Mark (TheCraftsmansPath.com) on October 1st, 2007

I buy virtually all of my lumber for furniture projects in the “rough”. By rough, I mean that the lumber has not been processed in any way since it was sawed into planks and then dried. The bark is gone, but the faces and the edges are rough and in need of surface and edge preparation as well as dimensioning.

Lumber can be purchased in several different states of readiness. For example, S2S lumber has been surfaced on two sides (actually, on both faces) but the edges are still rough. The hardwood lumber that you find in the big box stores is actually S4S, meaning that both the faces and edges have been prepared before it leaves the distributor. Sometimes S2S lumber has had an additional step of straightening one edge so that it can then be readily ripped to width when the buyer so chooses.

Looking past the obvious benefits of purchasing prepared lumber (i.e. less work to do to the rough stock before it can be used on a project), there are several advantages to buying rough stock. Some of these advantages are:

  • Rough lumber is always available at a significant discount to surfaced/prepared lumber
  • Rough lumber of lower grades that includes some defects and/or sapwood can be obtained at even greater savings – all that is necessary is to work around the defects and sapwood and/or to highlight them as design elements
  • Rough lumber is purchased at full thickness or greater (4/4 = 1″, 6/4 = 1.5″, 8/4 = 2″ thick, etc.) so you can get the most out of every board. Surfaced lumber is usually 3/4″ – 13/16″ or less in thickness so, design options are often limited
  • Once prepared, rough lumber will be straight and true with square edges. This will make any downstream woodworking operations and assembly much more predictable and accurate, resulting in better finished products

One of the false economies of S4S lumber is that its benefits outweigh its costs. However, I have rarely seen a piece of S4S stock from a big box store that can be worked without some additional preparation. There is always something that must be done to either flatten or square the wood before it can be used (I speculate that this is because of one of two reasons: the wood was prepped incorrectly to begin with or, the wood was improperly stored/transported) . Either way, because the stock is already thicknessed to what would usually be a finished dimension (3/4″), there is not any room for further preparation. Ultimately, this already expensive stock becomes even more expensive because more must be purchased to accomplish the same task!

Of course, all of this talk of purchasing rough lumber assumes that you have the tools to properly prep the stock as necessary (a table saw, jointer and planer at a minimum) . While this work is certainly easier to do with power tools, it (or parts of it) can be accomplished with other tools as well. I can assure you that I won’t be giving up my jointer or planer anytime soon however, I can tell you that before I had both of these tools I edge-jointed on a router table with a split fence using S2S stock and used a hand plane to tweak the faces of boards that were not flat. To do this, I cut work pieces as close to final dimensions possible before doing any additional preparation. The smaller pieces minimized any deviations from flat and straight and what remained could be taken care of with a hand plane while maintaining maximum thickness.

If you have not tried designing and building projects starting with rough lumber, I would urge you to give it a try. I think that it offers the most in flexibility, economy and variety of choices. Most distributors of rough stock will have a much larger selection than what you’ll find at the big box stores. Additionally, you’ll be able to obtain different cuts of lumber (like quarter-sawn) to provide a more unique or authentic look for a project. The full thicknesses of stock that you’ll get will also afford you the ability to break out of the “everything is 3/4″ thick” mold that seems to accompany store bought furniture and limit design possibilities. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, stock purchased with a “defect” or variations in color and grain can be used as design statements to break away from the more mundane while adding unique elements to your designs.

Please feel free to e-mail me at thecraftsmanspath@gmail.com with questions or leave comments here using the comments link at the end of the posts. I’d like to hear your thoughts!

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One Response to “The benefits of rough lumber for design and building”

  1. I am thinking (planning stages) at this time of building a patio cover. the dimensions are 15 by 21. I would like to build the cover out of rough lumber and treat it and let it age as years go by. Im not sure of what type of lumber or size to carry the weightt of the roof. Any help you could give would be highly appreciated. I built my own home in the late 70’s but as you say, everything was from a box store. Looking forward to hearing from you.

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