When you go to a timber merchant to buy your timber, please bear in mind that each merchant may be using different suppliers, so what’s available in one may not be available in another. Also, each can have a distinctive character about them; they are not, and thank god they are not, like the big DIY chains. The first impression might be the fact that the timber is lying flat, not stood on end. This is how wood should be stored. The next thing to notice is the range of sizes available. To begin with, lets assume that you want softwood with a smooth finish – that is timber that has already been planed on all four sides, known as faces, and referred to as PAR (planed all round) or PSE (planed square edged) or simply ‘prepared’ rather than ‘sawn’. At this stage bear in mind the following: if you order 50×100 (4” x2”) prepared, you will get 46×96. That is because all prepared timber is sold ‘Ex’ sometimes referred to as ‘Nominal’, which means the size it was sawn to before it was prepared. One other point to remember is that lengths are sold in multiples of 0.3 of a Meter so its 0.3, 0.6, 0.9, 1.2, 1.5, and so, on up to about 6 Meters. However, you may not be able to buy a minimal length of any given size as the timber merchant doesn’t want to be left with a 0.9 length after selling you the other piece that’s 2.1m, so you may have to buy the whole 3m length.
If your’e buying sawn, then the general rule is that you buy the whole length and they usually come in at 2.4m ,3m, 3.6m, 4.2m, 4.8m depending on the dimensions (width and thickness). Unless specified, sawn is usually 5th grade and unprepared, so if you ask for 50×100 you will get the full 50×100.
Common hardwoods, that is Oak, Sapelli, Meranti, Ash and such like, also come prepared and sometimes sawn. Again, merchants may only sell you the whole length unless they can be left with a reasonable length that is sellable, so be prepared to pay for the off cut (the bit you won’t use but have to pay for and take away).
For more exotic hardwoods such as Teak, Walnut, and so on, you will certainly have to purchase the whole board and possibly put in a minimum order. The common sizes available for prepared softwood are as follows (and remember this is Ex/Nominal so what you are presented with is undersized by roughly 4mm each way):
Thickness x Various Widths (mm):
12 x 38 or 50
16 x 25, 38, 50, 75, or 100
19 x 19, 25,38,50,75,100,125,150, or 175
25 x 25, 38, 50, 75,100,125,150,175,200, or 225
32 x 32, 50, 75,100,125,150,175, 200, 225, 250, or 275
38 x 38, 50, 75,100,125,150,175,200, or 225
50 x 50, 75,100,125,150,175, 200, or 225
75 x 75, 100, or 150
100 x 100
The common sizes for sawn softwood are as follows (and remember this is actual sizes):
25 x 50, 75,100,150, or 200
38 x 38, or 50
50 x 50, 75,100,125,150,175, 200, or 225
75 x 75, 100,150, 200, or 225
100 x 100, 150, or 200
The Common sizes available for prepared common hardwoods (again remember this is Ex/Nominal) are as follows:
19 x 38, 50,100, or 150
25 x 50, 75,100,150,175, 200, 225, 250, or 300
32 x 150, or 225
38 x 38, 100,150, or 225
50 x 50, 75,100,or 150
75 x 75, or 100
100 x 100
From these pieces, I machine to specific measurements for specific projects using a circular saw and planer thicknesser. It’s worth mentioning that with some hardwoods you may find the merchant uses the imperial system for measurements and will give you a price per cube, referring to a cubic foot and the length in feet as well, even if it’s machined to metric widths and thickness. This is a very general overview of what’s available off the shelf; other sizes may well be in stock. The big retail stores will have nowhere near this range of sizing. Other species of timber will be off-the-shelf as well, and a rummage through may well bring up some surprises. Older established merchants may well have stock going back years, so have hardwoods and softwoods that are no longer available – one that comes to mind is Brazilian Mahogany
Please also consider the issue of using timber that is not under threat from exploitation and does not have a vulnerable status. We may all wish to have fancy flooring or solid hardwood items, but there is a growing environmental cost. A most worthwhile campaign group and charity that protects native woodlands in the UK is the Woodland Trust, which aims both to preserve the threatened remains of our ancient forests, and to plant new forests and woods. Also, do please think about using reclaimed or recycled timber from reclamation yards and timber banks, or even skips. I once built a small kitchen from Pitch Pine found in a skip. Southampton has a wood recycling project, and Friends of the Earth have a publication called The Good Wood Guide, which gives you information about using sustainable timber products and recycling. With the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), all timber will now have a traceable chain from felling to the merchant, thus ensuring sustainability.