Lumber and The Raw Deal

09.16.10 By //
The Design Confidential Lumber and the Raw Deal

Even if you don’t consider yourself a builder or the building type, chances are you may encounter an experience in your life, at some point, that may make this info come in handy. You can never go wrong being armed with knowledge and this will most likely help clear up confusion about how to purchase boards, should you decide to give a furniture plan (or any other project using boards) a go…

If you detest everything about building, and never want to do anything other than overpay for specialty retailer furniture, then this post is not for you… For all of the rest of you, I hope to have my site become a place to learn, share inspiration and know-how, and yet to have it be a comfortable place to ask questions and not worry about feeling silly. If you have a question, chances are there are others with the same questions and hopefully there are other folks who can direct and help you on the topic of your question. …anyhoo…back to the topic at hand…

Those of you who read through my plans have probably noticed that I stick to fairly consistent board dimensions when I provide cut lists, materials, and as I go through describing the steps for building. What you may not have noticed, if you aren’t a building junkie, or are just getting your feet wet in this new arena, is that the dimensions I call out are actually different than the dimensions I use to draw up the plans themselves…

Now don’t get crazy on me here…I am not trying to say that I provide inaccurate dimensions in my plans. What I am attempting to tell you is that the standard dimensions used to label or describe boards, at your lumber supply or hardware store (and yes on every site that discusses lumber), are just that…labels…

The labels or dimensions listed are not actually the true dimensions of the boards they are representing. When someone talks of a 2×4, everyone who is older than the age of 6 or 7 (some even younger) knows what, or approximately what, they are referring to. These labels (dimensions) are standard call tags for describing particular items, i.e. 1×3’s, 1×2’s, 4×4’s etc.

There is actually a logical reason for this, though it isn’t one that is logical for the consumer so much as for the manufacturer…which means, other than ease of saying 1×3, with it’s nice round even proportions, it really isn’t that helpful and might as well be accurate..alas I digress…

The explanation for this inaccuracy comes to us from the manufacturing process itself and how they account for their inventory. When they refer to a 2×4 they are speaking of the actual dimensions at the time of it being cut from it’s larger unit. In the process of taking that 2×4 from it’s mother-ship to the lumber supply floors, it goes through a drying and planing process so that we can have nice, even, and square boards that won’t warp or twist during their lifetime as members of a larger furniture piece (though with that much removal and shrinkage you would think we would see prettier boards more often). Since timber companies account for their inventory based on total usable volume (what else are they going to do…count trees?), you can see how it might be useful to them to notate the original dimensions before shrinkage and planing. If they didn’t, there would be a discrepancy between output and actual consumption…that would be a big problem (think back to your college days in econ and what happens when supply and demand are out of whack, this isn’t the same thing, but you get my point). It would appear on their financial reports as though they are experiencing inventory shrinkage (usually for errors and other possible issues, not so much a good thing for anyone (especially those of us who are low on the totem poles and have to make up for that loss of theirs through increased prices…).

The Design Confidential Lumber and the Raw Deal

By the time the boards have finished the manufacturing process they have lost about a 1/2″ for both length and width. This actually tends to increase to a loss of about 3/4″ in larger sizes (2×10’s and such) This actually makes a 2×4 closer to a 1.5×3.5…which is a little bit harder to say, not as smooth sounding, for sure…but…more accurate for designing and building furniture with very specific dimensions.

When you are learning to buy and build with dimensional lumber, this is pretty confusing if your local store sells lumber labeled more accurately (my nearest Orange does this, none of the others near by do…?) and I have indicated you buy something that you simply aren’t seeing on the shelves. Or perhaps you are a bit measurement crazed and in the process of measuring 100x so you only have to cut once, you have stumbled onto the fact that the board you thought you bought is actually not that, and you fear you have purchased (and built) with the wrong materials…that would be soooo sadddd.

So, the skinny on dimensional lumber is that, the labels I provide in plans are the labels commonly used in hardware stores and big box stores for construction use. I stick with the common lingo so as not to confuse you and so that you can find what you need easily and speak with sales associates using a common language.

