How Thick to Cut Lumber

One of the first things I needed to figure out when I started cutting rough lumber on a sawmill was what thickness to make it. I could generally determine if I wanted it to be thick or thin, but just how thick or thin? 4/4 lumber is 1″ thick, so it should be rough cut at 1″ thick, right? Not exactly. For hardwoods, the commercial target for 4/4 lumber is actually 1-1/8″, which allows enough margin to produce dried and planed lumber at a thickness of 13/16″ or 3/4″ (3/4″ is acceptable, but the extra 1/16″ of thickness in 13/16″ material allows room for additional planing or sanding after panels or doors are glued up).

The crazy thing is that back then I couldn’t find solid information on lumber thicknesses anywhere and when I referred to the NHLA (National Hardwood Lumber Association) guide, the thicknesses didn’t match up with what I was finding from hardwood producers.  The NHLA guide doesn’t include the bonus 1/8″ of thickness – 4/4 lumber, for example, is specified at a minimum of 1″.

In my experience, 4/4 hardwood lumber cut at 1″ is too thin to consistently produce flattened and planed lumber at 13/16″ thick and will even have trouble producing 3/4″ thick unless the boards are very flat. The only way 1″ thick rough-cut hardwood lumber can plane out completely to 13/16″ or 3/4″  thick is to skip the flattening and just plane the lumber. This will produce thicker finished lumber, but it won’t be flat and straight since the planer will simply follow the curves of any crooked boards. From a woodworkers perspective this is a horrible practice and makes woodworking much more difficult. For this reason, I cut my 4/4 hardwood lumber like all other quality producers at 1-1/8″ thick and don’t accept anything from other sawmills or wholesalers at 1″ thick.

Starting with the lumber measurement and adding 1/8″ for the final thickness is how all of the hardwood measurements go, with a target for 4/4 lumber at 1-1/8″, 5/4 lumber at 1-3/8″, 6/4 at 1-5/8″ and 8/4 at 2-1/8″. These are the commercially accepted numbers, and except for 8/4 lumber the ones that I shoot for. The problem with 8/4 lumber is that since there is more wood it shrinks more than thinner lumber and 2-1/8″ thick just isn’t enough thickness to flatten and plane lumber to consistently finish at 1-3/4″, which is the target for 8/4 lumber. When I flatten and plane batches of 8/4 lumber milled at 2-1/8″ thick it isn’t uncommon for half of the lumber to finish at 1-5/8″ thick instead of 1-3/4″.

Because I think 2-1/8″ is a little thin, I commonly cut 8/4 lumber at 2-3/8″ thick. 2-3/8″ thick is twice that of 4/4 lumber, plus the 1/8″ saw kerf that would have been between the two imaginary cuts. The extra thickness not only impresses the ladies, but it assures a final dried and planed thickness of at least 1-3/4″ and officially uses no extra wood when compared to cutting 4/4 lumber (to keep things simple, a friend of mine simply calls it “double four quarter” lumber). As I mentioned though, 8/4 is commercially sawn at 2-1/8″ thick, so if you cut it at that measurement it isn’t wrong, 2-3/8″ is just better for the end user (none of my customers have ever been upset that the wood is a little thicker).

The previous examples were for hardwoods, but softwoods, like white pine, can be cut thinner since they shrink less and dry straighter overall, plus softwoods are commonly used for construction purposes instead of furniture, which don’t need the extra thickness for secondary planing or sanding, so 3/4″ final thickness is common for 4/4 softwood lumber. For 4/4 white pine for example, I cut 1″ thick, which will finish at 3/4″. And, for cedar, which shrinks very little and is very straight and stable, I will go even thinner, down to 7/8″. In general though, softwoods are cut on the standard quarter scale with 4/4 lumber measuring 1″.

The scale below shows the target hardwood lumber thicknesses for commercially produced, rough-cut lumber and their planed thickness counterparts. These are the sizes you should expect to find when shopping for hardwoods.

Hardwood Lumber Measurements

Quarter-scale measurement    Rough cut thickness    Planed thickness
4/4                                                1-1/8″                            13/16″
5/4                                                1-3/8″                            1-1/16″
6/4                                                1-5/8″                            1-1/4″
8/4                                                2-1/8″ (or 2-3/8″*)         1-3/4″

*2-3/8″ is a better thickness to consistently finish at 1-3/4″ thick, but 2-1/8″ is the norm.

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About wunderwoods

Hi! My name is Scott Wunder and I am the owner of WunderWoods Custom Woodworking. We build wine cellars, built-ins and furniture from local woods, here in St. Louis, MO. Recently, I finished a three-year term as the President of the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild, which had me writing a monthly article for our newsletter. I love to write, especially about wood, and found that I still had more to say. Every day I run into something wood related that I realize some of my customers don't know and this seems like a great forum for sharing what I have learned (instead of telling the same story to each person). The main thing to remember is that I try to keep it light and as my wife always reminds people that have just met me, "He is joking."

4 responses to “How Thick to Cut Lumber”

  1. Dan Fall says :

    Width is also an important issue. I had a sawyer out awhile back and he did a poor job by going too wide the entire time. It looks nice coming off the mill, but never makes it to the rack. Usually between regular defects, drying defects, pith, flat grains, etc, the boards would have turned out better rift or quartersawn narrower. Walnut is the only species I’ve seen that tolerates wide cutting.

    • wunderwoods says :

      Width is an issue. These days I am cutting lots of slabs. The wider the slabs the thicker I cut them. On a crazy grain wide slab it isn’t uncommon to lose 1″ of thickness getting things straightened out.

  2. Kent Holt says :

    I have a question…You mention several times “flatten and plane”. I understand the “plane” but what do you do to flatten a board if it is needed before planing besides stacking and stickering it properly?

    • wunderwoods says :

      Kent,

      The flatten part refers to removing wood to make the surface flat, for example removing high spots. This could be done with a router sled, a hand plane, a jointer, or even with the sawmill. The key is to straighten things out before worrying about the surface quality, which is more of the planing aspect of “flatten and plane”.

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