Understanding all the different grades of wood is frustrating. Even when you know what they are trying to keep everything lined up can be tough as well.
In this episode I walk through a bunch of grades that people will hit most often to at least start defuddling your brain when trying to figure it out.
I hit softwood, hardwood, and plywood. While this isn’t comprehensive if you have wanted an intro to learn more than the basics you gather from the big box stores this is a great place to start.
Hello, and welcome to the 25th episode of the Buddy Podcast. I’m your host, Buddy Lindsey. Today, we’re going to talk about different types of wood and grading wood. We’re going to get into the basics that you’ll need to know for most of the applications that you’re going to be involved with. Not necessarily super in-detailed on grading, but enough so that you understand what’s going on when you hear about different types of graded wood. But before that, if you haven’t visited the website recently, please do so buddiy.net. Sign up for the email newsletter and you can find out more about stuff that goes on. If you’re on YouTube, feel free to hit subscribe and hit that notification bell so you can know more information. If you like podcasting applications, we are available on all major platforms. Gives us a search there at budDIY, and we should be there.
On that note, let’s jump into the first segment and that’s what’s going on around here. If you’re watching on YouTube, you probably notice that my background’s a little bit different. I’m out on vacation currently in Branson, Missouri, and having a great time with family and doing other things of that nature, and just relaxing and decompressing. With that in mind, from a project perspective, I haven’t really gotten anything done this week. However, I have started a book and that’s on Pleasant Hill Shaker furniture and researching Shaker furniture in general. I actually found out about a couple more books, aside of that one, that I’d like to order to get a little further details on doing Shake- style furniture. It’s been a really interesting read and I’ve really enjoyed it. Other than that, it’s just been spending a lot of time with family, reading a few fine woodworking magazines and just relaxing.
So with that out of the way, let’s jump into the main segments and that would be on different types of wood and their grading. Hopefully this will actually be a little bit of a short episode, since I’m on vacation. So I’m just going to run through everything as quickly as possible and share you the highlights of things that you need to know for day-to-day use and buying and finding wood.
So on that, let’s jump into the main two types of wood. That would be hardwood and softwood. I’m going to start with softwoods because that’s what a lot of people buy for doing projects around the house and things of that nature. And it’s the first introduction into wood. Softwoods are from evergreen conifer trees and they’re called softwood because they’re easy to dent. You could probably take your fingernail and go across it and leave a dent in the wood.
It’s super-soft woodcutting and stays moist longer and is generally cheaper and easier to get. Some of the common softwoods are Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, white fir, and western redcedar. These are really common that you would buy and find at Big Box stores when you need to get dimensional lumber. The opposite of the conifer evergreen trees is deciduous trees, and these are actual hardwoods. It’s the antonym, from a horticultural perspective. They are walnut mahogany, but being your more exotic woods are generally your hardwoods. And one of the ways you can know the difference between a hardwood and a softwood is if it’s an evergreen tree, then it’s probably going to be a softwood. And if it’s a tree that loses its leaves, loses its petals, loses its fruit or something along that nature every year, then it’s probably going to be a hardwood. Those are two ways to separate out classifications.
Now on the hardwood side, there are different measures of hardness, and that could be an entire episode in itself. But for the most part, those are the two separations. And we’re not really going to go into any more detail of the differences between the two. So let’s jump into grading softwood. The grading is generally based on its strength, stiffness and appearance. A high grade of lumber might not have any knots or other blemishes, whereas a lower grade might have actual knot holes and other types of blemishes, making it not appear very well. There are generally three classifications when it comes to types of lumber. There’s yard lumber, structural lumber, and shop lumber. I’m going to ignore the first and last, and go with structural because that’s what most people are going to deal with when they go by wood. Especially if you go to a Big Box store. So let’s go through the grading of those different things and discuss what the different gradings things you might see so that you can understand what you’re buying and the purpose behind what you’re buying.
We’re going to have seven classifications in structural wood. The first one is light framing, and light framing is generally used for wall framing, plates and sills and things of that nature, where you don’t necessarily need a lot of structural strength, in a sense. It’s just there to allow you to attach other things to it. The second classification is structural light framing, and this is where you would actually do more of your structural things, like having a load-bearing wall, actually needing to hold different things up in different places. And this is a structural grade. Structural lumber is where you actually have a measurement of how much strength that it needs for doing different types of building.
And if you’re building from a very specific set of plans, it’ll tell you which kind of structural material you need, and what grade of that you need. And to get an idea of the different grades of structural light framing lumber, you have Select Structural number one, number two, and number three. There are basically four types of structural light framing lumber. The first one being the best-looking and highest tensile strength, the best to use. And then you go down from there to either being looking worse and having more knots and it being less strong as the upper ones. And depending on the application you need depends on which type of grading that you would do for each one of those. Again, for most projects, it almost doesn’t matter unless you are going to build something, you’re building a house of some sort or a May house.
