Lumber Buying Guide

Choose the best lumber for your building or renovation projects
 

Selecting which type of lumber you use for a project depends on its ultimate purpose. For structural needs such as joists or beams, the look of the lumber isn’t a top priority. But if the lumber is going to be visible, you may want a higher grade of lumber. This guide will help you understand the measurements you need for your project, as well as steer you in the right direction when making lumber choices.


Lumber Types


While the terms boards, studs and plywood all refer to lumber, they should not be used interchangeably. Each of these types of lumber are designed to be used for specific building purposes.

Framing and structural lumber

• Follows standard building dimensions 

• Standard dimensions allow for faster building as lots of cutting isn’t needed onsite 

• Includes dimensional lumber and studs
 

Framing and structural lumber

Appearance boards

• Ideal for DIY crafts, interior furniture and décor

• Can be used untreated or painted/stained

• Available in hard and softwoods
 
• Includes reclaimed wood and barn wood boards 
 

appearance boards

Plywood

• Typically used for construction roles: roofing, flooring, siding

• Includes sheathing and project panels

• Available in hard and softwood

• Can bend but difficult to crack

• Constructed of layered wood veneer pieces glued together

plywood

Decking

• Available with above ground contact or ground contact treatment

• Choose from wood decking boards, composite decking boards and deck tiles

• Wood decking boards are durable and inexpensive

• Composite decking boards are available in a range of colors and won’t warp or crack

• Deck tiles creates custom patterns on deck surfaces with an interlocking tile system

decking

Fencing

• Typically softwood

• Pre-cut to match popular fence styles, including: French Gothic, Dog-Ear Pickets, Lattice Top

• Choose from pickets, posts, gates and pre-assembled panels

fencing

• Treated with chemicals designed to help the wood withstand the outdoor elements

• Chemicals deter termites and fungal growth

• Ideal for outdoor use

• Do not require paint or stain

pressure treated lumber


There are two types of pressure-treated lumber: above ground contact and ground contact. Ground contact lumber is given the pressure treatment twice to ensure its durability and is ideal for applications where it will rest in or on the ground, such as stair and deck supports, fence posts and picnic tables. Above ground contact lumber is suitable for use anywhere else in the yard.

Hardwoods vs. Softwoods


Woods such as spruce, cedar, oak and maple are classified as either hardwood or softwood depending upon the wood’s density and strength.
 

softwood


Softwood includes cedar, pine, spruce and fir wood. If you’re unsure what wood you’re working with, perform a quick test by pressing your fingernail into the wood. If it dents easily, it’s softwood.
• Typically used in DIY projects or home construction
• Inexpensive
• Get pressure treated softwood if it will be outdoors since softwood absorbs moisture easily

Hardwood includes wood from hickory, oak, mahogany, maple and walnut. If you perform the same fingernail test as above, hardwood will not dent easily.
• Typically used in cabinetry, flooring and woodworking.
• More costly than softwood

Common Lumber Measurements


The term “2x4” doesn’t actually mean lumber of 2 inches by 4 inches, but rather 1 ½ inches by 3 ½ inches.

Lumber is identified by its nominal size, which is its rough dimension before it is trimmed to its finished size at the lumber mill.
 
Actual sizes are approximate lumber dimensions after trimming. 
 
This chart clarifies what you’ll see on the tag in stores (nominal size) verses the actual measurements of the lumber (actual size.)

 

NOMINAL SIZE (PRINTED ON LABEL) ACTUAL SIZE

1” x 4”

¾” x 3 ½”

1” x 6”

¾” x 5 ½”

2” x 2”

1 ½” x 1 ½”

2” x 4”

1 ½” x 3 ½”

2” x 6”

1 ½” x 5 ½”

2” x 8”

1 ½” x 7 ¼”

2” x 10”

1 ½” x 9 ¼”

4” x 4”

3 ½” x 3 ½”