When I draw up plans, however, I use the true dimensions because this is the only way to give you accurate cut measurements and spacing, but for most of you this isn’t something that matters. If I tell you the legs are 1×3’s and that the overall width of a table is 20″, that would mean that the space between the legs (and probably your apron or frame dimension) would be 14″…right?

No. and you would be confused when you cut a 14″ apron and tacked your legs on either end and only came up with a 19″ total width. So I tell you to use 1×3’s but I draw plans using the true dimension of a 1×3 which is closer to 3/4″x2.5″. This gives me the proper cut length for your apron and you go on never knowing that the bait and switch has transpired…aaaahhh ignorance is bliss, is it not?

I suppose I should explain this rambling narrative though…those of you who have interacted with me in any capacity may have noticed that I tend to be a fan of a collective of knowledge rather than a dictatorship of tyranny. That being said, when I provide you with free plans, it is because I truly love designing furniture and have adored furniture since I was old enough to know what my eyeballs were looking at…This is my love and my passion, and creating and building is my obsession and addiction! Misery loves company…so I hope you will join me!

I want you to gain from my experience and any knowledge I have. Whether in the form of inexpensive designer furniture that you can create in any color and style you like or from the satisfaction of building something with your own two hands..I want to share it with you and cheer you on along the way…BUT…

I also want to arm you with the knowledge necessary to take what I provide or teach you to the next level. This is the greatest accomplishment I can achieve…by making you all avid furniture builders and advanced DIY’ers you will go forth and live very successful and fulfilling lives at least as far as the home front is concerned…

You may like my furniture plans but what if you just simply need something to be twice as large as my plans outline, for it to work in your home? Or you like the basic piece but want to style it differently. Well, if you take the time to read this, and begin to accumulate knowledge and experience, you can make these modifications on your own and without any help from me or anyone else! That is an amazing feeling. If you are a home-maker, you are considered a home-maker of the highest caliber if you can not only build your own furniture, but MODIFY IT TO SUIT YOUR NEEDS and perhaps even DESIGN IT, TOO! If you are a woodworking hobbyist, having the ability to visualize modifications or design plans prior to building will help ensure any changes or modifications will work, pretty important stuff!

I am providing the following chart with the hope that those of you who love to build, will one day have the skill set to do anything you want or need, and modify plans in any way you require…to truly learn the building skill set! Even if you never plan on sketching furniture plans…this skill set is necessary to understand how you will make cuts if you are changing the dimensions of any plan you are working with and to accommodate locally available materials (for those of you who can’t get 4×4’s untreated, it would be helpful for you to know how to combine 2 – 2×4’s to get a similar result…but you will need to alter a few dimensions since a 2×4 is the same length as a 4×4 but not the same width when you combine comes in a little shy of the original measurements and will require adjusting additional pieces.)

I hope you take this and future information I provide, and run with it…learn to design your own pieces and return to share your masterpieces with the rest of us! I am happy to help along the way and even to draw plans for a really good design if you aren’t able. If you are knowledgeable in woodworking, lumber, tools, or finishing we would love to have you join the forum and share your knowledge with us. I am only one person and I am pretty sure someone told me, it takes a village…

Below I have outlined the basic board sizes that will be available to you from your local hardware store. Hardwoods and lumber supply options can be a bit more extensive in their offerings and sizes, but these are the standards you will use time and again. The larger beams are most commonly used in outdoor structures, so if you are sticking with furniture, you will not need to concern yourself with those.

** Please keep in mind that these measurements may vary by manufacturer and processing. I typically see the larger widths vary 1/4″ or so, and instead of 7 1/4″ you may have 7 1/2″ available at your store… Knowing these variations exist is helpful in understanding if you need to alter dimensions to accommodate more or less width for your board.

Exploded Log Cross Sections by Vincent Kohler via here

I will be making a concerted effort to bulk up our ‘Getting Started’ section in the next few weeks as well as our ‘Tool Time’ and ‘Tips and Tricks’ sections. Please don’t be shy if you have questions, it will help me address these topics more thoroughly!

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