And even then, for most of the stuff for DIY, it’s not going to matter too much. If you’re going to build something really big, it’s a good idea to dig into this a little bit more to understand some of what’s going on. Again, this guide is so that you go and you read what something is. You have a general understanding of what in the world this little structural lumber and dah-dah-dah-dah grade does. It gives you a baseline of understanding, so you’re just not like, “I have no idea if this is good and what any of this stuff means.”
The next type of structural lumber are studs, and these are rated as studs. And they can be anywhere from 2×2 pieces of wood, generally eight feet long or seven feet and something long. For common sizes for framing out houses, 2x2s to 4x18s. Let me tell you, the idea of having a 4×18 stud is like, whoa, that would be a really big stud. And I was just imagining building a house with that. And that is another grade similar to light frame and structural framing. You have studs.
The next one we’re going to move into is structural joists and planks. These are generally larger pieces of wood, and these are generally where high strength values are needed, such as rafters, floor joists, headers, small beams, and general framing. So if there’s going to be a lot of weight and there’s going to be a lot of pressure and there’s going to be a lot of tension, it’s generally probably a good idea to use this.
The next thing are timbers and these are broken out into in a sense, four different sections. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail because if you need to jump into doing timbers, you need to make sure you know what you’re doing, and you need a lot more information than this podcast is going to provide. But generally, in timbers, you have what’s known as posts and timbers and stringers and beams. Those are really all based on the size of the wood and between thickness and width. So again, if you’re going to get into doing timber stuff and timber framing, go research that out a lot more than what I’m going through today, but know those are some of the things that are available when researching out timbers and getting timber type wood for your projects.
The final part on the structural category of softwoods is appearance framing, and appearance framing is a little bit frustrating on the grading because they have sub-sections for the main two sections. The main two sections are finish and select. Under finish, you have Supreme, Choice, and Quality, and those are in descending order. Supreme is the best, then Choice, then Quality, and those are all really good, and they’re all better than select. And under Select, you have A Select, B Select, C Select, and D Select.
Starting with A, there is no visual problems with the wood at all. There’s no knots, there’s no blemishes, there’s no nothing. Generally more expensive, but looks great. If you just slap a finish on it, you’re good to go. And just run away with it. You don’t need to worry about painting or doing any filling or any other type of patching of any sort. And then it goes down from there. B has some very minor defects, just one or two or three, kind of thing, just very few. And then you get down to D and there might be several pinholes on there, but again, the appearance framing is actually all pretty good, when it comes to an appearance of what it looks like, so that you can do door trims, so that you could do furniture projects and things like that. It’s definitely more on the visual aspect than anything else. So that’s where the appearance framing comes in and the different grades of that.
So if you went with an A, and the appearance framing, then it’s going to all look premium and it’s going to all look great. If you can get a hold of supreme or choice, it’s going to look even better and you’re going to have a better time with it. So those are really the basics I recommend on the grades of wood. And really, just from a perspective of going to Home Depot, and Lowe’s, and Menards, you’re going to find the mid-level grades there and lower, because they’re generally cheaper, more readily available, and most of the time is what most DIY projects… If you want to get the higher-grade stuff, the higher-quality stuff, you’re going to have to go find a lumber store.
I’ll admit I put this off for a really long time until a friend was like, “Hey, I’m going to run down to this place.” And I was like, “Hey, can I go with you?” And so we went, and it was an amazing experience, and we found a local wood dealer and they had some really great products. I’m going to actually see about starting to buy more of my wood there, especially for plywood, whenever I go to do bigger projects, and I’ll get into more of that. I want to hit the plywood section of this podcast.
So in the softwood realm, let’s get into drying and some of the things around drying. When you look at a different mark, they stamp each board with a bunch of different information, and when you get to the drying part of it, you might see SGRN, and that is for it being surfaced down to the dimensions that it needs to while it was green. Thing you need to understand about that is it was green when it happened, so the moisture still has to leave, and so it’s potentially going to change shape while it’s that. So if you don’t mind board potentially warping and cupping and twisting and all of that, and you just need it, and you’re going to do something immediately or you’re willing to wait, that’s what S green means, is that it was green when it was surfaced. And so it might do funny things for you.
The next one is S-DRY. This means it was surfaced while it was dry and dried down to about 15% moisture or less. And so this is actually going to be fairly shelf-stable, in a sense. It’s going to be structurally done, drying out. You still probably want to let it acclimate to an area that you’re in, your shop or wherever you’re going to do the work at. But for the most part, it’s going to be structurally sound.
