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Understanding Hardwoods: 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 considerably.


Rough Sawn


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 into rough sawn imagestandard 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 skip planed imageboard 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 might s2s imagesee 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 s3s imagethe 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 s4s imagepristine 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 dimensions.  



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 checkbook:

  • 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 utilization.

  • 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.

  • How 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!!!




burgie picture

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 1964 Chevy C60 2-ton dump truck and riding his Harley-Davidson Road King throughout beautiful Colorado.



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