If you’re getting started with DIY or have already done a project or two, you might know how intimidating the lumber aisle can feel. We sure do.
When we were getting wood for our very first project, we spent days perfecting the plan and making sure our supplies list was perfect. We knew what wood we wanted and we walked into the store.
And then we realized we actually had no idea what wood we need. Pine? Poplar? Oak? Why are the prices so different?? Does it matter which one we get?? Can you use any of them or will our project fall apart if we use the cheap stuff??
Panic and overwhelm quickly set in.
Now that we have years of projects under our belt, we wanted to create this guide so you didn’t have to go through the same experience. In this Beginner’s Guide to Buying Wood, we’ll cover a lot more than just what types of wood you can buy at Home Depot and Lowe’s.
- Where to buy lumber for DIY projects
- Actual size vs. nominal wood size
- Types of wood that you’ll find at Home Depot or Lowe’s + pros and cons of each
- What type of wood should you buy for your DIY project?
- How to choose the best boards for your project
- How do Home Depot and Lowe’s charge for wood?
- How to get 8’ boards home in a car
- How to store boards at home to minimize warping
Let’s dive in!
Where to buy lumber for DIY projects
There are two main places where you’ll find wood for DIY projects: a home improvement store like Lowe’s/Home Depot or a lumber yard.
A lumber yard will offer more variety in wood species, but they have their own set of rules.
The pricing is more complicated because there are more options. Not only do you have a wide variety of wood types, but you also get to choose pretty much everything from the thickness of the board to the width to the length.
When you shop at Home Depot or Lowe’s for wood, you have to stick to the wood sizes that they offer.
Though a lumber yard has great selection, I’d recommend starting out with wood from Home Depot or Lowe’s.
The process is a lot less intimidating and you can create some really amazing projects using the wood that’s readily available at your local home improvement store.
Personally, we’ve completed all of our projects using lumber from Lowe’s or Home Depot. So don’t let the overwhelm of the lumber yard hold you back. You can make some awesome furniture, decor, and more with home improvement store lumber.
The remainder of this post will be all about shopping for wood at your local Home Depot or Lowe’s, not the lumber yard.
Actual size vs. nominal wood size
When you read through DIY project plans, you’ll likely see a shopping list that includes things like 1×2 boards and 2x4s. You’d think that a 1×2 board measures 1” x 2”, but you’d be wrong.
Don’t worry, we were wrong when we first started out too. In fact, we bought all of our wood assuming the dimensions were what was listed, cut everything down, tried to assemble it, and THEN realized nothing fit together. Luckily, you’re reading this post, so that won’t happen to you!
These nominal measurements weren’t just pulled out of thin air or created because 1×2 is easier to say than ¾ x 1.5.
The name comes from back in the day. They would cut a piece of wood down to exactly 2” x 4” and then it would be dried and planed. By the time that process was finished, the boards would be closer to 1.5 x 3.5”. This naming and sizing became standard practice.
Nowadays, the process of taking wood from a tree to the racks at Home Depot has gotten more sophisticated, so there’s not as big of a difference between the size it’s originally cut down to and the size that it ends up being after being dried and surfaced.
So even though a2x4 may never have been cut to be a full 2” by 4” wide, the final dimensions still match what became standard back in the day.
Below is a chart with the nominal sizing of the common board boards compared to their actual size.
|NOMINAL SIZE||ACTUAL SIZE|
|1 x 2||.75″ x 1.5″|
|1 x 4||.75″ x 3.5″|
|1 x 6||.75″ x 5.5″|
|1 x 8||.75″ x 7.25″|
|2 x 2||1.5″ x 1.5″|
|2 x 4||1.5″ x 3.5″|
|2 x 6||1.5″ x 5.5″|
|2 x 8||1.5″ x 7.25″|
|4 x 4||3.5″ x 3.5″|
If you don’t want to refer to a chart every time you buy wood, here’s the general rule that you can follow:
- 1x boards = ¾” thick
- 2-6” boards → subtract ½”
- 8+” boards → subtract ¾”
Note: these “rules” only apply to the wich and thickness of boards. They don’t apply to the length. That should be close to being spot on.
