How To Choose a Good Board

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Choosing the right boards is much like picking good ingredients before you cook. It does matter, and it matters alot. Just like you can get a bad onion, you can get a crooked board or split board, and your project will become that much more difficult to complete.

So to help you choose better boards, the community at has come together to offer their best tips on choosing good boards. If you have an excellent tip, please enter as a comment below.

Technical comments only to this post.


When you go to select a board, hold one end up to your eye (with the other end still resting on the floor), like the board is an arrow on a bow.  Look down the length of the board with one eye, checking to make sure that the board is straight all the way down.  Rotate the board to inspect all four sides.

Sometimes a good board will go bad on you if not stored properly.  Store boards flat, on a level surface, preferably bundled with other boards.  If a board does go bad on you, try cutting off and disposing of the bad parts and using the straight parts.  Often, only the ends will warp.
If a board twists on you (2x2s are famous for this) don't bother trying to rescue it.  Use it as a marker post for your garden or make blocks for your kids.  

It's important also to make sure your lumber is dry. Kiln dried lumber is a must for outdoor projects like fences and decks. You can also roll a board on the floor to check each side, the same way you see folks testing a billiards stick on a pool table. (Of course the floor needs to be flat)

It's too hard to hold one end of a 2x4 up like an arrow.

 I use the flat concrete floor to pick boards. The concrete finishing process includes making sure the concrete is really flat, so why waste it?

  1. Pick a board you think is straight.
  2. Lay the board on the floor of the big box store.
  3. Does it lay flat on the floor, or does it have a gap showing in the middle?
    If so, it's warped.
  4. Can you easily push the board flat?
    If so, it's probably usable.
  5. Turn it 1/4 turn and test again.

Minor warping can usually be ignored, unless you are building tall things that need perfect sides. I must have checked 50-60 boards to find 2 straight enough for a 14-foot bookcase sides.

A warp in the long dimension of the board is harder to fix than a bit of cupping when you look at the end.

If you are picking a board that's displayed vertically and you don't want to pull every board out to check, line it up with the display structure and make sure to turn it 1/4 turn and check again.  This will give you a quick estimate before trying to wrangle the board out of the display.

While checking for straightness, check for burns, knots, large cracks, hunks missing, etc.  Don't be afraid to get an employee to open another pack for you if you can't find anything you like!

I always dig straight into the middle of a stack.  Thats where I find the best boards. Of course I always check them with the arrow method.   The fellas at Home Depot smile politely... I try not to make too big of a mess.  

If you are getting wood from outdoor storage area:

  • inspect for straightness (see above for how), rot, splits & checks, sap, and if you like the grain or not
  • take it home and sticker all your boards INSIDE. To do so, take strips of small wood or cut up ply and put some on the floor, then put your first board down, put two more strips, and another board. Continue until all your wood has airflow. This way if it has been wet, it will dry nicely. Wait 1-2 weeks until the moisture content has stabilized to use the wood for your project.

Best bet is to ask the lumber yard man to help you pick some good straight boards. My experience is they kinda look at you funny, but are willing to help you.  I look down like looking down an arrow, and also I pay attention to the knots on the sides.

You get what you pay for. I decided to get the cheapest 2x4's on this last project and ended up with some pretty crappy wood. Pay a little more and it will save you money in the long run. Think about the cost of wood filler, sandpaper and the like, not to mention the time and frustration in throwing away bad pieces!! I learned this the hard way.

When you're first starting out, try each lumber supplier in your area. You'll quickly find that some of them have a lot of scrap wood for new prices. Others will have great wood. Go back to the ones with good wood.

Different stores also excel at different products. A store which sells good dimensional lumber might not have good sheet goods. Another store with terrible dimensional lumber could have excellent sheet goods like plywood and MDF.

Another one is to make sure that you get the wood from the same vendor through the entire project. For example, the 1x3's that our local lumberyard had were slightly (almost 1/8") thicker than the ones we got from Big Orange when we ran out on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of the project. We made it look like it was supposed to be that way, but it would have been easier to just make sure we had bought them all from the same vendor.