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Understanding softwood lumber markets through data analysis

Understanding Nominal vs Actual Lumber Sizes

When it comes to purchasing softwood lumber, understanding the difference between nominal and actual sizes can make a difference when planning a new development. Why isn't a 2x4 piece of lumber actually 2 inches thick and 4 inches wide? And why do the measurements of 4x4s and 1x6s differ from their nominal sizes? In this guide, we will delve into the intricacies of nominal lumber sizes, exploring the reasons behind the differences and shedding light on industry practices.

A bundle of 2x4 Dimensional Lumber stacked on top of more wood

The Origins of Nominal Lumber Sizes

The derivation of nominal lumber measurements dates back to a board's size before it undergoes drying and surfacing on all four sides. Originally, a 2x4 piece of lumber was cut as a rough green board, which was approximately 2 inches thick and 4 inches wide. However, during the drying and surfacing processes, the boards undergo shrinkage, resulting in smaller dimensions. Today, modern sawing, drying, and planing technologies have become much more precise, allowing boards to be cut slightly smaller than the traditional 2x4 inches while still leaving enough material to dress after drying, resulting in final dimensions of 1 ½ inches thick and 3 ½ inches wide.

The Difference Between Nominal and Actual Dimensions

Nominal lumber sizes refer to the standard terminology used in the industry for buying, selling, and specifying softwood lumber. These sizes are based on historical conventions and reflect the rough green dimensions of the boards before drying and surfacing. On the other hand, actual dimensions refer to the final sizes of the lumber after it has undergone drying and surfacing. These dimensions are typically smaller than the nominal sizes due to shrinkage and material removal during the processing stages.

To illustrate this further, let's consider the most commonly available dimension lumber sizes: 2x4 through 2x12. While the nominal dimensions of 2x4s and 2x6s are 2 inches by 4 inches and 2 inches by 6 inches, respectively, their actual dimensions are slightly smaller. The 2x4s and 2x6s are typically ½ inch less than their nominal widths. Similarly, the 2x8s, 2x10s, and 2x12s have actual widths that are ¾ of an inch less than their nominal sizes. These differences in width are a result of the varying rates of shrinkage during the drying process, with wider lumber experiencing more significant reductions in width compared to narrower boards.

Two construction workers measuring dimensional lumber

The Significance of Nominal Lumber Sizes

Nominal lumber sizes have become an industry standard, and builders, engineers, architects, buyers, and sellers are familiar with the differences between nominal and actual dimensions. While there have been lawsuits against some retailers for selling undersized lumber, the courts have recognized the long-standing use of nominal sizes in the industry. However, to address consumer concerns, the courts have mandated a new requirement for size labels. According to the American Wood Council, lumber can be labeled with nominal dimensions as long as the label or sign clearly states that the size provided is nominal. Additionally, the label should also include the actual or minimum measurements. This ensures that consumers are informed about the differences between nominal and actual lumber sizes.

Softwood Dimension Lumber Sizes

Dimension lumber, also known as framing lumber, refers to lumber that has been cut and finished on all four sides (S4S). This type of lumber is commonly used in the framing of buildings, hence its name. Technically, dimension lumber can be defined as sawed softwood lumber ranging from 2 to 5 inches thick and 4 to 12 inches wide. The length of dimension lumber can vary from 6 to 24 feet. To ensure standardization, the PS 20-20 American Softwood Lumber Standard lists the nominal and minimum dressed sizes for all categories of structural and nonstructural lumber.

A chart depicting dimensional lumber and the sizes differences between nominal sizes and actual sizes

Standard Sizes of Softwood Dimension Lumber

The most commonly available dimension lumber sizes fall within the range of 2x4 through 2x12. These sizes are widely used in construction and are readily available at lumber yards and home improvement stores. However, it's important to note that the actual dimensions of these lumber sizes differ slightly from their nominal counterparts. As mentioned earlier, the 2x4s and 2x6s are typically ½ inch less than their nominal widths, while the 2x8s, 2x10s, and 2x12s are ¾ of an inch less than their nominal sizes. These differences are a result of the shrinkage that occurs during the drying process, with wider lumber experiencing more significant reductions in width.

In conclusion, understanding nominal lumber sizes is crucial for anyone working with softwood lumber. The nominal dimensions of lumber reflect the historical conventions and rough green sizes of the boards before drying and surfacing, while the actual dimensions represent the final sizes after these processes. Although there have been lawsuits regarding undersized lumber, the courts have recognized the long-standing use of nominal sizes in the industry. By labeling lumber with both nominal and actual dimensions, consumers can make informed decisions when purchasing lumber for their projects. So, the next time you visit a lumber yard, you'll be well-equipped to navigate the world of nominal lumber sizes with confidence.

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