On a recent trip to Lowe’s, I learned a couple interesting things that were too good not to share, so in today’s post I’ve gathered up my best secrets and tips for buying wood at Lowe’s.
These are things I wish I would have known years ago—they would have saved me so much time, money, and headaches! Now you can learn from my mistakes.
I’m at Lowe’s more than any other place (besides my own home). No joke. So after years of marching up and down the aisles and who knows how many thousands of $$ spent, I’ve collected some important pieces of information that I think everyone should be armed with before they go for a lumber run.
Keep in mind that a couple of these may not be applicable to all stores—make sure to double check locally first!
1. The board basics
This may be common knowledge for many of you, but walking into the board aisle can be overwhelming at first. So many boards, so many sizes, so many kinds of wood! Here’s the deal: the “whitewood” boards are the cheapest, and what I use for probably 80% of my projects. In my Lowe’s they take up one entire side of an aisle in all different sizes, from 2″ wide in the front up to 12″ wide in the back, in varying lengths up to 12 feet.
On the other side of the aisle you have the higher quality (i.e. oak and poplar) boards. They come in the same sizes as the whitewood, but most do not have knots/ragged edges, and most importantly—they are reasonably straight. 9 times out of 10, the pine (whitewood) will have some bowing and/or curving in it. I always set my piece on the ground and hold it up to a flat surface to gauge the straightness. Sometimes it takes a lot of sorting to find a good one. For some smaller projects this won’t matter, but for important things like building furniture, unless you want it to be rustic looking, buy the more expensive wood.
Here’s Board Buying 101—the listed measurements are not accurate. For instance, a 1″x4″x8′ board will actually be 0.75″x3.5″x8′. All of the boards in this aisle are 0.75″ thick. In fact, any board sold anywhere that says it’s 1″ is really 0.75″. If the number is 2″ or larger, you can subtract 0.5″ from that measurement. The length will generally be accurate. Make sure you account for this when planning out your project so you don’t end up short.
2. Your wood is probably green.
No, I’m not talking about the color. “Green” wood means it has been freshly cut from the tree and it hasn’t fully dried yet. Why does this matter? Warping.
All those warped whitewood boards you see? They were much straighter when they were unloaded off the pallet. But because they’re green and dry out naturally over time, they will warp however they want to (shorter width boards tend to bend the most).
This is a problem because if you build something while the wood is still green, it may end up shifting. With “1-by’s”(1” thick boards) it doesn’t make a huge difference (a screw will usually hold it in place pretty well), but with 2-by’s, it can be a big deal.
Remember this bar we built in our kitchen?
Before I knew anything about green wood, I bought these 2-by’s that were very green (actually damp to the touch) and sadly, one board has bowed so badly that we have to rip it out and replace it. Our kitchen tabletop (made from 2×10’s) has also separated a bit (even after strapping the boards together and driving four screws into each one).
It’s really a crapshoot—some will dry straight, some will dry extremely bowed, but you won’t know until 2-3 months later when it’s fully dry.
This is not exclusive to Lowe’s—it’s everywhere that sells lumber. You can buy pre-dried wood at some places (not even sure if Lowe’s offers this) but it’s mega expensive.
Update: Reader Jonathan added this piece of advice: “The best way to dry pine evenly without warping is to lay it on it’s thin side (for a 2×4, lay it on the 2 inch side), leave a space between all the boards for ventilation, and minimize contact with floors and walls by resting them on wood scraps spaced out every foot or so.”
3. Save money by buying bowed boards
I just found this out yesterday, but oh man, I would have saved a ton of I’d had known this all along. I’m often unable to find perfectly straight whitewood boards in the size I need, and if perfection isn’t crucial to the project I’ll settle for something bowed/cracked/chipped instead of paying more for the poplar/oak wood.
Well, guess what? If the board is bent, you can get a discount! I always feel bad asking for discounts so I’ve kept my mouth shut, but yesterday while I was loading some replacement boards onto my cart, the sweet lumber guy informed me that because they were bent, he’d be happy to give me a discount. So I got both boards for 50% off:
Honestly, the boards weren’t even that bad. Probably no worse than half of them on the shelf. If I would have known that two days ago when I purchased 24 boards for our beams… I could have saved some major cash.
The associate said that any time I’m there, if I see a board that has a defect, bring it to him and he’ll mark it down for me. The cashiers up front can also take discounts, but only 10%. Go directly to the lumber guy.
This is great news if you ever find a board that is damaged at one end and you won’t be using the full length of it anyway… changes the game plan a bit, right? I’m not advocating we should all go out and abuse the system (I’ll still feel some remorse asking for discounts even if they’re warranted) but it’s nice to know that policy is in place if you need it.
On that note, if you aren’t picky about your wood, I also learned there’s an area outside in the front of the store where they sell discounted defective lumber. It’s worth looking through!
4. Free project wood cutting—a thing of the past?
Most of you already know that Lowe’s offers free wood cutting. I have taken advantage of this many times, having them cut my boards and sheets of wood into various shapes and sizes because I didn’t own the proper tools and/or vehicle to transport them home.
Last month when I asked them to cut a 4×8′ plywood sheet into 4″ strips for my DIY salvaged door project, they said “Sorry, we don’t do that anymore”. My heart sank. Apparently it takes up too much of employee’s time to make all these small cuts (project cutting, as they put it), so now the policy is to only cut wood to fit into cars. I had driven there in a small car so it had to be cut down anyway, and I asked super nicely if he could do it just this once so I could fit them in my car. After some hesitation, he finally agreed.
We bought a truck a week later.
I’m not sure if this is a company-wide thing, but it’s something you should definitely look into if you have smaller cuts that need to be made!
*On a semi-related note, make sure to account for the blade width when having sheets cut down. It will eat up about 1/8″, so if you have a 48″ wide board and want to cut it into 4″ strips, you’ll get 11 4″ strips and the 12th one will be closer to 3″. Also, you won’t often get really straight pieces when they rip down sheets because they are so thin and the boards flex. It’s hard enough to get them straight at home on a table saw when you’re going slowly, but these guys work fast and accuracy isn’t their concern.
Update: Reader Autumn’s husband works at Lowe’s and says his store still does project cuts, so hopefully it won’t take effect everywhere!
5. I found secret weathered-gray wood!
And it’s insanely cheap!
I recently discovered these 1x4x8″ whitewood boards underneath the 1x6x8 section and fell in love. They have this beautiful natural gray weathering to them (some more than others), and they’re smooth, straighter and half the cost of regular 1x4x8 whitewood boards!
When we lived in Florida there was something similar at my Lowe’s, but I believe they were 2×4’s (maybe even 2×6’s as well?). Sadly they don’t carry those here, but at least they have these. It might be a regional thing, but I hope they stay forever and I can’t wait to use them in future projects.