purchasing wood by the board foot

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Forum topic by DTrak posted 08-05-2016 07:14 PM 1232 views 1 time favorited 25 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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39 posts in 517 days

08-05-2016 07:14 PM

I am still relatively new to woodworking and have been looking online for my wood purchases. I have noticed that many if not most websites sell by the bf. For example, I found the 6/4 purpleheart I was looking for and it says, “4-10” Widths & 5-10’ Lengths”. How on earth are you supposed to buy for a project when you don’t know the exact sizes you will get? When I buy wood at Home Depot it is either dimensional lumber or by the linear foot so it is easy to calculate what to buy.

When you buy by the bf, do you just calculate the total amount of bf you will need for the whole project and hope your calculations are correct? It sounds like a real headache. And why don’t these places just give you the dimensions of the wood like Home Depot? It seems that it would be so much easier.


25 replies so far

View joey502's profile


482 posts in 938 days

#1 posted 08-05-2016 07:36 PM

Board foot is a volumetric measurement. Length x width x thickness. 1 board foot is 1’x1’x1” =144 cubic inches. For example a board (in the rough) 1” thick x 6” wide x 96” long is 576 cubic inches (1×6x96), 4 board feet (576/144 =4bf).

The lumber industry measures volume, the box store is the people changing the quanity price to linear feet.

Without knowing the dimensions of the boards you are buying it is very difficult to judge how much to buy. 2 boards that are 6bf each may not yield the same number of parts that your project call for. I have never ordered lumber online so i do not know how much info they will give you about the boards you are getting.

View joey502's profile


482 posts in 938 days

#2 posted 08-05-2016 07:42 PM

Where do you live? Maybe someone near you can recommend a local source where you can measure and handle the lumber you are considering.

I buy locally from a small mill. I have a rough drawing of the parts i need to cut and then pick boards that will yield those parts, then i add another board to yeild the parts i have to remake due to my errors. The price is calculated based on the number of board feet i have selected

View splintergroup's profile


723 posts in 642 days

#3 posted 08-05-2016 07:45 PM

Yes, buying on-line means you usually cannot choose the widths of the boards you want. This makes it tough to plan projects.
Some on-line vendors are happy to let you specify minimum widths so as long as you account for plenty of ‘waste’, you usually can get what you need. Keep in mind that for smaller quantities, vendors will usually ship UPS, which has big shipping cost jumps for packages over 4’ in length.

Best bet is to go to a local hardwood lumber yard where you usually get to select from a stack (bring a cut list with you!). For exotics (like Purple Heart), find a place that lets you specify general minimum dimensions or cough up a few more $ per bf. for places like Cook’s that actually have a photograph of each board.

View AandCstyle's profile


2538 posts in 1677 days

#4 posted 08-05-2016 10:35 PM

Dtrak, I have only ordered wood sight unseen once, but it was a very positive experience. I emailed my plans to Michael at McKinney Hardwoods along with my additional requirements and concerns. We worked together to get the best lumber for me and to minimize shipping cost. I ended up buying 100 bdft when I only needed 60 bdft, but that brought the total cost down to about the same as I would have paid locally but the quality was way better. I would do this again if/when the need arises. I have used the extra for subsequent projects except for 1 special board I am saving for a special project yet to be identified. If you are within 1000 miles of Dallas, contact Michael.

-- Art

View TheFridge's profile


5676 posts in 906 days

#5 posted 08-05-2016 11:18 PM

They can charge by the lineal foot when they purchase s4s in bulk.

a lumberyard probably sells many times more furniture lumber than a box store does.

-- Shooting down the walls of heartache. Bang bang. I am. The warrior.

View DTrak's profile


39 posts in 517 days

#6 posted 08-06-2016 12:05 AM

Thanks all. Good points. I do need to look into local lumbar yards. So far I have only needed to buy small quantities, so the confusion over the board feet and shipping costs from online places have also hurt me. Seeing everything in person would help a lot. At least when possible. I imagine there may be times when I am looking for something I can only find online.

View JBrow's profile


745 posts in 340 days

#7 posted 08-06-2016 01:05 AM


For a while, I mail ordered hardwood lumber from Niagara Lumber, East Aurora, NY, in the1990s. In addition, they offered one straight edge and hit or miss planing for additional charges. They are still in business, which is no surprise since in my experience they consistently furnished quality lumber that I probably would have selected myself. I do not recall ever receiving boards that I could not use; and I found all my project pieces somewhere in the stack. I really like the convenience of this style of ordering. However when mail ordering you do give up the ability to select those just right boards.

Upon completing project plans, I determine the number of board feet I need for the project for each thickness required, add my allowance for “waste”, and then, knowing the total amount required, get the wood.

First I do a volume calculation based on the actually final dimensions of each project piece. This represents the absolute minimum amount of lumber needed. I then decide how much more than the absolute minimum I should buy. I consider things such as milling waste, larger rough cut projects pieces, planer snip and end checking, potential mistakes that could require re-making a part, etc. I then consider the lumber grade; higher grades yield more clear-cut stock than the lower grades. Generally I have found a 20% allowance is about right for lumber graded Select and Better (over 83% clear-cut stock per board). As a result, I acquire about 120% of the absolute minimum board feet needed for the project for each thickness. Depending on how well the project goes together, I may end up with a board or two that was not needed, but which can be used on a later project.

