How to Pick Wood at the Lumberyard

I have never regretted being picky about my stock selection at the lumberyard, but I have sometimes regretted not being picky enough.  When faced with stacks and stacks of construction lumber at a big box home center, however, it can be difficult to find stock that is straight enough and clear enough for use in furniture.  Digging through the pile at random is a waste of time.  Instead, there are important clues that will tell you where to dig.

First, look at the end grain on each end of the pile.

Lumberyard Wood Selection - 2

In pine, boards from slow-grown trees have thinner growth rings closer together.  These are desirable because closely-spaced rings make the wood stronger, but also because such wood has likely come from a larger tree with fewer knots.

The boards indicated above might be worth digging for.  You would have to work around the pith in the top one, but the wood is quarter-sawn on each side of the pith, so this wide board might yield two narrower ones.

However, looking at the end grain at one point in a 16′ board won’t tell us much about what’s in the rest of the board. So we proceed to step two.

Second, look at the visible edge grain on the side of the pile.

Lumberyard Wood Selection - 1

This is a stack of 8′ boards.  The two boards pointed out above show some promise.  The grain is regular and relatively straight, and there are no knots visible anywhere along the length of either board.  Time to start digging!

Lumberyard Wood Selection - 5


Yes, indeed, both boards are worth taking home!  The one on the bottom has almost no defects at all, and the one on the top (on its edge next to the pile in the photo above) also has minimal flaws.

Here’s one more example of promising edge-grain:

Lumberyard Wood Selection - 6


Crooked edge grain indicates the presence of knots near the middle of the board, and even if the knots are small, the reversing grain will be difficult to plane.  The boards indicated above, however, are worth looking at.

Lumberyard Wood Selection - 9


They turned out to have lots of usable wood in them.

Lastly, start down at the 16′ 2X12s. 

The widest and longest boards come from the biggest trees and will tend to have fewer defects than the smaller boards.  But don’t overlook the smaller dimensions.  I’ve found 8′ 2X6s that were almost completely free of defects.  As you walk past the piles, glance at the edge grain, and you’ll soon see some wood that catches your eye.  Just steer clear of the 2X4s and 4X4s.  Those tend to have the most defects.

Happy hunting.

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16 Responses to How to Pick Wood at the Lumberyard

  1. Good wood hunting post. I would add a blurb about gauging the weight of the board to get a sense for moisture content. The heavier the board is, it usually means it’s higher in moisture content.

    • True. Sometimes two boards of the same dimensions will differ in weight because one has more heartwood or more closely-spaced growth rings than the other. In that case, the heavier board is often the more desirable. But generally, extra weight indicates extra moisture.

      I have found boards that the lumberyard that had reached equilibrium, but most need to sit a while and dry out. I always try to keep a few boards on hand for rush jobs.

    • Mike S. says:

      I know this is an old comment, but… You can get a rough idea of moisture content by checking how “cold” a board feels. Calibrate your hand by touching plywood and then touch the board you’re interested in. If it feels relatively colder, it may have a lot of moisture. Of course this assumes the wood is stored in a conditioned environment, like a big box store.

  2. Dave says:

    I love tips like these. This will save me time of digging in the racks.

  3. Joel says:

    What did the lumberyard think of you taking pictures of their wood?

  4. Rob says:

    Looking at timber is often confusing and awkward – thanks for the useful advice.

  5. tara nierychlo says:

    You may not want a heavier board. ….as it drys & you drop moisture content you also run the risk of warp.Even tho it’s kiln-dried it will p/u water while hanging around outside at the mill, during shipping & at the store..just sayin’

    • That is true. I should have mentioned that I always sticker, stack, and weight down the lumber when I get it home, which typically keeps it from warping. While construction-grade lumber is typically kiln-dried, it does require further drying if you’re using it for anything else.

  6. Robert says:

    Great info!
    Semper Fi

  7. Paul Reynolds says:

    Need to judge the knots as well, especially on those boards that are going to be relied upon for lateral strength. More than once I’ve been remodeling a home and working in the attic to step on a joist and have it break and end up with a hole in the ceiling, not to mention skinned shins and bruises as I fall through with it.

    • I believe it! In the original post, I was assuming that even beginning woodworkers know that huge/pervasive knots are bad news. For most furniture projects, it’s best to buy stock over-size and cut around any major defects.

  8. DJ says:

    Great info! Thanks

  9. Carol says:

    I know the original article was posted several year ago. I am wondering if the photos
    Are still available to view. I’d like to see what the examples were of the end grains and other tips given in the Article.

  10. Pingback: Build A Simple, Wooden Storage Crate in an Hour | The Literary Workshop Blog

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