Dec 13 , 2018

How to Find the Best Home Center Lumber for Your DIY Projects

Hardwood vs. softwood

These are confusing terms, as they really don’t refer to the actual hardness of the wood. Balsa, for example, is a hardwood, but you could practically cut it with your fingernail. The term “hardwood” simply indicates that the wood comes from a deciduous tree, the type that loses its leaves in the fall. “Softwood” refers to conifers, which are generally trees with needles, like pine, spruce, fir and cedar. The vast majority of home construction is done with fast- growing softwoods.

What you’ll find at home centers

(The prices listed are for an 8-ft. 1×6.)

Eastern white pine is the most widely used wood for home construction. Knots and resin are common. Doesn’t take stain evenly.

Same as standard pine but completely knot free. Nice for paint or natural finish.

CEDAR ($12)
Western red cedar is lightweight and rot resistant, making it popular for outdoor furniture. Knots and splits are common.

POPLAR ($13)
Yellow poplar is generally light- colored, with hues ranging from yellow to green to purple. Excellent for painted woodwork because grain doesn’t show through.

RED OAK ($17)
Red oak is the most ubiquitous cabinet wood of the last 75 years. It’s strong, durable and takes finish well.

Less common

CHERRY ($40, not shown)
Black cherry is a “medium hard” hardwood. It’s easy to work with hand or power tools and takes a finish well, turning darker as it ages. Used for high-end cabinetry and furniture.

ASPEN ($12)
Aspen is a soft, lightweight hardwood with subtle grain. It’s excellent as a base for paint or as a secondary wood (see p. 16).

Red alder is a soft, lightweight hardwood. Its reddish brown color and grain texture make it resemble cherry. Stable and easy to work, it’s a good choice as either a primary or secondary wood (see p. 16).

Philippine mahogany is a soft hardwood. Typically has uniform grain and texture. The home center variety is less showy than African mahogany, but it’s a stable, easily worked primary or secondary wood.

Hickory, a tough hardwood with pronounced grain, is well suited for tool handles and baseball bats. It’s hard to work with hand tools but finishes beautifully.

MAPLE ($26)
Hard maple is durable and fine tex- tured. It’s a popular choice for cabinetry and furniture. Doesn’t take stain evenly.


Some home centers will special-order a wide variety of species for you. We don’t recommend this unless it’s your only option. You won’t see the exact boards you’re getting until they arrive, and unless they’re somehow unusable, you won’t be able to reject them.

Nonstandard boards

If you’re serious about woodworking, you’ll want a jointer and planer in your shop eventually. But if you don’t have these tools yet, know that many home centers carry hardwood thicknesses other than nominal 1-by (3/4 in. actual). You can regularly find thicknesses ranging from 1/4 in. to 1-1/2 in.
If you need wide stock, you’ll also find large 1-in. or 1-1/4-in. edge-glued panels in one or two species. This is a better option than buying really wide boards, which are prone to cupping. Solid wood stair treads are another handy option.

How to Buy Rough-Sawn Lumber

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