Double note: just because a 1×2 board is supposed to be ¾ x 1.5” wide, doesn’t mean it always will be. The thickness and width of your boards still might vary ever so slightly.
That’s why it’s always good to measure multiple times throughout a project and make your cuts as you go along rather than all upfront.
Types of wood that you’ll find at Home Depot or Lowe’s
Dimensional vs. appearance lumber
At your local store, you’ll find two main sections of wood: dimensional lumber and appearance lumber.
Dimensional lumber is generally used for framing something that won’t be seen, like a wall or the base of furniture. That being said, it’s also a very common building material for rustic/farmhouse style DIY furniture as well. We built these chairs using dimensional lumber!
Appearance lumber is what we use on the vast majority of our projects. As the name suggests, it is chosen primarily based on how it looks.
Dimensional lumber is going to include nearly all 2+” thick lumber (2×4, 2×6, 2×8, 4x4s, 6×6, etc)
Appearance boards include wood that is 1″ thick or less. The main exception is 2x2s. You’ll find 2x2s in the appearance boards section along with 1x2s, 1x3s, 1x4s, etc.
Dimensional lumber is going to be made out of spruce, pine, or fir, while appearance boards will come in a variety of wood types. We’ll focus on appearance lumber for the majority of this post.
Softwood vs. hardwood
Wood species are categorized into two main types: hardwood and softwood.
Hardwoods are denser and grow slower in nature. Since they are slow-growing, they generally have a strong wood grain that adds a lot of interest to the wood. Oak is a popular hardwood known for its beautiful grain.
On the other hand, softwoods have a much straighter grain and pine is a prime example. Softwoods are generally less expensive than hardwoods, but they are more prone to scratches and dents.
In fact, within an hour of having our new pine dining room table, I dragged a stack of picture frames across the table and put a nice deep scratch into it. That was the moment I realized that softwoods really were soft! Don’t let that scare you away from using them, but let it be a lesson that you might get some dents and scratches over time.
What is the cheapest wood?
Furring strips are going to be the cheapest wood that you can find at most home improvement stores. The price might intrigue you, but when you go to pick out your boards, you’ll quickly understand why they are so inexpensive.
Furring strips can look rough. They are often very bowed and warped and the edges are rough. They also have rounded edges vs. the straight corners that you will find on most appearance lumber.
We’ve only really used furring strips on one project and it was because we were cutting the wood down to small pieces and cared mostly about the end grain rather than how the sides looked.
Though furring strips aren’t the prettiest choice for most DIY furniture or decor, they do have a purpose. They are primarily used when installing siding, drywall, and metal roofing.
Furring strips are generally made from spruce, pine, or fir.
The cheapest wood that I would recommend using on most projects is common board. Like furring strips, common board is made from spruce, pine, or fir. Because it’s not always made out of pine, some stores will refer to it as whitewood or SPF (which stands for spruce, pine, fir).
Common boards tend to have a lot of knots and are great for a rustic or farmhouse look. They are a softwood, making them easy to cut and drill into. Between the lower price tag and the cutting, they are a great wood for beginner DIYers to work with.
DIY projects using common board
We’ve made all sorts of projects from common board. It was definitely our go-to when getting started with DIY.
- A canopy bed
- A platform bed
- A super cool accent wall
- Hexagon plant shelves
- A round high-top table
- A wood planter
- A bath tray
- Lots of different wood art projects
It’s also the wood we use on all of our projects in I Made That™!
Out of all of the wood types we’ll discuss, common boards vary the most in terms of quality.
You can find some really great common boards one day and some really horrendous boards the next, which is why learning how to select boards that will work well for your project. Don’t worry, we’ll cover how to pick out boards in just a minute.
