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hardwood lumber grades

Hardwood Lumber Grades Demystified: What You Need to Know

Few things are more timeless and beautiful than hardwood. Homeowners gravitate toward it to make their homes feel more natural with unique floors and furniture. Many would characterize building with hardwood as a precious investment rather than a mere home improvement.

That said, the shopping experience for hardwood can be disorienting to a newcomer, and the sheer number of choices can be overwhelming. How would you grade your understanding of hardwood lumber grades? If you need a timber tutor in this department, you’ve come to the right place.

What Is a Lumber Grade?

Hardwood lumber grades are somewhat like report cards for the wood’s quality. The National Hardwood Lumber Association adopts them to help buyers discern between different types of lumber and how they should be used.

Here’s the ranking of the hardwood lumber grades you’ll typically see from highest to lowest:

  • FAS (First and Seconds): This is the highest grade of hardwood lumber and is made up of boards that are at least 6 inches wide and 8 feet long. FAS lumber is free of defects on one face and has a minimum of 83.3% clear wood on the other face
  • Select: This grade of hardwood lumber is similar to FAS but allows for smaller board sizes and more defects. Select lumber can have some knots, mineral streaks, and color variations, but is generally clear and straight-grained.
  • #1 Common: This grade of hardwood lumber has more knots, mineral streaks, and color variations than Select lumber, but is still suitable for furniture, cabinets, and other high-quality projects. #1 Common lumber has a minimum size of 3 inches wide and 4 feet long.
  • Character (#1 and #2 combined): a grade of hardwood lumber that is less common than the other grades, but is becoming more popular for its unique appearance. Character grade lumber is defined by the NHLA as having “prominent, sound knots, checks, wormholes and other natural characteristics that do not detract from the wood’s fine appearance.”
  • #2 Common: This is the lowest grade of hardwood lumber and is suitable for rustic projects, such as barnwood furniture or paneling. #2 Common lumber can have knots, splits, and other defects, and is generally smaller in size than higher grades of lumber.
  • #3 Common/Rustic: lower grade of hardwood lumber that is defined by the NHLA as having “a sound cuttings of any length of clear cuttings 3″ and wider on the poor face.” In other words, #3 Common/Rustic lumber may have a higher number of knots, splits, and other defects than higher grades of lumber.
    Just because a particular wood falls toward the lower end of this hierarchy doesn’t necessarily mean you wouldn’t want to use it

All hardwood lumber grades serve a purpose, but the higher-quality options are usually reserved for building artisanal furniture, while the #1 and #2 Common grades are better suited for smaller pieces or stretching a budget for larger projects.

A Brief History of Hardwood Lumber Grades

Lumber grading systems were developed in the United States in the early 20th century to provide a standardized way to classify and sell lumber based on its quality and characteristics. Before hardwood lumber grades were established, lumber was often sold based on visual inspection by buyers and sellers, which could lead to disagreements and inconsistencies in pricing and quality.

In response to this, several organizations and groups began developing lumber grading standards and rules. One of the most influential organizations was the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA), which was founded in 1898 and established a standardized grading system for hardwood lumber in 1909. The NHLA grading rules were based on careful research and testing, and they quickly became widely accepted throughout the industry.

The establishment of lumber grading systems had several benefits. It provided a consistent way to measure and describe the quality and characteristics of lumber, which helped to reduce disputes and improve the efficiency of the lumber industry. It also helped to ensure that buyers received the quality and value they expected, and that sellers were fairly compensated for the quality of their product.

Today, lumber grading systems are used throughout the world to classify and sell lumber. They are typically developed and maintained by industry organizations and government agencies, and they vary somewhat depending on the species of wood and the region of the world where they are used. However, the basic principles and requirements of each grade are similar and are designed to ensure that buyers and sellers can easily communicate about the quality and value of the lumber being sold.

Which Hardwood Lumber Grade Works Best for Your Project?

It makes sense that you should go for higher-tier lumber if you want the best results. Both FAS and Select are excellent choices, with Select being even more appealing due to its combination of quality and accessibility.

If you’re deciding based on the project you’re working on, some of the lower grades start to make a case for themselves.
The upper grades are ideal for larger furniture, interior architectural elements, and moldings. The lower grades, meanwhile, work well if your project requires a significant amount of wood and you want to keep costs low. New cabinetry, smaller furniture parts, and floors are all acceptable applications for low-grade hardwood.

Remember that you’ll still get a nicer final product with the higher hardwood lumber grades. Still, covering your new home with FAS isn’t always feasible, and Character works just as well in these circumstances.

Different hardwood lumber grades have different properties.

Best Overall Hardwood Lumber Choice for Furniture: Select

Select lumber has a lot going for it, being extremely strong and durable with few defects. There are typically still knots in this lumber grade, but they’re more purposeful, less pronounced, and overall much smaller.

While FAS may be preferable if you want something devoid of imperfections, Select boasts an excellent balance of resilience and clarity without losing its flair or visual interest.

Choose Select lumber for more ornate projects like furniture building, especially if you’re building something large, like a dining room table. While this furniture will need extra care to keep its appearance, it’s well worth the minimal maintenance involved.

Best Overall Hardwood Lumber Choice for Flooring: Character

Character lumber is the halfway point between #1 and #2 Common hardwood lumber grades. It contains lots of knots and sap, giving it a more natural appearance that makes for striking hardwood flooring.

You can purchase character-grade lumber in two different varieties: solid or engineered. Where you’re installing the flooring will dictate which of the types you should choose.

Any area of your home that could be exposed to humidity will benefit from engineered wood. Solid wood absorbs moisture, which can potentially ruin it, while the engineered type has a protective surface that enables it to withstand moisture. Otherwise, you can opt for solid planks in most other rooms in your home.

Common Defects Found in Hardwood Lumber

It's important to research different hardwood lumber grades before being your project.

  1. Knots – Knots are areas where a branch or limb grew out of the tree, and they can create areas of varying density and color in the wood. Knots can be small and tight, or large and loose, and they can affect the strength and stability of the lumber. Knots can also cause the wood to warp or split as it dries.
  2. Splits – Splits are cracks or fissures that occur in the wood, and they can be caused by a variety of factors, including drying too quickly, impact damage, or natural defects in the wood. Splits can weaken the lumber and make it more prone to warping or cracking.
  3. Checks – Checks are cracks that occur on the surface of the wood, and they can be caused by uneven drying or exposure to extreme temperatures. Checks are generally cosmetic and do not affect the strength of the lumber, but they can make the wood less desirable for certain applications.
  4. Bark – Bark is the outer layer of the tree that is sometimes left on the lumber during milling. Bark can be difficult to remove and can affect the appearance of the lumber, but it generally does not affect the strength or quality of the wood.

The presence and severity of these defects can affect hardwood lumber grades. Higher grades of hardwood lumber, such as FAS and Select, have strict requirements for the amount and size of knots, splits, and other defects that are allowed. Lower grades of lumber, such as #1 Common and #2 Common, allow for more defects and are generally less expensive. The grading rules for hardwood lumber are established by organizations such as the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA) and can vary depending on the species of wood being graded.

When selecting hardwood lumber for a project, it’s important to consider the type and severity of defects in the wood and choose a grade that is appropriate for the intended use and appearance of the finished product.

Make Your Hardwood Choice Easier with Reliance Timber

Navigating the seemingly endless selection of hardwood lumber grades is no simple task, but Reliance Timber makes hardwood easy. We offer Select and Character-grade lumber that you can use to turn any part of your home into a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

Contact us today to tell us more about your timber needs!