How to Choose Lumber: A Beginner’s Guide

If you’ve never bought lumber before, you may be surprised to learn that it’s a bit more complex than just heading to the store and picking out a piece of wood. There are a lot of options, and it’s difficult to narrow down which one is best for your project. 

Since we know your first trip to the lumber yard has the potential to be confusing and overwhelming, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to help you feel more prepared. From lumber types to grades to sizes, here’s everything you should look for when buying lumber: 

What’s the Difference Between Hardwood and Softwood?

First thing’s first: hardwood and softwood are the two main categories of wood. They’re differentiated using the Janka Hardness Scale, which measures and ranks the relative hardness of various types of wood. Here’s a more detailed breakdown:


Hardwood includes, well, the hardest wood species. Some of these include hickory, maple, oak, mahogany, and walnut. If you’re unsure whether you’re working with hardwood, you can test it by pressing your fingernail into it. If it doesn’t dent easily, it’s likely hardwood. 

Due to its strength, hardwood is best for cabinetry, flooring, and woodworking projects. However, it’s also usually a bit more of an upfront investment. 


Softwood, on the other hand, includes softer wood species like cedar, pine, fir, and spruce. If you press your fingernail into it, it should dent easily. 

Softwood is best for DIY and home construction projects since it is more budget-friendly. Another good thing to note is that softwood absorbs moisture easily, so you should pressure treat it if you’re using it for an outdoor project.

What Are the Different Types of Lumber?

Within the hardwood and softwood categories, there are various types of lumber. Each type works best for different applications. Read on to see which one may be a good choice for your project.

Framing and Structural Lumber

Structural lumber is the most commonly used lumber and looks like the picture that probably comes to your mind when you think “lumber”. It comes in boards of various sizes and is used in DIY and construction projects. 


In appearance, plywood looks like a thin sheet of wood. However, it’s cured under heat and pressure to make it a durable option for shelving and subfloors. It’s available in either hardwood or softwood and can be untreated, stained, or painted. 

Appearance Boards

Appearance boards are typically used to maintain a certain aesthetic within a home. Although they don’t always have practical use, they add a great design flair to interior projects. For this reason, they’re categorized according to looks.  


MDF, or Medium-Density Fiberboard, is unique in the fact that it’s a hardwood-softwood combo. The two categories of wood are bound together with a resin, which makes MDF more sturdy than plywood but less resistant to moisture. It’s a great choice for the parts of cabinets, furniture, and shelving that go unseen.

Decking and Fencing

Decking and fencing lumber includes boards shaped specifically to look like railings, floorboards, posts, and balusters. They’re usually made with a combination of wood and plastic to make them durable amidst harsh weather conditions. 


Pressure-treated lumber contains preservatives to make it last longer. It’s rot-resistant and can be stained and painted easily, so it’s a great choice for outdoor projects.

What Are Lumber Grades?

Another difference between hardwood and softwood is that they’re available in different lumber grades, which relate to both the strength and appearance of the wood. Usually, lumber price is also based on which grade it is. 

Hardwood Lumber Grades

Since hardwood is usually left exposed, appearance is a key factor in determining its grade. The hardwood grades are:

  • First and Second Lumber (FAS) – This is the highest quality, and therefore the most expensive, lumber grade. Boards must be 6’’ x 8’ and 83% defect-free.
  • Select – This grade is similar to FAS, but differs in size. It’s 4’’ x 6’ and 83% defect-free. 
  • No. 1 Common – Nicknamed “cabinet grade”, No. 1 Common is great for kitchen cabinets and small applications. It’s 3’’ x 4’ and 66% defect-free
  • No. 2 Common – This grade is great for paneling and flooring. It’s 3’’ x 4’ and 50% defect-free.

Softwood Lumber Grades

Softwood lumber grades are a little trickier because they fall into two categories: dimensional lumber and appearance.

Dimensional Lumber Grades

  • No. 1 – “Construction grade” may include some tight knots. It’s good for shelving, siding, and paneling.
  • No. 2 – “Standard grade” contains a lot of large knots but can be painted over.
  • No. 3 – “Utility grade” is best for unseen applications because it may contain splits and knotholes and paint can’t be applied easily to it.
  • No. 4 – “Economy grade” has waste wood, splits, knotholes, and other defects. It won’t accept paint.
  • No. 5 – “Economy grade” has the most defects, so it should be used in unseen applications.

Appearance Lumber Grades

  • Grade A – Zero visible defects.
  • Grade B – Few visible defects.
  • Grade C – A few more visible defects.
  • Grade D – Most visible defects but none that affect the quality. 

What Are Common Lumber Defects?

Now, you’re probably wondering what lumber defects are. Don’t worry — they’re not all bad! While you should watch out for some of them, most just add to the natural look of the wood. 

  • Bow – A warp on the face of a board from end to end.
  • Cup – The face of the board is hollow. 
  • Crook – A warp along the edge of the board.
  • Knot – A circular imperfection caused by a broken-off tree branch. It’s nothing to worry about unless it’s loose or dead.
  • Split – A crack all the way through a piece of wood.
  • Twist – Multiple bends or warped spots in a board.
  • Check – A crack along the wood’s annual growth rings. It doesn’t extend through the entire board’s thickness.
  • Shake – A crack that splits the wood along the grain. It can pass through an entire board’s thickness. 
  • Wane – Bark or missing wood on the sides or edges.

How Do I Calculate Lumber Size?

No, you’re not crazy. A 2×4 isn’t actually a 2×4. 

There’s a difference between a board’s nominal size (what it’s called) and its actual size. When lumber is manufactured, it starts off measuring its nominal size when it is fresh. As it’s dried and planed, it’s shrunken to its actual size. 

Therefore, any two-by lumber (like 2x4s, 2x6s, etc.) has an actual size that is a half-inch shorter than its nominal size in each dimension. 

Is It Cheaper to Buy Lumber From a Lumber Yard?

Yes, buying lumber from a lumber yard is usually cheaper than buying from a retailer. Lumber is their specialty, so they know how to purchase it at a good price.

At a lumber yard, you’ll also get the most bang for your buck. The lumber is of higher quality, the selection is larger, and the customer service is more helpful. When you shop at a lumber yard, you can be sure the experts will steer you in the right direction.

New to lumber shopping? Stop by your local Standard Lumber location! Our team of friendly professionals is here to help you make the right selections for your project. As your local lumber resource, we’re happy to answer any questions you might have, too. Give us a call or contact us online today.