Characteristics of common board
- Knotty look
- Easy to cut and drill into
- Can be difficult to find straight boards
- Often stains splotchy
- Dents and scratches easily
When to use common boards
- Great for building on a budget
- Want the a knotty look
- Want a rustic or farmhouse style
The next step up from common board is select pine. Select pine boards have little to no knots and it’s much easier to find straight boards.
Like common board, they can still be splotchy when you stain them, but they are a good budget-friendly option to consider when you don’t want knots in your wood.
We used select pine on projects like our cane vanity, herringbone wood tray, and outdoor side table.
Characteristics of select pine
- Little to no knots
- Easy to cut and drill into
- Can stain splothy/look dull when stained
- Can pull yellow when staining
- Dents and scratches easily
When to use select pine
- Great for projects that you don’t want the look of knots
- Your budget is higher than common board, but not high enough for hardwoods
Poplar is technically a hardwood, but it’s not very hard. It’s really easy to cut and sand and tends to have green and white streaks. These streaks will give you two different colors when you stain so if that’s the look you’re going for, great! If not, I’d stick to using poplar for paint projects.
Aside from the potential color variation, poplar also looks pretty dull when it’s stained. In my opinion, it’s generally pretty, you might just want to add a satin or semi-gloss sealer to help shine it up.
Since poplar is fairly soft, it does scratch relatively easily.
Of the woods we discussed in this post, poplar is what we’ve used the least on our projects. I guess because I love the look of oak so much that I tend to splurge on that when I’m willing to spend more money. I have been eager to tackle some more projects using poplar though!
We did use poplar on parts of this DIY coffee bar cabinet and DIY bathroom vanity. We also left it natural for this DIY bath tray.
Characteristics of poplar
- Easy to cut and sand
- Takes paint well
- Has green and white streaks, giving it a unique look
- Might stain unevenly
When to use poplar
- Projects you’re planning to paint
- Project you want a unique wood look
Oak is known for its beautiful, strong wood grain. It’s a hardwood, which means it’s really dense and will be a little bit harder to drill and cut into. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible – it’ll just take a little more power.
It’s very durable and resists scratches and dents pretty well. And because it’s so dense, it’s also much heavier than pine. You’ll really notice it if you start to build bigger pieces of furniture.
Another thing to note about oak is that there are two main types: red and white. White is what you likely see all over HGTV and in high-end houses. Red oak is what they sell at Home Depot and Lowe’s.
As the name suggests, red oak has a slight red hue to it, which can be heightened when stained.
DIY projects using oak
Oak is my favorite-looking wood, so we tend to use it on a lot of projects. Here are a few:
Characteristics of oak
- Strong wood grain
- Very durable
- Takes stain well
- Two main types: red and white
When to use oak
- Great for projects that you want to stain
- Projects you’re willing to invest in/want to keep a long time
- You want a strong wood grain that doesn’t pull yellow
There’s one more type of wood that I want to give a quick shoutout to and that’s pre-primed pine.
It’s pine, so it’s easy to cut but it already comes primed. This is an awesome option if you are planning to paint because you don’t have to worry about the whole priming step.
And since it’s already primed, it’s already pretty much sanded. I still sand over it a little bit before painting, but it won’t require nearly as much as a non-primed board. In fact, you can’t sand very long or you’ll sand off the primer!
It’s also pretty comparable in price to select pine, so if you’re painting, it really is a great choice.
The one thing I’ll say about it is that you need to look at how well it’s primed when you’re sifting through boards. Some of them are super smooth and some have deep grooves and rough areas.
Generally, you’ll be able to find boards that are smooth on 3 out of the 4 sides, so you’ll want to pay attention to put the “good” side out when building your projects.
Projects using primed pine
We’ve used primed pine on a handful of projects. It pairs well with pre-primed plywood!
