Back to Basics, Culling Your Wood

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One of the joys I take from my personal life is my clear domination of my dog as we watch the game show “Jeopardy!”.  She rarely answers, and when she does she gets it wrong.  From all the episodes I’ve seen–“woof” has never been a correct response–and she doesn’t phrase her answer in the form of a question.  

A recent answer had to do with the host of “The New Yankee Workshop”.  Smugly, I told the dog and Mr. Trebek it was Norm Abrams of course.  In the course of my fist-pumping and victory celebrations, the judges informed me that my answer was indeed:  incorrect.  The host of “New Yankee Workshop” is one Mr.  Norm Abram. No “s” on the end.  This prompted me to re-think my self proclaimed knowledge of all things carpentry–and frankly–put me into a bit of a mild tailspin as to how I would live this down.  Time to get back to basics.  Restore my roots.  Get my hands on some wood.

Proper wood handling starts with culling.  Let’s talk stock lumber.  We have all been at the local orange or blue box store and sifted through piles of 2x4s that looked more like licorice than lumber.  For the purposes of blocking material, Lebowski inspired door stops, or fly swatters–these twisted up pieces will do just fine.  For the discerning DIYer I offer the following tips for easily, quickly, and accurately culling stock lumber.  By understanding a bit about the defects in wood, you can quickly determine if a piece of lumber will make the grade.  If you find yourself with nothing but a lift of lumber that is filled with junk–there is no greater joy than having the box store close down an entire aisle–grabbing the forklift and bringing out a new bunk of 2x4s just for you.

The Crown: Easy enough to see.  Not a terrible defect in and of itself, but an extreme crown should be avoided.  In fact–as a rule from now on–extreme defects are automatically culled.  Pull the board off the stack and quickly look down the small edge.  (On a 2×4 the 1.5 inch side) and sight down the entire axis.  If there is a hump or dip in the piece, that is known as the crown.  Slight crown is ok.  Carpenters should always orient the crown facing the same direction for uniformity.  Deck and floor joists should always be framed crown up.  In walls where cabinets are to be installed–it is best to avoid crown all together.  Try to find the straightest lumber possible for these walls.

The Bow: Same as a crown, except on the wide portion.  Bowed boards can be salvaged if the material is to be used in shorter lengths.  Heavy bows should be avoided in wall building.  You will thank me when trying to screw your drywall on and you just can’t find the stud in the middle.

C’mon Baby: Don’t do the twist.  I’ll take you by your hand–and go like this:  lead you out of the lumber section.  Twists are virtually impossible to work with.  There is little do be done with these boards, just avoid them.

The Cup: More common in thinner dimensional lumber than the 1.5 inch thick example I’m using.  Cupping occurs when the boards edges curl toward the center of the piece.  A cupped board can be salvaged by ripping it into strips, and re-joined.  If that sounds like a lot of work: it is.  When the stars align, all lumber is straight and true.  In the box stores–you need to know what to put on those giant, loud carts–and what to cull.

Knots, Check, and Shakes: Unless it is destined to be a glorious mantle, or a sculpture in your living room most knots are ok.  Some woodworkers like knots for flair.  Be wary of loose knots as these can wiggle loose and come out with much rapidity and pain when sawed.  Nailing into knots is almost impossible, so keep that under consideration.  Checks are vertical cracks in the wood.  Most 2x lumber is going to have some check.  It is merely a splitting of the wood fibers, and doesn’t generally present much a problem.  End check can be cut off the piece.  Shakes are more problematic as they are a bit harder to spot.  Shakes look like check–but follow the contour of the growth rings of the individual tree the lumber was milled from.  End shakes can also be cut off.

The Daily Double: I am how lumber likes to be stored.  Answer: What is, Level as possible, off the floor or ground, and if possible given as much time to acclimate to the climate where it will be installed.  Woof!

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3 thoughts on “Back to Basics, Culling Your Wood”

  1. I really appreciated how you talked about lumber salvage in your article. I think that being able to salvage bowed boards to still have use and be effective would be good. I’m glad that you talked about not using the bowed lumber in walls, but salvaging it and using it elsewhere. I’m going to have to see what my options are for lumber salvage with what I have! Thanks for the information!

  2. I did not know that nailing into a knot was extremely difficult. This part of the tree is extra thick and solid so that makes sense. Planning the project ahead to avoid knots where you might be nailing would be a good idea.

  3. Thanks for your tips. Any construction project will only be as good as the material you use, so pick the right materials! I have never worried about knots in the wood I use. I just make sure it isn’t twisted or cracked and call it good.


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