Lumber Grades & Ways Lumber Is Priced & Sold

In this article I will not go into explaining the rules of grading hardwood or softwood lumber, as they are very complicated and lengthy. I will list the grades that are sold, the dimensions that are available and the ways retailers price and sell lumber.

Hardwood Lumber Grades

In 1897 the National Hardwood Lumber Association {NHLA} was established to regulate hardwood lumber grading. Hardwood lumber grading does not require having a license to grade or even to be certified. Hardwood lumber does not have a system of stamps and symbols indicating to the consumer what grade of lumber it is. The grade is determined by how much clear surface {knot free, clear cuttings} of area is on the worst face side. It is almost always expressed by a certain percentage and is called the yield. The thickness {edges} are never used in determining the grade, only the two face sides of the lumber. There have been only minute changes in the rules of the NHLA since the 1930's.

Today There Are Basically
Eight Hardwood Lumber Grades Used.

FAS "First & Seconds"

This is the best grade. You can buy this grade with different surface finish combinations. For instance, both the faces and both edges will be planed, both faces planed and the two edges not planed {rough}, both faces planed with one edge planed, and the other edge not planed {rough}, both edges planed with one face planed and the other face not planed {rough} and last but not least both faces and both edges not planed {rough}. The latter is considered rough sawn
Some retailers take the FAS stock and plane it if needed and sand all four surfaces, then mark and sell it as A, AA, AAA and AAAA lumber. The AAAA being the finest, {almost flawless} that you can buy.

FAS 1-Face {F1F}

Lumber that is 6 inches or wider.

Select {Northern} 1-Face {Southern}

The better face is FAS and the poor face No. 1 Common. The price is about the same as FAS.

No. 1 Common, Common, No. 1

Standard furniture grade.

No. 2A Common, No. 2 Common

Used as a standard grade for cabinets and millwork.

No. 2B Common

Used as a standard paint grade.

No. 3A Common

Used for flooring and pallets. No. 3A common is sometimes mixed with No. 3B Common and sold as No. 3 Common

No. 3B Common

Used for pallets and crating

Softwood Lumber Grades

The American Softwood Lumber Standard PS 20-70 is what most softwood lumber in the United States is graded by. A lot of softwood lumber that comes from Canada into the US is also graded by this standard. Because of how strong each piece of wood has to be and the safety factors involved in construction you have to be certified and licensed to grade softwood lumber.
Softwood lumber has two groups, construction and remanufacture.
Construction grade lumber can be further split up into three categories, stress graded, no stress graded and appearance. Appearance and no stress grade lumber is commonly called yard lumber and is what is usually sold at retail lumberyards and is what a lot of woodworkers use.
With stress and no stress the most important factor is how strong the piece of lumber is. With appearance it is how aesthetically pleasing the piece looks. Like hardwoods, softwoods are also graded by the worst face. Unlike hardwoods, softwoods are always stamped with the grade.

Appearance Lumber Finish

The best grade of appearance lumber is Finish. It is split up into grades designated by letters such as C, D, B&BTR {B and Better} and names like Superior and Prime. There is also a grade called S4S {surfaced on all four sides}. These names of grades are an option given the lumber grading agencies and can vary with different locations.


This grade is the next best and is designated mostly by letters and names and can get quite confusing. A Select, and B select are the best. A lot of times these two grades are united, and then sold under the one grade of B&BTR
There are some variations pertaining to particular species such as Cedar and Redwood, their grade names are Clear All Heart, Clear and Select. Some appearance lumber will have FG for flat grain, VG for vertical grain and MX for mixed grain.

Stress Lumber {Dimensional}

With this grade, the numbers and letters are standardized throughout the US. The grades for 2" x 4" or wider lumber are in descending order Select Structural, No.1, No. 2, No.3, No. 2&BTR {2 and Better} and No. 3&BTR {3 and Better}. The grades for posts, beams, timbers and such are Select Structural, No. 1 Structural {Douglas Fir}, No. 1 SR {southern pine}, No. 2 SR {southern pine}.

No Stress Lumber {Common}

The grades in this group are No.1 Construction, No. 2 Standard and No. 3 Utility, No. 4 and No. 5 economy.

Ways Lumber Is Priced & Sold

Hardwood lumber is sold a little differently than softwood. Some species are not only available and sold kiln dried but also air dried. Yes, hardwood lumber is sold primarily by the board foot 12"x 12" x 1" {144 cubic inches}. Some lumber is sold by the pound such as Snakewood, Pink Ivory, Amboyna Burl, Afzelia Burl and numerous other burls. Certain retailer's sell hardwood lumber priced by the lineal foot and some retailer's even price it by the lineal inch. With softwood lumber when you pay for 4/4, you actually get 3/4" thick dressed out and with 8/4 you get 1 1/2" dressed out. This is not necessarily true with hardwood. I have received 4/4 thick lumber that ranged from exactly 3/4" thick all the way up to a little over 1" thick and 8/4 thick lumber that ranged from 1 3/4 " thick all the way up to a little over 2" thick. For example you can buy one board foot of Rosewood from one retailer for $20 and it will be 3/4" thick, then you go to another retailer and find the same species of Rosewood runs $25.00 per board foot but find out the thickness is a full 1"

Because of the many different species of hardwood that are available, time and space does not allow me to actually go into the different dimensions that one may purchase. They vary so widely and are always changing with each particular species.

You can purchase burls weighing from a few pounds to over 1200 pounds in some species and slabs from 18" through 30" wide x 48" through 72" long x 1 1/2" through 4" thick to make tables out of. When ordering hardwood lumber be sure to specify widths and lengths, otherwise it will come in random widths and lengths. The extra charge for specifying widths and lengths varies greatly from one retailer to another. It can run from 5% all the way up to 25% per board foot.

Softwood lumber is also usually sold by the board foot, but I have seen it sold by the lineal foot. Softwood lumber is always kiln dried. 1" softwood lumber comes in widths of 2", 4", 6", 8", 10", 12" with lengths up to 16' { 2' increments}. 2" and thicker {2" increments} comes in widths of 2", 4", 6", 8" 10" and 12" with lengths sometimes of up to 24' depending on the species. Softwood lumber is either sold by the piece, which was figured from a board foot price or sold by the board foot. 4/4 is 3/4" thick and 8/4 is 1 1/2" thick. 1" x 4" is actually 3/4" x 3 1/2", 1" x 6" is 3/4" x 5 1/2", 2" x 4" is 1 1/2" x 3 1/2".

Acknowledgements & References

National Hardwood Lumber Association {NHLA}
American Softwood Lumber Standard PS 20-70

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