Learn to find the good stuff, and then how to make it work hard in your shop.

Home-improvement centers thrive because they sell not only lumber, but also most of the other things you need to complete a project. Getting it all at one place saves you time compared with shopping all over town. Before buying lumber from one of these outlets, though, keep in mind that most of their solid-wood stock is intended for construction and do-it-yourself jobs, not necessarily furniture-grade woodworking. But that shouldn't stop you from buying it for your better projects, as long as you follow these pointers.

Buying the lumber

Hard facts about hardwoods

Like buying cold soft drinks from a vending machine, you pay a premium for that convenience. Home-center boards have been planed and sawn to make all faces and edges smooth (known as S4S). For that reason, their prices typically run about one-and-a-half to two times that of rough-sawn stock from a hardwood retailer, when comparing cost per board foot. (That difference grows even greater compared with buying lumber directly from a sawmill.) But if you lack the machines to mill rough-sawn stock, home-center lumber can often be your only option.

Most home centers stock red oak and poplar in varying sizes. Some also carry maple, cherry, walnut, mahogany (the Asian varieties), hickory, and aspen. These typically come in standard nominal thicknesses and widths, such as 1×4s (actually 34 ×312 "), 1×6s (34 ×512 "), and so on. Lengths vary from 4' up to 16'.

Buying S4S lumber saves you the investment of a jointer and planer, but comes with a caveat: If that wood warps, you have to reduce the thickness, or cut it into shorter or narrower pieces, or both, to remove or minimize the effect of that warp.

So as you're shopping for boards at a home center, rather than simply grabbing the boards in the front or top of a stack, be choosy. Sort through the rack, looking for boards with matching color and grain. Avoid those with damage, deep scratches, dents, and end checking (splits). You might even find a hidden gem, such as the one above. Some species, such as cherry, walnut, and hickory, have sapwood that's lighter than the heartwood. Be prepared to cut away and discard the sapwood if that's not the look you want.

oak wood.jpg
Same price, different qualities. These two shrink-wrapped oak boards were found side by side at Menards. The one on the left has more-stable straight grain; the other, random flatsawn grain.
It pays to pick. We found this maple 1×6 with eye-popping curly figure hiding behind a stack of ordinary maple boards at a Lowe's store.

Softwoods built a nation

When you think of softwood, think construction lumber. Home centers carry pine, fir, spruce, cedar, and pressure-treated pine—products used primarily to build homes and decks. But you can still work with this lumber in your shop—we'll cover that later.

Typical pine. These typical home-center pine boards contain lots of knots, color variations, and grain orientations.
Select pine. Clear-pine boards, such as these, have no knots, and carry a hefty price because of that.
handheld moisture meter ($80–$400) proves a worthy investment for gauging wood moisture levels at the store and at home.

Softwoods are typically sold in 1-by (34 "), 2-by (112 "), and 4-by (312 ") thicknesses. Even though they're usually kiln-dried, don't expect hardwood levels of moisture (6–10 percent). Most softwoods range from 10 to 20 percent moisture when shipped to stores, so be prepared to let them dry more before use. Avoid obviously warped boards at the store; instead, seek stock with stable grain, such as that shown below. Also avoid boards with large or loose knots, unless you want a more rustic look.

Good grain awaits. Most of these 2×12s could prove pesky to work with, but the highlighted ones, with quartersawn grain (minus the pith), would make for stable project lumber.

More so than with hardwood, be prepared to waste more with softwood as you cut around knots and problematic grain. If you have a thickness planer, you'll get better project lumber by buying wide boards, such as 2×12s, with mostly quartersawn grain. (More on that later.)

Panels provide a shortcut

If you're unable to edge-glue panels, or simply dotn't have the time, premade panels can be a great idea. Available in softwoods and hardwoods (most commonly red oak), these panels come in a variety of sizes up to about that of a small dining-table top. Avoid warped panels because removing that warp can prove frustrating. Test a panel for flatness by laying it on the floor—if it rocks at all, don't buy it. Also, keep away from panels with glue-joint gaps (below), uneven surfaces, and putty-filled repairs. Look for consistent color and grain throughout if you intend to finish it naturally or with stain. If you'll paint the panel, you can be more accepting of knots and mismatched grain.

Check for flaws. These edge-glued pine panels are coming apart at the glue joints. Avoid these. But if you must buy them, rip-cut split joints and reglue the boards into panels.

Working the lumber

Buy it, hurry, then wait

After buying your lumber, get it into your shop right away and sticker it (stacking with spacers), as shown below. Let it sit until the wood has acclimated to the humidity level in your shop. For hardwoods, this could be a few days to a week or two. For softwoods, it could be twice as long, depending on the moisture level when you bought it. Treated pine should rest at least a month. If you stage your lumber outdoors, keep it under a roof or cover it with something that will keep rain and snow off, yet still allow fresh air to circulate through and around the sides and ends of the stack.

Give it a rest. Sticker lumber, such as this dimensional pine, and coat the ends with wax sealer or paint to allow for slow, tempered drying.
Premature build. This garden bench was built from pressure-treated pine 4×4s that were not fully dry. As the lumber dried after assembly, the bench twisted.

Start building your project

Once the lumber acclimates to your shop environment, cut project parts to approximate length and width. Then sticker them and let them sit for another day or two. If a board warps or twists, the wood is not stable—toss it and get a new board.

If you've bought 2×12s, rip away the pith and the most severe flatsawn portions and discard them. Allow the remaining pieces to acclimate another day or two. Then plane the lumber to desired thickness.

Cut all parts to final length and width, and then cut or drill the joinery. Glue and assemble project parts right away—letting them sit even overnight could lead to subtle wood movement and misaligned joints. Whether working with lumber or glued-up panels, make sure edges are straight and ends square (unless a project calls for something else).

If your store-bought lumber was clean and scratch-free, and you've maintained it well, you should be able to start sanding with 150 grit and progress through 180 and 220. If your workpieces have noticeable scratches, start with 80 or 100 grit and progress through 120, 150, 180, and 220. Then apply your finish of choice.

Cut for best yield. We divided this 1×12 pine board into waste (identified by Xs) and usable sections. You're likely to lose about a third of a board to waste when working with home-center lumber, particularly softwoods.