Characteristics of pre-primed pine
- Easy to cut and drill into
- Already smooth and primed
- Can only be painted
When to use pre-primed pine
- On project you’re planning on painting
Overview of wood types
|Wood Type||Price*||Characteristics||When to use|
|Furring Strip||$1.98||– Inexpensive|
– Difficult to find straight boards
|Not recommended for most DIY furniture|
|Common Board||$3.65||– Inexpensive|
– Knotty look
– Easy to cut and drill into
– Can be difficult to find straight boards
– Often stains splotchy
– Dents and scratches easily
|– Great for building on a budget|
– Want the knotty look
– Want a rustic or farmhouse style
|Select Pine||$6.53||– Little to no knots|
– Easy to cut and drill into
– Can stain splotchy/look dull when stained
– Can pull yellow when staining
– Dents and scratches easily
|– Great for projects that you don’t want the look of knots|
– Your budget is higher than common board, but not high enough for hardwoods
|Poplar||$9.76||– Easy to cut and sand|
– Takes paint well
– Has green and white streaks, giving it a unique look
– Might stain unevenly
|– Projects you’re planning to paint|
– Project you want a unique wood look
|Oak||$14.18||– Strong wood grain |
– Very durable
– Takes stain well
– Two main types: red and white
|– Great for projects that you want to stain|
– Projects you’re willing to invest in/want to keep a long time
– You want a strong wood grain that doesn’t pull yellow
|Pre-Primed Pine||$6.04||– Easy to cut and drill into |
– Already smooth and primed
– Can only be painted
|– On a project that you’re planning on painting|
What type of wood should you buy for your DIY project?
What specific wood you choose for your project will be based on a handful of different factors. I know I shared “when to use xyz wood” above, but those are just the guidelines I tend to follow for myself.
Before we talk about what those factors are, let me just say this: your wood isn’t going to completely make or break your project.
Sure, the wood you choose will affect how the final project looks and how heavy it is, and potentially how long it lasts, but it won’t prevent you from actually building it.
We’ve used each of these different woods before on various projects and it worked out just fine. None of the projects have deteriorated or collapsed even when we didn’t pick the “best” wood.
Sure some wood types might be “better” for certain situations, but don’t let this decision hold you back from actually building. Any of the woods that are available at Home Depot or Lowe’s should work and the “right” wood depends on what you want and need.
When choosing the wood for your project, here are a few things you’ll want to consider:
A lot of people DIY to save money. And sure, building a solid oak desk for $600 is significantly cheaper than buying a solid oak desk for $4000, but are either of those in the budget? Maybe, maybe not.
Your budget is definitely going to be a key consideration for what wood you choose. Like I mentioned earlier, each wood type can be used to build furniture and other DIY projects. Your project isn’t going to crumble tomorrow just because you chose pine over oak.
When to splurge vs. save on wood for DIY projects
Again, this is going to be personal preference, but here’s how I usually decide:
If it’s a piece that I know I’ll want to keep forever, then I’ll splurge and get whatever wood I want.
If you’re building a large piece of furniture, this can get pricey, but it still won’t cost as much as it would to buy a solid wood piece from the store.
Generally, this feeling of wanting to keep it forever will come for bigger, staple pieces of furniture. It’s also going to be a design that I’ve loved for a long time.
If it’s a piece that feels trendy and is likely to go out of date in a few years, I’ll choose a less expensive wood. I’ll keep it and use and then either break it down and use the wood for a different project or I’ll donate the piece.
What look do you want?
Once you figure out what wood is within your budget, you need to decide what look you are going for.
If you want something that is evenly stained and has a really strong wood grain, oak is going to be the best choice.
If you want something that looks rustic, common pine might be best.
Think about your particular style and which wood grains you are generally drawn to.
For me, I think oak is one of the prettiest woods out there, so it’s generally my wood of choice. That being said, I have been really drawn to poplar lately as well and want to do a few more projects with that.
Are you painting or staining?
This is one of the common questions we get asked about choosing wood: “what wood is best for painting vs. staining?”
If you’re painting, I would recommend using poplar, select pine, or pre-primed pine. My top choice would be pre-primed pine, followed by poplar, followed by select pine.