Next is MC15 or KD15. This means it was processed while at 15% moisture and is, again, going to be very structurally sound. KD stands for kiln dried. That means they threw it in a giant kiln, and they helped along the drying process. There’s also KD-HT, which means it was kiln-dried and heat-treated. This means they put it into a kiln to help dry it out and they rose the temperature up to about, I think, 50 degrees Celsius. And that heat raise actually kills a lot of bacteria and bugs that are inside of the wood. It makes it a lot more sound and you also don’t have a bunch of stuff that’s in there. If you ship boards internationally, it needs to be kiln-dried and heated.
So now let’s jump to hardwoods. Hardwoods are a lot simpler than softwoods because, generalizing here, but people are going to know what they’re doing a little more with hardwoods, and they have a little different application than they do with softwoods. Softwoods are generally built to build big projects, to build houses, stuff around the house. Things like that. Bigger projects, where they need a lot of wood, and if it changes shape to some degree, it doesn’t really matter. It’s not meant to be, in a sense, permanent, other than if it’s protected, it could last a lifetime. Whereas hardwoods, in my opinion, people are generally going to do better projects, more precise projects, and they need a lot more precise of a wood that’s going to do more specific things that they expect. You never know what a piece of wood is actually going to do, but hardwoods are generally easier to classify and figure out what’s going on.
The first thing to understand about hardwoods, when you go to buy it, is you buy it all by the board foot. And a board foot is measured one inch thick by 12 inches wide by 12 inches deep. That is one board foot. If you were to buy a board that was six inches wide, one inch thick, and two feet deep, or two feet long, then that would still be one board foot. And you can change that dimension. You could do two inches thick, six inches wide, and six inches deep. Think that works out, still. And that would be still one board foot.
And so that’s how you purchase a board foot. So I went and I bought… This is what they told me. I went ahead and bought a eight inch wide board by one inch thick by 11 feet long. And they said it was a board foot. And so I paid for what a board foot would be, but I got an 11 foot long board. And so it’s based on thickness, width and depth to figure out what you need to do. From there, you have to figure out the thickness that you actually want to buy. In general, when you’re working with hardwoods, you would have rough-sawn, which means they just roughly cut it, the dimensions that they need, and they haven’t surfaced any of the sides, and you’re going to be required to do that yourself. There’s, I think, S1, S2, S3, S4. That means they’ve surfaced one of the sides for S1. S2, they’ve surface two of the sides. S3 and S4, for all four sides. That means it’s flat and perfectly dimensioned for you, ready to get going. The more sides they surface, the more expensive the wood.
And, finally, we have to deal with thickness. And this one was like, once I flipped that little switch in my brain to understand it, it made a little more sense of what I was hearing. Here you have your half-inch wood, you have five-eighths inch thick, and then you have three-quarter inch thick, and then you have four-quarter inch thick. Not one inch thick, but four-quarter inch thick, or four quarters. And then you have five-quarter and six-quarter and seven-quarter and eight-quarter, which would be two inches thick. And it goes all the way up to 16-quarter, which would be four inches thick. So when you go in, you would say, “Hey, I want a piece of eight-quarter walnut, that is,” whatever you need, and they’re going to get it. They’re going to get that for you. They know that you want, basically, a two-inch thick piece of walnut.
Now, just like with softwoods, like with studs, if you’ve experienced buying that, and you buy a 2×4, you’re actually buying one and a half by three and a half inches thick. Hardwoods have a little bit of a similarity, whereas if you buy a four-quarter board, it’s generally going to be 13 sixteenths-inch thick. So it’s not going to be quite a one-inch thick board in that case ,so you need to account for that. Also, when you buy hardwoods, you need to realize you’re probably going to lose more than you think whenever you’re surfacing things down. So account for that in your project. Don’t go buy and say, “Hey, I need a one-inch board, so I’m going to go buy a one-inch board.” You probably need to buy a four-quarter board because you have a three-quarter inch project. So that’s just something to be aware of if you’re buying hardwoods.
From there, we have some grades that go along with that. Generally, you have first and seconds, FAS. This is the best quality of the wood. And that generally means there’s not going to be any blemishes or problems with about 83% of the board. If it’s a eight to 16-foot long board, most of it’s going to be usable. You just need to maybe trim off a little bit here and there to get exactly what you need, but they’re going to be able to do long pieces fairly well. From there, they have Select number 1, Select number 2 and Select number 3. And from there, it just is size dependent.
