5 Tips for buying wood from a home improvement store

As a person living in a modern capitalist society, I normally feel very comfortable buying things. However, when it came to buying wood for the first time, I literally spent 45 minutes just staring down the wood aisle at Lowe’s. It was intimidating. Which species should I buy? Why don’t the dimensions on the label match the actual dimensions of the board? Worse yet, there are zero online reviews for the board that I am about to purchase – how am I supposed to make purchasing decisions with no reviews?

One of the lumber aisles at the local Lowe's home improvement store
One of the lumber aisles at the local Lowe’s home improvement store

I felt overwhelmed by the choices in front of me. Unfortunately for me, even my wife, who is the real expert in the family when it comes to shopping (check out her guides section if you don’t believe me) couldn’t help me. To make sure that you don’t find yourself in the same situation, I have compiled a list of five tips for buying wood from a home improvement store:

Tip #1: Determine the best species of wood for your project

While there are many species of wood, your typical home store is only going to have 4 to 5 options based on the region that you live in. The key factors that you should consider when selecting a species is their hardness, weather resistance, figure (the grain and knots), and cost. Below are the most common kinds of species that you’ll find at your local big box home improvement store and their characteristics to help you choose the best one.

Pine

  • Hardness: Soft, will dent easily
  • Weather Resistance: Low, will rot and does not resist bugs (note that you can purchase construction-grade pressure-treated pine boards designed to be used outdoors)
  • Figure: Large grain
  • Cost: Low
  • Common Uses: Indoor home or construction projects where the wood grain won’t be visible (often painted)
  • Other notes: You’ll find pine boards typically in two forms. One will be construction grade (the 2-by-4s in your walls). The other will be furniture grade (clean sides, 90 degree angles). Stick with the furniture grade boards unless you have the ability to mill the construction grade boards (this involves planer and jointer tools).
Photo of different wood species available at most home improvement stores
The wood species available at most home improvement stores

Poplar

  • Hardness: Technically hard, but will still dent easily
  • Weather Resistance: Low, will rot and does not resist bugs
  • Figure: Tighter grain than Pine, but less color contrast
  • Cost: Moderate
  • Common Uses: Indoor home or furniture projects (can be painted or stained to look like another species of wood)

Oak

  • Hardness: Hard, won’t dent easily
  • Weather Resistance: Low, will rot and does not resist bugs
  • Figure: Tight grain, more interesting to look at
  • Cost: High
  • Common Uses: Indoor furniture projects (typically stained to show off the grain patterns)

Cedar

  • Hardness: Soft
  • Weather Resistance: High, will resist rotting and bugs
  • Figure: Moderate grain
  • Cost: Moderate
  • Common Uses: Outdoor projects like fences or siding

Tip #2: Plan to buy 10% more than you think you need

A big part of woodworking is planning everything out. To figure out how much wood you need to buy, start by sketching out the design of your project and then break down all of the components into individual pieces. Record the length, width, and thickness of each piece. Then attempt to group them together to minimize the number of boards that you will need to buy. Typically I group boards of the same thickness and width together and then I “stack” them end to end determine the length of the boards that I need.

After you’ve determined what boards you need for the project, add about 10% extra to account for the width of the saw blades, cutting off bad ends of the boards, and to give yourself the opportunity to recover from mistakes. For example, if you determine that you need a 6 foot long board, consider purchasing the 8 foot board instead. You can always cut more off.

Tip #3: Bring a tape measure. The dimensions on the label won’t match the dimensions of the board.

As odd as it sounds, a board labeled 2” x 4” is not actually 2” thick by 4” wide. It is actually 1.5” think by 3.5” wide. However, at one point in time that 2”x4” labeled board was actually rough cut to be exactly 2” thick by 4” wide. The problem is that these were the dimensions of the board before it fully dried.

If you are a beginner, you may be surprised to learn that wood expands and contracts with temperature and moisture. So, as the 2” x 4” board dries, it will shrink a fair amount. Once the board is dry, it is cut down to the uniform size that you’ll find in the stores. Hence, a 2” x 4” board is actually a 1.5” x 3.5” board. So, when you are buying wood at a big box home store, make sure you bring a tape measure. Eventually, you will learn that a 1” x 4” board is actually 0.75” x 3.5” and a 2” x 10” board is actually 1.5” x 9.25”.

Tip #4: Take the time to carefully look over each board.

All boards are not created equal. Each one is different, even at the home improvement stores. Some will have knots, some will curve and bend, and some will simply be damaged. Take the time to slowly and methodically pick the best boards for your project. Don’t settle – a bad board may ruin your project or transform a fun project into a frustrating one. Be that person who takes out all of the boards to look them over. This happens regularly at these stores (at least I do it every time I’m there). 

Checking boards for straightness
Checking boards for straightness

Here is how I select boards at a home improvement store:

  1. Check the board for bends, twists, and curves. The straighter the board, the easier it will be to work with. Take the board down from the shelf, put one end on the ground, and hold the other end up to your eye. Look down the entire length of the board. Check all four sides. If it is bent, twisted, or curved, you’ll see it very quickly. Another approach is to place the board on the ground. If it wobbles, it isn’t straight. Sort through the boards until you find the straightest ones for your project.
  2. Check the board for damage. Sometimes boards will have chipped edges or dents. Look up and down the board for any significant damage. If you find something, decide if it impacts your project. Can you cut around it? Will it be visible? Is it only on one side? Only keep the boards that are either not damaged or only damaged in spots that won’t impact your project.
  3. Check the board for other imperfections or knots. Each board will have unique features or imperfections. Depending upon your project, its design, and your taste, these features may or may not be desirable. Similarly to checking for damages, look up and down the board for these and decide if it will impact your project. Only keep the boards that are pass your thorough inspection.

Tip #5: Make sure you can bring it home

I’ve had the pleasure of spending an hour carefully selecting and buying boards, only to realize that it won’t fit in my car. After a bit of struggling, I was able to bungee cord my way around the problem. But it certainly wasn’t a fun experience. Take the time to make sure your vehicle can carry home everything that you are purchasing. However, don’t let your smaller eco-friendly car deter you from woodworking. Almost all of the big box home improvement stores have trucks that you can rent by the hour. I’ve done this multiple times and found it to be a very affordable way to get your bigger project supplies home.

Alternatively, most of the big home improvement stores have board cutting areas where an employee will cut down the boards to smaller sizes. Just make sure you know where the cuts can safely happen without messing up your project. Sometimes there is a small fee for cutting down these boards, but it is much better than not being able to get your materials home.

So, what did you think? What other questions do you have about buying wood at a home improvement store? What other woodworking topics would you like to know about? Leave your comments and questions below.

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4 thoughts on “5 Tips for buying wood from a home improvement store”

  1. I want to build some wood flower boxes this winter. It is nice to know that I will want to think about the grain of the wood. I really like the look of the poplar wood. Also, it does seem like a good thing to get a professional to help advise me on what type of wood to get.

  2. I seriously love your website.. Great colors & theme.

    Did you create this web site yourself? Please reply back as I’m trying to create my own site and would love to
    know where you got this from or just what the theme is named.
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