which tools you should take along to the yard and how to estimate what size lumber to buy. He also showed us what to look for in rough-sawn lumber and warned us what to avoid. These great tips will help you choose your lumber carefully and spend your money wisely.

What's a board foot?
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What's a board foot?

Lumberyards sell rough-sawn wood by the board foot, not linear foot. A board foot is 144 cubic inches of wood. Bring a tape measure because the length and thickness of the boards might be labeled, but the width will not.

Here’s how to calculate board feet:

Board Feet = (Width) x (Length) x (Thickness) / 144

Rough Sawn Lumber
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Buy extra

Picking out and hauling rough-sawn lumber and then milling it into usable boards can be time-consuming, so buy extra. You don’t want to go through the whole process to mill one board to replace one that gets damaged. Also, the color and grain of the new board may not match the boards you bought on your first trip. Buying and milling at least one extra full board is a good idea.

Rough Sawn Lumber
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Always go long

The ends of rough-sawn boards often contain checks (cracks). Some checks are obvious, but some you won’t discover until you cut the board near the end. So plan on discarding several inches on each end of every board. That means that if you need two finished 4-foot boards for your project, buy a 10-foot length of rough-sawn.

Roughsawn Lumber
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Avoid twists

Minor warping can be removed in the milling process, but steer clear of any board that looks like a banana. The shorter the boards you need, the bigger the bend you can work with. However, avoid twisted boards. The internal forces that are causing the twist may never go away, no matter how much material you remove. Once twisted, always twisted.

Wood that is bowed, crooked, cupped, and twisted | Construction Pro Tips
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Pick thicker boards

Hardwood lumberyards sell rough-sawn lumber in various thicknesses. Most yards label thicknesses in 1/4-inch fractions:

  • 4/4 = 1 inch
  • 5/4 = 1-1/4 inches
  • 6/4 = 1-1/2 inches

Buy boards at least 1/4 inch thicker than your final dimension in order to account for the material that will be removed by the jointer and planer. Thicker boards cost more per board foot, so you won’t save any money by buying a 2-inch board and re-sawing it into two 1-inch boards.

Check Rough Sawn Lumber with Water
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Check the color with water

These days, most rough-sawn lumber receives one pass through a planer or sander on each side before it reaches the yard. The process, called hit-and-miss, usually smooths the surface enough to see the character of the grain you’re dealing with. But two similar-colored boards in the same bin may differ dramatically in color when finished with a clear topcoat. If it’s important that all your boards be close to the same color, take along a spray bottle filled with water. A couple quick squirts should expose any surprises.

Low Grade Rough Sawn
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Use lower grade lumber and save

Lumber with more knots costs less, which makes sense. If your project contains a bunch of smaller pieces, you can save money by cutting out and around those defects. This lower-grade lumber is often called No. 1 Common (1C). Sometimes you can find a gem or two that may look good enough as is, or have long enough clear cuts between the knots for the boards you need.

Plain sawn lumber versus quarter sawn lumber | Construction Pro Tips
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Plain vs. quarter-sawn 

Most rough-sawn wood these days has been plain (or flat) sawn. But you may come across a couple of species that have been quarter-sawn. Quarter-sawn wood is more stable and much less likely to warp, but it also costs a lot more.

Lumber Sticker Stain
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Watch out for sticker stains

Stickers are the spacers used to separate boards while they’re drying. Occasionally they can create shadow-like stains. These stains appear to be just on the surface, but it is common for them to go deeper than an 1/8 of an inch into the wood, so they may still be visible after planing.