Select number 1 is you’re going to have, let’s say, three inches wide by about four feet long. 66% of that is going to be clear of blemishes, and it goes down from that. Select number 2 is three inch by four feet. It’s going to have 50% clear of blemishes and Select number 4, be 33% clear. So it all really depends on what you want. If you just want walnut something and you don’t really care what that looks like, you just want to make it out pf walnut, maybe go buy that Select 4 and build it. Because if you get rough-sawn Select 4, it could be pretty cheap. I actually need to research into finding some of that because I’d like to do a couple of fun little projects, and the only thing I really care about for the most part on those is maybe that it’s walnut.
So that’s something to look out for. So that’s really all there is that you need to know about hardwoods for most of your purchasing decisions and understanding what you are getting into. The final thing I want to discuss is plywood. Plywood can be complicated, but it generally doesn’t have to be. Just as a review, plywood is sheets of plywood. Let’s go buy a 4×8 sheet of plywood. And they, basically, taking a 4×8, apply a single thickness, and they’ve gone 4×8 one way, then they’ll rotate 90 degrees and do another sheet, rotate 90 degrees and do another sheet. And they’ll do four or five or however many to get thick that they need and so that it has a crisscross thing going on with the wood, so that it adds rigidity and structure to it.
Now, something that you need to realize is plywood is not necessarily stronger than hardwoods. If you’ve got a piece of hardwood that was 4×8 and the exact same thickness as a piece of plywood, I guarantee the hardwood be a lot stronger, but it would also be a whole heck of a lot more expensive and a lot harder to obtain. So that’s one reason we do specific things with plywoods, to get a specific look for cheaper cost. That’s why there is generally a thin veneer on the front and back of a piece of plywood to give it a nice look. An example is, I want you to go buy some walnut. They had some half-inch MDF board that had a walnut veneer on it, and it was a 4×8 sheet of walnut. Looked amazing and would have been amazing in any project I used it on.
But it was $90 for that 4×8 sheet of veneer MDF plywood. And that just goes to show. This thin veneer is only $90. Now, imagine if that was a half-inch thick of walnut, how much that could… I mean, that could have been thousands upon thousands of dollars. So on that note, let’s jump to the grading of plywood, and it’s actually pretty simple. You have A through D. You have A, which is a nice clean surface. It’s paintable. You could even finish it off and it’s going to look really nice. And then you have B through C and D and it just falls through there. D is like, there’s going to be a lot of knots. There might even be holes in it. There might be other problems with it, but it’s a sheet of plywood and that’s what you need, kind of thing.
So it really just depends. When you go to buy a sheet of plywood, you might see something that’s called AC for the structure. That means the face, the side that you expect to put out for somebody to see, is going to have an A classification, and the back is going to have a C classification. In other cases, I have seen a 1, 2, 3, and then ABCD. And I’ve had a hard time finding out information that is clearly delineated between ABCD and 1, 2, 3 ABCD. But generally the 1, 2, 3 is even higher quality than the ABCD and you would basically do on the front side, A 1 through 3, and the back side would be A through D. And from what somebody was telling me, that’s generally more if you go to a professional lumber shop that sells to professional wood builders. Most of what you’re going to see at, like, Big Box stores is the ABCD rating.
And generally you’re not going to buy A, from what I have read, unless you pay an extra price. I’ve not spent a lot of time buying plywood, per se, recently, and so I haven’t really gotten a full in-depth understanding of the ratings of plywood. But those are the things that I’ve researched and are giving me a trajectory and understanding when buying plywood. That said, generally, I’ve been buying maple 4×8 sheets of plywood because they look nice and I get them from Lowe’s and they’re about $55 for a sheet. And they look good, but there are problems. Well, recently when I went to the lumber store with a friend, he got some Baltic birch that was plywood, 4×8 sheet for the same price. Actually had six or seven plies in it and just looked nine times better. I mean, it just was amazingly better than the stuff that I got at Lowe’s.
So when I go do projects from now on, and I need plywood, I’m going to go get the Baltic birch from that place, because it’s going to cost me the same amount of money, but it’s going to be a higher-quality plywood and a higher-quality product, I think, in the end. So keep that in mind, definitely check out some lumber stores, lumber shops, and see what they have available so that you can maybe get a better deal and a higher quality wood. Because one thing I’ve noticed is you could build good projects with lower quality wood, but once you start to know what you’re doing, you can build better projects, better-quality and better-looking projects, with the same effort, if you just spend a little more money on wood.
So on that note, I think we are done with today’s episode. I’m not going to do a failure-of-the-week because this episode has gone on a little longer than I expected. So I guess that’s a failure, is I rambled too much. So I need to try to figure that out. On that note, I thank you for your time. I thank you for giving a listen. Definitely check out different ways of buying wood and understanding what’s available out there. Take a look at that stamp and see if you can figure out what some of the stuff means and try to get a better quality wood that you need to buy. On that note, I will see you next time and have a great day.