View DTrak's profile


39 posts in 517 days

#8 posted 08-06-2016 01:16 AM

That works for calculating total board ft, but if you request just that amount, they might give you what you need in total, but some boards might be too short. So then you have to tell them some specific lengths you need as well as the board ft, right?

View JBrow's profile


745 posts in 340 days

#9 posted 08-06-2016 03:38 AM


I assume you are speaking about sight unseen lumber purchases. If so, yes you can take that approach; mail order the number of board feet and specify a minimum length. Since I have not specified minimum lengths, I cannot say whether a mail order will perform this service and/or whether an upcharge would apply.

I am not sure whether you could specify exact sizes and quantities in those sizes. The complexity of selecting boards of a given width and length to fill your order may be more than a mail order company could handle. If this is your approach, I would think it better to visit a local hardwood dealer and select the lumber yourself. But checking with the mail order dealer is just a phone call.

Since most of my projects require a mix of long and short boards, as long as I can find enough long boards for the long parts, the shorter boards are put to good use and the project is completed based only on the board foot calculation. But if the project requires lumber no shorter than 6’, receiving anything less than 6’ could not be used. Therefore it seems the answer to question depends a lot on the project and the mix of lumber in the mail order. Determining exactly what mix of lengths make up a typical order can only be answered with a few phone calls. If the answer is unsatisfactory, a trip to the local hardwood dealer is the alternative.

View bondogaposis's profile


3969 posts in 1771 days

#10 posted 08-06-2016 04:30 AM

Board foot is the industry standard and it works better than lineal feet when dealing with wood that is bought and used in any number of thicknesses. The lineal foot system is dumbed down for home owners who are only dealing with one thickness. When you buy from a dealer you need to specify thickness, minimum widths and lengths than add some extra for waste, and you will pay by the board foot.

-- Bondo Gaposis

View JAAune's profile


1614 posts in 1736 days

#11 posted 08-06-2016 05:25 AM

It’s easier if you’re actually buying large quantities for commercial usage. Typically you just calculate the amount of BF needed for a project, add 20% to that number to account for waste, then order. My supplier also allows me to specify minimum width and length if I deem that necessary.

So in a typical order I might request 500BF of 4/4 maple in nominal 8ft lengths. They’ll send all 8-footers but the widths are random ranging from 3 to 15 inches. Another order might be 100bf of 6/4, rift-sawn red oak with at least 4 boards at a minimum of 6” width and 12ft long.

Of course if you’re going to make the supplier manually pick though the lumber pile, expect to see an upcharge.

-- See my work at and

View rwe2156's profile


2114 posts in 900 days

#12 posted 08-06-2016 11:18 AM

I generally go to the supplier beforehand to see what nominal widths/lengths they have in stock. I’m usually also looking for rough stock if they have it, but that’s hit or miss because most suppliers are catering to millworks and cabinet shops.

Then I go back and figure my cutlist. (Then hope someone hasn’t hauled the whole stack out on a forklift by the time you get back ;-)

I think you need to figure your project off a cutlist, not by total BF. I think some times you can do it by BF, but I get in less trouble using a cutlist. BTW, I always add 20%.

-- Everything is a prototype thats why its one of a kind!!

View jmalcolm001's profile


6 posts in 171 days

#13 posted 08-06-2016 11:58 AM

It appears that “board foot” is the industry term for “cubic foot.” Do they use actual dimensions of the lumber or “indicated” dimensions. In other words, for the typical “2×4”, do they compute the bf using 2” x 4” (times length), or would they use the actual dimensions of 1-1/2” x 3-1/2” (times length)?

View JAAune's profile


1614 posts in 1736 days

#14 posted 08-06-2016 12:43 PM

Board footage is calculated while the lumber is still in the rough. You’ll lose a minimum of 1/8” thickness by the time everything is flattened and planed. So 4/4 lumber will never yield more than 7/8” and that’s iffy. 13/16” and 3/4” is more realistic. In general, assume you’ll need to buy 1/4” thicker than the finished dimension.

-- See my work at and

View bbasiaga's profile


730 posts in 1415 days

#15 posted 08-06-2016 12:43 PM

They use actual dimension, as most boards are sold rough cut – or actual dimension. 4/4 being actually four quarters thick, or 1”. You then can choose to have them skip plane and straighten one edge for an extra charge.

To the OP, i buy by phone from LL Johnson Lumber company in Michigan. Not sure if you are near by. I do like JAJune and add 20-30%. They price by length, so if I need some 8’ boards for a table top I’ll buy the whole stack of the 8-9’ length lumber to make sure I’ll have enough long boards for the project.

The other thing you can do is draw your parts in sketchup. You can then use the cutlist program to lay it out on boards. YOu get to specify the nominal thickness and max width. Then it shows your parts on the board, tells you how many board feet for the parts, and how many board feet for the actual layout. I still add a percentage for errors, bad boards and such. Takes a bit of getting used to, but handy once you’re used to it.


-- Part of engineering is to know when to put your calculator down and pick up your tools.

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