Select pine is good for paint because it doesn’t have knots, but sometimes the water in the paint can cause the grain to pop up. This happens with any type of wood, but it’s especially noticeable on select pine because it often has a more prominent grain pattern compared to poplar.
It’s not usually that obvious, but the grain will catch the light a bit differently, so you can see it from certain angles.
If you’re staining, you can really use any wood type. Oak tends to stain the most evenly. Poplar can be really beautiful as well, but because of the variation in the color it has to begin with, the stain will look differently on different parts.
Select pine and common board can also be stained, but they do tend to be more splotchy. Even with a pre-stain, you likely won’t get a perfectly consistent color.
Don’t let that hold you back though, we’ve still made some pretty stained projects using pine and common board!
Select pine is a great choice if poplar and oak are out of budget but you don’t want knots in your project.
Is your project for inside or outside?
We didn’t touch on the wood types that are best for exterior projects (that’s a topic for another day), but it is something you want to consider when choosing your wood.
There are wood types that are naturally much more weather resistant. Woods like cedar and redwood are great for exterior projects and can often be found at your local home improvement store as well.
Woods that are great for outdoors are generally more expensive than other wood types, so if your budget doesn’t allow for them, you don’t have to use them just because you’re working on an exterior project.
How long it will last will depend on the weather conditions where you live and how well you seal it, but you can use pine if you finish it with an exterior grade finish.
We’ve made several projects using common board and select pine that live outdoors 24/7 and have held up great so far–no signs of rot or decay. Again, the key is to finish them with a good exterior finish.
It’s not necessarily the best choice in terms of longevity, but if you’re okay with the fact that you might have to re-build or replace it in 5-10 years, then go for it!
How to choose the best boards for your project
Now that you know what type of wood you want to get for your project, it’s time to pick out your exact boards.
Not all wood is created equal, especially if you’re using common boards. It’s important to spend a few minutes choosing boards rather than grabbing the first few you see.
When I start looking through boards, I’m looking for a few key things.
First, I want to make sure they are straight so that they are easier to use on my project.
Second, I’m checking to see if there are any noticeable imperfections that I don’t want on my finished project.
Third, I’ll look at the wood grains. Let’s talk a little bit more about each of these things.
Bowed, crooked, cupped, and warped boards
When picking out wood, there are several ways that a board can be warped.
If you were to place a board on flat ground, here are the three things you want to look out for:
- Bowing: this is when the board is arching up off the ground either in the middle or on either end
- Crooked: this is when a board is flat on the ground, but bends to the side
- Cupped: this is when the sides of the board are lifting off the ground, causing the wood to make a slight “u” shape
To determine if a board is crooked or bowed, you’ll want to pull the wood down from the rack and look at it straight down the length of the board.
Once it looks straight along one side, rotate it 90-degrees and look down the board again.
If it’s straight both times, your board is probably pretty straight. But…I like to double-check.
Once I pick out a handful of boards, I will place them on the ground and push them together. If there are gaps between the boards, one or multiple of them might be crooked.
If the boards are lifting off the ground, you’ll see if they are bowed or cupped.
You don’t need to spend forever on this process or strive for perfection. Just get the straightest boards you can.
What if every board is warped?
First, let me say that the majority of boards from Home Depot or Lowe’s will have some sort of warping going on. They aren’t usually perfect, but that’s okay. You just want to grab the best there is.
For oak, poplar, and select pine, finding good boards shouldn’t be an issue 99% of the time. If you’re using common board or furring strips, there’s definitely a chance that you’ll run into this issue.
If you’ve gone through them all and every board is warped, you have a few options:
- Go to another store
- Pick a different wood
- Pick the best ones
If you decide to pick the best ones, I’d recommend choosing ones that are bowed rather than cupped or crooked. You can place something heavy on top of bowed boards to help get them back to being straight, but
If you still have to grab some crooked boards too, pick the ones that are the least crooked. If it’s just a little bit at the end, maybe you can chop that bit off and work around it.
If absolutely necessary, you’ll be surprised at how well clamps can “fix” a warped board.
