The dos and don’ts of buying lumber

lumber drying in a pile lmfoto/Shutterstock

We don’t know about you, but a well-stocked lumber yard makes us feel like kids in a candy store. Seeing those boards piled almost as high as the eyes can see opens our minds up to a world of possibilities, but it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Even if you’re an expert, chances are you’ve left the yard without what you came for, or in some cases, twice as much as you need.

Whether you’re a seasoned woodworker or a newbie DIY-er setting off on your first big project, it’s easy to be intimidated by the sheer selection of woods and lumbers out there. Little mistakes could cost you time and effort later, so here are a few tips for the next time you visit your nearest TIMBER MART (and a few things to avoid, too).

Do: Buy thicker lumber than you need

Whether you’re simply sanding down your board or planing it down, expect to lose a little off the top. The most common advice is to buy boards at least 1/4″ thicker than you need, that way anything lost to the planning process, or to your jointer, won’t throw your entire project’s measurements off.

Don’t: Buy “just” enough

Even if you’re Ron Swanson, there’s always a chance you might make a mistake. It happens to the best of us. But while we’re not advocating doubling down on resources, make sure you have a few spare boards, just on the off chance something goes wrong. Maybe it’s a man-made mistake, maybe your tool slips, or maybe you miscalculated when making your list. Buy a few extra boards, and those otherwise tiny mistakes won’t cost you valuable time (or give you dangerous added stress).

Do: Buy longer boards than you need

You’ve just unloaded your last load of lumber when you notice something—a little crack, known as “checking,” at the end of what you thought was your perfect board. If you over measured or over milled at the lumber yard, you might have to scrap it, and that’s why you should always buy boards that are a little longer than you need.

Don’t: Immediately throw away your scraps

So you’ve bought your wood a little thick, and a little long, and now you’ve got a healthy scrap pile building. Your first instinct might be to chuck it in the nearest dumpster, if only to clear out valuable workshop space, but there’s a better way! The internet is chock-full of creative scrap wood projects, and if you can’t muster the time to work on them, somebody else might. You can throw your scraps on Kijiji or Craigslist, offer them up to a friend, or even take them back to the yard, but don’t just toss them.

Do: Be picky

Finding perfect lumber isn’t always easy. Sometimes you’re going to have to accommodate slightly warped wood, or the odd knot, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still be picky. Take the time to really look at the wood you’re thinking of buying—even if it isn’t perfect, make sure it’s something you can work with. Check all sides to make sure it’s dry. It’s not just lumber; it’s an investment, so be smart about it.

Don’t: Neglect colour, shade, or tone    

Consistency is key. If you’re grabbing your lumber by the batch, be sure to give it a once-over for more than just straightness, curve, and knots. Even if you’re going to be sanding, refinishing, or staining your lumber, major variations in your boards can throw things off just enough to bug you later. Your friends and family might not notice, but you will. A quick tip is to bring along a little water spritzer and give your wood a test spray before you buy. That way you can spoil any potentially bad surprises in the grain.

Do: Have a plan

As much as we love browsing the lumber yard, we would much rather spend that time in the shop cutting, sanding, and working away. So whenever possible, try not to go into your yard blind. Make a list. Bring sketches. Always carry a tape measure. You want to save yourself extra tips and, most importantly, stop avoidable workday headaches from creeping in. Spend a little extra time writing down everything you need and you’ll save yourself hours when you’re shopping.

Don’t: Settle for the end of the pile

There are diamonds in the rough to be found if you pick through the lumber yard hard enough, but that doesn’t mean you should ever settle for the end of the pile. If you’re a few boards short and only left with scraps, don’t buy them and hope to figure it out later. Instead, plan your build around the possibility that you might need to do it in steps, and if the lumber yard’s a little short on what you need, talk to someone. Get answers. Maybe they’re getting more in tomorrow. Maybe it will be a few weeks. Whatever the case, it’s worth the wait.

Do: Ask questions

So you’ve made your list, packed your measuring tape and headed to the store. But now it’s twenty minutes later, you’re lost, you can’t find the lumber you’re looking for, and frustration is setting in. We know it’s not your first instinct, but there’s an easy solution here: ask for help. Even if you just need reassurance about what’s on your shopping list, TIMBER MART experts actually want to help. Don’t be afraid to bring them into your next big project.

Don’t: Treated lumber needs to dry before you paint, but not before you build

Some projects call for pressure-treated wood, and there’s no shame in not doing that step yourself. But there are still a few things you need to consider when buying store-treated wood. Namely, it needs to dry out a little before you can finish it with paint or stain. That being said, pressure-treated wood can take a while to dry out completely, and you don’t need to wait for that before you start building (in fact, some experts will tell you that you shouldn’t wait). Give the wood some time to adjust to your workshop’s temperature and humidity levels, but if you let it sit too long, pressure-treated wood can actually warp.