large pile of lumber wood boards

How to Shop for Lumber for Woodworking Projects

Buying wood for that very first woodworking project can be a bit intimidating, especially if you don’t quite know what you’re looking for. But don’t worry! This guide outlines what to look for when shopping for lumber. 

Let’s get started!

This post is part of the Woodworking Basics Series. Find all posts in the series here.

Where to Shop

I buy most of the wood for my projects from chain home improvement stores like Lowe’s or Home Depot because that’s what’s available in my area. These stores have a great selection of pine boards, but very few hardwood and specialty boards. If you’re looking for higher end wood and can’t find it at a chain home improvement store, you may want to look into a local wood shop.

Side note: If you’re a military family, both Lowe’s and Home Depot offer a 10% military discount! Score!

Types of Wood


Hardwoods, like the name suggests, are harder and more durable than softwoods. They are great for flooring or ‘high traffic’ pieces. Hardwoods are generally more expensive. Some examples are: oak, maple, walnut, poplar, cherry & birch.


Softwoods are less expensive than hardwoods, but they also tend to have more flaws. They are more easily scratched and dented than hardwoods and often have more knots. The most common softwood is pine. Other softwoods include cedar, douglas fir and spruce.

For nearly all of my projects I use pine, because it is in expensive and readily available in most common board sizes. It’s easy to work with and has a lot of character with bold, sometimes unpredictable, wood grain.

You can also opt for live edge wood to make more unique pieces of furniture.

Pressure Treated Lumber

Pressure treated lumber is intended for outside use. It has been treated with a chemical to prevent moisture build up and mold, making it suitable for use outside in all weather. You can usually tell that a board is pressure treated because it will be slightly (or a lot) damp and sometimes has a green tint. 

When working with pressure treated lumber, protect yourself from the chemicals by wearing a mask when sanding and never using the wood for burning. Before starting a project with pressure treated wood you may have to let the boards dry out a few days before diving into your project. Using a drill or other tools on damp wood can ‘gum up’ your tools.

How to Read the Label

Piece of lumber, tag to explain how to read a tag when shopping for wood

There will usually be a label like the one above on one end of the board. The labels are either stapled on like the one in my picture or sometimes they are a sticker. If you plan to use the whole board in your project, keep in mind that there will be holes in the end from the staple. Occasionally the staple is in there really deep and you’ll have to dig it out a little bit to remove it. It doesn’t look so pretty.

So this label is telling you that the common name for this board: 1x4x4′. This is read as 1 inch thick by 4 inches wide by 4 feet long.

graphic explaining how to read a lumber tag when shopping for wood boards

Understanding Nominal v. Actual Board Measurements

Common board names are not the actual dimensions of the boards. 

Example: A 2×4 actually measures 1.5″ x 3.5″, not 2″ x 4″. 2×4 is the nominal measurement and 1.5″ x 3.5″ is the actual measurement.

The reason these numbers don’t line up is that the nominal measurement refers to the rough cut wood. The actual measurement reflects the dimensions of the wood after it has been dried and planed smooth to make it ready for use. 

Sometimes the actual dimensions can be found on shelf labels in the lumber section of the home improvement store. Additionally, you can always bring a tape measure along to check the exact measurements yourself.

Common Board Flaws


A lot of knots in a piece of wood is not necessarily a flaw, but it could be an indication of other issues with the board. Many times if a board is crooked, the bend starts at a large knot in the wood. Additionally, the center of a knot can become loose from the vibrations of a sander and fall out, leaving a hole in the board. In my experience this usually happens with knots that are very dry and have already begun to crack.

common lumber flaws, example of a board with a large gouge and a knot that is dry and cracking


An obvious flaw you will see while shopping for lumber is gouges in the boards. You will especially see this in cheaper softwoods like pine. 

I also frequently find boards with staples throughout the length of the board. The staples can be easy to miss, so be sure to thoroughly check your boards before checking out.

Cracks or Splits

Avoid purchasing boards with splits the one in the picture. Splitting weakens the board, making your project less stable in the long run.

Check ends of board for cracks and splits in the wood


Cupping is when the face of the board (across the width) is curved. This often happens when there is a knot in the end of the board like the picture below.

The cupping is pretty obvious in the board in the picture, but you can always check by holding one end of the board up and looking down the length of the board. This will give you a clear visual of the end of the board. Be sure to check both ends of the board.

Curving or Bows

Curved or bowed boards can be very difficult or even impossible to work with. Before you leave the store check to make sure your boards are straight. 

First, hold one end of the board up look straight down it. I usually have to close one eye to really tell if it’s straight. Then repeat this for each side of the board. In the picture below the board looks straight in the middle picture, but in the pictures on the sides you can see that it has a curve at the end. It’s important to check every side because you might only be able to see the curve at certain angles.

I hope these tips help you on your first trip to the lumber yard and all the trips after that! Woodworking is an amazing, rewarding hobby and you are going to be so glad you took these first little steps to get started! Be sure to check out more beginner woodworking information in my Woodworking Basics Series.

And get building!

So now you know how to shop for wood, but what about tools? What tools do you need to get started? Isn’t it going to be expensive? Can you stock up your wood shop on budget?

I’ve got you covered! Check out my Essential Woodworking Tools post for a list of the basic tools you need to get started woodworking. I even include some cheap alternatives so you start building right away!