What to Avoid When Buying Lumber

Lumber is a basic for numerous do-it-yourself (DIY) projects, and is an essential element in home construction, home maintenance, and yard and furniture projects. However, before purchasing lumber, there are a few things you should look to avoid. After all, buying lumber at the home-improvement store is like buying a good piece of fruit from the produce section at the grocer. You probably have heard many of the tips about what a “good” piece of fruit is, right? You know to avoid the soft, squishy, leaking tomatoes because they are likely rotting. You know to avoid buying “rusty” (brown) heads of lettuce. Bananas that are too green are not really ready to eat (and way too tart); brown ones are too old.

Well, much the same applies to buying a piece of lumber at the home improvement store. You see, some pieces of wood are simply better than others. How can you tell? It can be quite simple, really.

Avoid Wood Stored Outdoors

Though increasing numbers of home-improvement stores are keeping their lumber stock indoors, many lumber yards and big-box stores still keep wood outdoors. Some lumber, such as pressure-treated lumber, is chemically processed to withstand the outdoor elements, but no matter if the wood is designed for outdoor use or not, it is usually better to buy lumber stored indoors if possible because that, in theory at least, reduces the amount of weather-related wear to which the wood has been subjected before you purchase the lumber.

Sun, rain, snow, wind, heat, and cold are all elements which can put stress on wood, and though you may be using the wood outdoors anyhow, it is nice to start with a clean slate, so to speak. After all, if you have an option of buying protected wood versus that which has been stored outdoors, it may be better to go for the lumber that has been nice and snug indoors, away from the damaging outdoor elements. Of course, lumber used for something like fencing may be stored outdoors in even the cushiest of today’s home-improvement stores. Perhaps one positive thing about buying wood from outdoor stock is that if you intend to use the lumber outdoors anyway, the wood will have already been acclimated to the local weather conditions.

Avoid Splits, Chops, and Cracks

When buying lumber, look for stock which is free from any imperfections like splits, cracks, gouges, and other pesky problems. Lumber with these issues not only usually looks bad (or damaged) it may not be as structurally sound as a truly whole piece of lumber. While every now and then there is the person who prefers to buy a piece of wood with such imperfections because it looks “weathered,” “antiqued,” or “has character,” it is wise to avoid lumber with splits, chops, and cracks, especially when buying wood used for structural projects, like housing construction, decks, canopies, certain fences, tables and chairs, and the like.

Stay Away From Warped Wood

Warped lumber is that which is bent, bowed, or otherwise does not have straight dimensions because of changes due to or damage from or reactions to moisture, extreme temperatures, stress, or other negative factors. Checking for warped wood is very simple, especially with dimensional lumber, like 1x2s, 2x4s, 4,x4s and the like. Simply take the plank of wood, place one end on the floor or ground in front of you, and hold the other end up near (but not directly touching, of course), your eye. Squinting one eye, take a look down the plank of lumber. Does it look like it is bowing or bending up, down, left, or right? (That is, assuming pressure or the lumber’s own weight is not bending the wood down to the ground or pushing it in other directions). If it is, then it is warped wood. If the lumber looks fairly straight (no obvious bends, twists, or other such imperfections, then the wood should be fine. Warped lumber, besides causing problems for those wanting a straight piece of wood or needing to work with straight lines, can lessen the wood’s structural integrity and create eyesores. Please be careful for splinters, and do not let the lumber touch any part of your face.

Do You Want Knots, or Do You Not Want Knots?

Knots can be aesthetically pleasing as they can be a nuisance. Knots—those circular, dark spots on some wood—are actually the cross sections of branches or dormant buds. Structurally speaking, cutting through a knot can wreak havoc on some saws, can be hard to nail or screw through, and sometimes crack, split, or become damaged when handled roughly. Sometimes, very large knots can even weaken the strength or structural integrity of wood.

However, knots also can create a lot of character and be visually pleasing in wood applications such as furniture, decorations, wall panels, flooring, ceiling panels, or art projects. Knots are not necessarily bad, but they should be avoided if possible when selecting lumber for structural applications and in places where knots may not be an asset—either visually, structurally, or otherwise.

It can sometimes be very hard to find a piece of lumber without at least a few small knots. A knot here or there should not pose much harm in such cases. If you are buying the lumber for structural purposes, do try and avoid very knotty lumber or that which possesses large knots (like those which encompass the majority of a side-to-side dimension, sometimes the case on smaller dimensional lumber like).

Beware of Insect Damage

If you are buying lumber at a reputable store, you should not have any issue about confronting lumber which bears evidence of insect (i.e. termite) damage. However, you must be mindful that some insects love wood and can destroy it easily. No matter what store you are shopping at, if you see any evidence of burrows or tunnels in the lumber you are purchasing, avoid it all costs.



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