Reduce your lumber bill by knowing the grade. No PhD required.

Given the choice between a hardwood retailer's top-quality lumber, its second-best, or its lowest quality, you'll ask for the best every time, right? Not so fast. Great lumber lurks in those lower-grade bins. And with its lower price, lesser lumber might be the best buy in the store.

A Grading Primer

Still the standard in the U.S. and Canadian hardwood industry, the National Hardwood Lumber Association's (NHLA) grading rules, established more than 100 years ago, provide a common language in the buying and selling of North American hardwoods. Each grade established by these rules reflects a board's minimum clear, defect-free yield. The higher the yield, the better the grade.

The NHLA rules consider defects such as knots, splits, bark pockets, decay, bug or bird damage, and wane (where a board's edge intersects with bark). But, for the purposes of grading, it doesn't consider color characteristics, such as sapwood, mineral streaks, and gum streaks, to be defects. (Though wholesalers and retailers will sometimes add a percentage indicator to describe sapwood-prone species such as cherry and walnut.) Because the rules consider yield rather than aesthetics, a board cut from a lower grade, though often smaller, may look every bit as good as a board from the top grades. A little time sorting through the stacks can save you a great deal of money.

Keep in mind that more and more retailers and wholesalers use proprietary grades in an effort to better target their particular customers. If you don't recognize your retailer's grading system, ask how it compares to these official NHLA grades:

Firsts and Seconds (FAS):At the top of the grading charts, FAS boards provide long, clear cuttings suitable for tabletops and moldings. An FAS board must measure at least 6"×8', yielding minimum cuttings of 4"×5' or 3"×7'. Graded from the poorest face, an FAS board must produce 83 13 percent defect-free cuttings.

FAS One Face (FAS1F or F1F) and Selects:FAS1F-grade boards must meet FAS standards except that an FAS1F board is graded from the best face, while the other side may be graded as low as Number 1 Common. (See below) This ensures that at least one face contains long, clear cuttings suitable for trim, cabinet doors, and face frames. In fact, there are few situations where FAS1F isn't just as acceptable as FAS.

Requiring at least 83 1⁄3 percent large and clear cuttings to make the grade, this defect-free board rests solidly in the Firsts and Seconds (FAS) classification.

A variation of FAS1F, the Selects grade reduces the minimum acceptable board size to 4"×6'. Hardwood dealers often lump the three top grades into one category called Selects and Better (SAB).

No. 1 Common: Like FAS, No. 1 Common boards are graded from the poorer side of the board. But the grade reduces the minimum board size to 3"×4' with minimum clear cuttings of 4"×2' or 3"×3', with clear-face yields of 66 23 percent, sizes suitable for a wide range of woodworking projects. It pays (literally) to remember that a board at the top of the No. 1 Common grade can be nearly indistinguishable from an FAS board in all but price.

A knot and nearly invisible bark pockets rated this beautiful board as a No. 1 Common grade, cutting its cost by one-third.

No. 2A Common:Often labeled No. 2 Common, this grade retains No. 1 Common's minimum board size but reduces the minimum cutting size to 3"×2' and the clear-face yield to 50 percent. No. 2 Common boards are often used in the hardwood flooring industry, but selective cutting yields beautiful rock-bottom-price boards for medium- and small-size projects.

Knots, bark pockets, and wane mark this board as No. 2 Common. Selective cutting yields nice wood at half the price of FAS.