Buying Guide

So you are ready to buy some lumber for that home project of yours? Good for you! But you want your decisions to be informed, don’t you? Here are some things for you to consider when you purchase lumber. Lumber is a wonderful, natural resource. It has been used by man for centuries, and remains one the most durable, beautiful building materials that we have to work with. But you may be very disappointed in the result if you do not take proper care to purchase the right material for the job, and make sure that it is handled correctly all along the process. This page is designed to bring a few of the major variables in the lumber world to you so that you can make informed decisions. Among the top of those variables are species, grade, dimension, and moisture content. Proper handling of the material prior to installation also is important, whether it be the chain of companies through which the lumber came, or you yourself as you prepare it in its final steps. Remember, lumber is an organic material, and is subject to the elements of sunlight, heat, and water.

Grades:

Wood is wonderful, but it is not perfect. And here is the challenge for lumbermen the world over, to get a reasonably high quality product manufactured and sold to the customer for an acceptable price. America’s first efforts at standardization of lumber began in 1922, and resulted in the American Lumber Standard, first published in 1924. Lumber standards today are set by the American Lumber Standard Committee, which is appointed by the Secretary of Commerce. The purpose of the standards are the same as any other rules of commerce, to insure that consistent products are available to the consumer. However, grades are after all just a reference point, and lumber mills still do develop a reputation as to the quality of the lumber they produce. Trees also vary from region to region, and lumber grade rules are still just rules. Good references are your best guarantee that the lumber you purchase is going to be satisfactory. Many of today’s mills have some rules of their own to add to the value of their lumber, often giving another name to their grade to try to add to the value of their lumber, especially for appearance grade products.

Here is a basic guide to lumber grades for the consumer.

Clear versus common (knotty) lumber:Clear grades are based off of the concept that less knots is better. Clear or select lumber grades bring a higher price than their common cousins. There are several reasons why clear lumber is priced higher.

1) Clear lumber is easier to work with for the carpenter/woodworker. Knots tend to fall out, make for irregularities in the surface of finished lumber, and do not machine as well. (Have you ever tried to cut through a knot with a handsaw?)

2) Knots make for weaker lumber.

3) Clear lumber is not as common in the mill yard. A typical white pine run in North Idaho, for example, will probably yield less than 7% select grade lumber.

On the up-side, common lumber often has a more pleasing appearance then clear lumber, because of the extra character found in and around the knots.

Select lumber grades:

Select North American Softwoods are generally rated with a letter from A-D, followed by “and better”, which is commonly abbreviated by &BTR. The grades go from “A” being the highest, or most perfect grade, to “D”, the poorest. The grades may be grouped, such as A&B, or C&D, but more commonly they may be sold as C&BTR, or D&BTR. “No prior select” indicates that the lumber in that batch has not been sorted through for a higher grade. In other words, a “D” grade is graded to the rules in the book for “D”, whereas “D&BTR” indicates that you may have some at least of the “C” grade in the batch. “D&BTR no prior select”, however, indicates that you will have everything from A-D in the batch. Clear grades above a “C&BTR” are hard to find in today’s market.

Common (knotty) grades:

Common North American Softwoods are generally rated with a number followed by “and better”, which is commonly abbreviated by &BTR. The grades are 1 – 4, with “1” being the highest, or best grade. These grades are sold generally grade specific, although “no prior select” is sometimes carried all of the way into 3&BTR. “No prior select” indicates that the lumber in that batch has not been sorted through for a higher grade. In other words, a “#2” grade is graded to the rules in the book for “#2”, whereas “2&BTR” indicates that you may have some at least of the “#1” grade in the batch. “2&BTR no prior select”, however, indicates that you will have everything from 1-2 in the batch. Today it is common to add SFA to the grade, which means that it is selected for appearance. This is often done to timbers, paneling, and exterior trim and siding. Generally, you would be safe to purchase a 2&BTR SFA if you wanted a nice looking knotty product. If your sawmill is known to push the grade, however, you may consider upping that to a 1&BTR.