Understanding Wood Sizes

Why Doesn't a 2x4 Actually Measure 2-inches by 4-inches?

When visiting your local home center or lumber yard, you’ll notice that stock comes in varying wood sizes.

Additionally, softwood sizes differ from hardwood sizes. While the numbers may seem logical, they can be a bit deceiving, as you’ll soon discover.

Why one-inch isn't really one-inch:

Everybody has heard of a 2×4 (pronounced “two by four”), but few people realize that the actual height and width of a 2×4 is really somewhere close to 1 1/2″ x 3 1/2″ depending on dryness of the material and milling methods.

I know, it’s stupid. But hey, it is what it is. And if you don’t account for it when building, you will be fucked.

Similarly, a 1x (pronounced “one-by”) is only about 3/4″ in thickness. Wood shrinks when it is dried, so lumber mills adjust their tools accordingly.

Length of a piece of stock is not affected, so an 8′ 2×4 is usually very close or even slightly longer than 96-inches.

Softwood Sizing:

Most softwoods, used in home construction and for general purpose woodworking, come in 1x and 2x sizes.

Some columns display the “advertised sizes” and can be compared to the typical actual sizes in the corresponding columns. For instance, a 2×6 typically measures out at 1-1/2″ x 5-1/2″ in actual size.

Hardwood sizing:

Hardwood sizing can be a bit more confusing, because it often depends on whether the stock is surfaced on one side (S1S) or on two sides (S2S).

In some sizing charts, a one-inch piece of stock will typically measure 7/8″ if it is surfaced on one side, but 13/16″ if surfaced on two (opposite) sides.

Hardwoods rarely come in standard dimensions like softwoods. Instead of finding a 2×6 in hardwood vareties, you’ll find that suppliers sell hardwoods in random varieties measured by the board-foot.

Additionally, hardwood may be sold in quarters. Each quarter refers to a 1/4-inch in thickness, meaning, a 5/4 board is roughly 1-1/4″.

If your project calls for a piece that is exactly one-inch thick, you’ll want to purchase a 5/4 board and mill it down to the proper size using a surface planer.

Plywood:

Plywood us available in 4’x8′ sheets, but once again, thickness sizes can be deceiving.

The most common sizes of plywood are 1/2-inch and 3/4-inch, but in actuality, this corresponds to 15/32-inch and 23/32-inch in thickness respectively.

Plywood is graded in A, B, C and D grades, depending on the sanded finish of the two sides of the sheet, A being the smoothest.

A sheet is graded on both sides: for instance, a sheet of BC plywood is grade B on one side and C on the other.

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