Plane & Simple...
Friday, September 11th, 2009
Buying hardwood lumber can be
a confusing and often expensive task. Unlike
softwood lumber, which comes in standard sizes and
lengths (2x4, 2 x 6, 4 x 6, etc.) hardwood lumber
does not necessarily adhere to the same standards.
The sizes, appearance and cost can vary
As the name implies, this is
wood taken right off the saw mill, dried in a kiln
and sold with no surfacing or jointing. The reason
for this is simple. Instead of cutting hardwoods
lengths and widths, it is rough-sawn to maximize the
yield. There are some standard thicknesses like 4/4
(1"), 6/4 (1˝") and 8/4 (2"), but the widths and
lengths will vary. This is the least expensive way
to buy hardwood; that's the upside. The downside is
the wood has to be machined (planed and jointed)
before you can work with it. But there is a benefit
— you control the final result. So if there’s any
naturally occurring movement in your lumber, you
have the extra thickness and width to “true it up.”
Today's lumber mills use
modern high speed band saws with thin kerf blades to
minimize waste and maximize yield. Even with these
improved cutting techniques the freshly cut
will have a "washboard" type surface texture.
Skip-Planing is also referred to as "hit-and-miss"
since it has planed areas (the hits) mixed in with
the rough areas (the misses). Since the planed areas
allow you to see the grain and color, you get a
better idea of what you’re buying for only a little
extra cost. I rarely see this type of lumber but it
is out there. Most modern lumbers yards
produce, as a minimum, S2S (see below) but I would
imagine the smaller mills opt for this as a means of
saving on production costs.
Boards that are surfaced on
both sides are referred to as S2S lumber, or
Surfaced 2 Sides. This lumber is fairly
typical of most hardwood or exotic lumber that you
for sale at your local woodworking store. What
started out as 4/4 rough lumber ends up as a board
that’s anywhere from 13/16" to 3/4" thick. Here
again, surfacing both faces adds to the cost.
However, while S2S lumber looks nice and can save
some time and effort, it doesn’t leave you much to
work with if a board happens to cup or twist after
you get it to your shop. Your beautiful 3/4" board
could easily end up being a beautiful 1/2" board
after you correct for inherent movement.
Ripping a straight edge along
one edge of a board that’s been planed on both
surfaces results in S3S lumber, or Surfaced 3 Sides.
By now you’ve probably figured out that
number refers to how many of the surfaces are
smoothed or straight. While this doesn’t add a lot
of cost it does give you a good reference edge for
making any additional rip cuts. While I do not have
cost data, I would imagine there is a negligible
difference in cost between the S3S and S4S mentioned
below. So if I am out shopping and in the market for
S3S, I'll spend the extra couple dollars and
purchase the premium S4S.
The final step is to clean up
the last rough edge and turn S3S lumber into S4S;
lumber that’s been surfaced on both faces and ripped
straight along both edges. This is the
lumber that you might see at your local retail home
centers and specialty stores as well as lumber
distributors. The selection is usually top quality
with clean crosscuts on both ends to ensure a
uniform length. This wood is essentially ready for
edge gluing or machining pieces to finish
As you can see, the way you
buy hardwood lumber (and how much you pay) is really
up to you. Nevertheless, there are several factors
to take into consideration prior to opening your
Do you own (or have access
to) the tools necessary to machine the lumber?
Smaller home shops may not have a thickness
planer so buying rough sawn lumber is
immediately out of the question. Further, a
small bench top planer is great for low volume
projects but isn't optimized for heavy duty
How much lumber do you
need? Is it worth the time and effort to setup
your tools to true one or two boards or just pay
the extra few dollars for S3S or S4S?
Conversely, if you are looking to buy hundreds
of board feet of lumber then you will definitely
realize a cost savings by purchasing rough sawn
stock and machining it yourself.
How much time do you have
available? Machining hundreds of board feet of
rough sawn lumber is time consuming and
strenuous. Hardwoods, even when dry, are
typically heavier than softwoods and working
with 6/4 or 8/4 stock further contributes to
sore muscles at the end of the weekend.
much are you willing to spend? If you have to
tools to properly and safely machine the boards,
and time is a luxury, then your best bet is to
purchase rough sawn lumber as it is the
cheapest. Remember, each time a board is
subjected to a machining process cost is added
to the final product.
If you have any
questions or comments about this blog entry please
do not hesitate to
send me an e-mail. Thanks and be
safe when working with tools!!!
Robert Burgoyne, also known as "Burgie",
has been doing woodworking for nearly 30
years. He started learning at an early
age in his grandfather's garage and
continued while working with his father
in construction. The hobby has now
become a business with Creative
Landscape Accents. Burgie builds
high quality woodworking projects for
the outdoors and also enjoys making
decorative accent pieces for inside the
house. While not working in his shop
doing woodworking Burgie enjoys
computers, restoring his old
Chevy C60 2-ton dump truck and
riding his Harley-Davidson Road King
throughout beautiful Colorado.