It’s not ideal, but you can use warped lumber on projects. It’s going to be more difficult, but it’s possible. We’ve had to do it before and in the end, no one even noticed.
This can be big deposits of sap, rough edges, and corners, or even big dents, cracks, and holes in the board.
Little scratches can be sanded off and some small holes can be filled, but you want to try to find boards that don’t require a lot of “touch-up” work.
Here you’re really just looking at it and seeing if you find anything “ugly”.
The last thing we also like to keep in mind are wood grains. If you’re painting, you can mostly ignore this criteria, but if you’re staining, it’s something to keep in mind.
For some projects, we want varied wood grains and for others, we want similar wood grain patterns. It’s really up to you!
This one is completely subjective on what you think looks “pretty.”
If you are staining the boards and want them to stain similarly, look for boards with similar grain patterns. Just because it’s all select pine or all oak doesn’t mean it will stain the same.
You, unfortunately, won’t know until you stain it, but if you stick with similar-looking wood, chances are higher that they will stain similarly.
How do Home Depot and Lowe’s charge for wood?
The vast majority of the stores will charge per board. Most boards come in 8’ sizes, some come in 3’, 6’, or 12’. The price for the board will be listed on the price tag located beneath it.
You’ll pay that price and get the whole board, regardless of how little of it you might need.
Occasionally you’ll be charged by the linear foot. When that’s the case, you can actually cut the board down to the size that you need. If you only need 5’, you cut it to 5’ and pay for 5’.
If the price of the wood is per linear foot, the price tag will denote it with a tiny “/lf” note.
How to get 8’ boards home in a car
Believe it or not, most cars will fit boards that are 8’ long, it’s generally the width you have to worry about. That being said, be sure to measure the inside of your car to see how long of a board your car can fit.
We have a Nissan Rogue that fits 8’ boards well and a Honda Accord that can fit 10’ boards!
You’ll most likely need to put the seats down, but they should slide right in if you have a standardish-sized car.
When transporting lumber home in the car, I recommend keeping a towel in the car to rest on your seats so that you don’t scratch them up as you slide the boards in.
You might also want to wrap the ends of your boards that are close to the windshield with a towel. It hasn’t happened to me, but I know someone who was transporting wood home, slammed on their breaks, and…the wood hit the windshield and cracked it.
Just something you might want to consider as you’re driving home with lumber!
How to store boards at home to minimize warping
Now that you’ve spent some time selecting the right wood for your project, you want to make sure that you don’t ruin them at home.
When you get home, you’ll want to store the boards flat. You don’t want to lean them up against the wall.
That might be how they store it at the store, but when you get home and just have one or two boards leaning up against the wall in a non-temperature controlled space, the boards are likely to bow.
So if you aren’t planning on using your boards right away, set them flat on the ground. If you stack them on top of each other, make sure they are lined up and not hanging off on one side.
You can also get some lumber storage racks. These are great for easy access to your wood and to keep wood off the garage floor. My only word of caution is to get enough to support your boards.
We currently just have two racks to support 8’ boards. It’s fine for wider boards and oak, but when I leave a pine 1×2 for too long, it really does start to bow. I would suggest getting 3-4 racks to better store 8’ boards.
Now it’s time to head to the home improvement store and pick out some wood for your next DIY project! Any questions about buying wood at Home Depot or Lowe’s? Drop it in the comments below!
And yes, we did not cover buying plywood in this post. That’s coming soon, don’t you worry!
Choosing lumber for your DIY project is just the beginning. There’s still so much more that goes into creating a beautiful piece of furniture, decor, or accent wall.
If you’re just getting started with DIY, you’ll want to grab our Beginner’s Guide to DIY. It’s the guide created to shorten your DIY learning curve so you can build more impressive things with less frustration.
It’s everything we wish we knew when we were just getting started: from lumber to tools, to making projects look more professional, we’ve got you covered. You can grab your Beginner’s Guide to DIY HERE.