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What is Rough Sawn Lumber?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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Rough sawn lumber is lumber which is not finished before it is shipped for sale. It is left literally rough and needs to be dried, planed, and otherwise dressed by the recipient. This lumber tends to be less costly and some people prefer working with it because it gives them greater control. There are also some important cautions and caveats to be aware of when working with rough sawn lumber or purchasing lumber for a project. Handling lumber badly or choosing the wrong lumber can be a costly mistake.

When lumber is processed at a sawmill, the rough sawn stage is one of the earliest steps, when boards have been cut from a tree but not yet planed and dried. When it is shipped in this state, the lumber is still green, which means that it has not dried and cured. Consequently, it will shrink as it settles and it must be allowed to dry before it can be used. Drying is often done by leaving the lumber outside, but it can also be dried in a lumber kiln or in a workshop.

Rough sawn lumber is slightly larger than finished lumber. This is because of the shrinkage associated with planing and drying; it is cut rough and large to leave room to plane the lumber to smooth it and to allow it to shrink as it dries. Many different types of lumber can be sold as rough sawn wood, including both hard and soft woods, and it is available in a range of sizes.

One reason to work with rough sawn lumber is to save money. For people who have the time and space to plane and dry the lumber, it may be more cost effective to use this type of lumber than it would be to purchase finished lumber for projects. Some people also appreciate the ability to have greater control over how lumber is handled during finishing. Woodworkers, for example, are often very concerned with the handling of their lumber because small mistakes can be magnified in custom projects; a board which is poorly handled can ruin months of hard work.

Lumber yards are very careful about labeling their products so that people understand what kind of wood they are buying. Rough sawn lumber will be kept separate from finished or partially finished lumber such as lumber which has been planed on one side. It will also be separated by tree species so that people can purchase lumber from the right kind of tree for a project.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By TreeMan — On May 13, 2012

I have also been considering moving to rough sawn lumber as of late. There is a sawmill near me where I buy most of my high-value woods like walnut and cherry. I was talking to the owner the other day, and he was telling me some of his rough sawn lumber prices. It would be much cheaper for me to go that route if I got good enough at drying and planing the wood.

I have looked at some plans for various home kilns, and it does look like the solar kind would be the most cost effective.

The other benefit I would have is that, besides living near the sawmill, there is a gentleman in the county with a portable sawmill who goes around to various landowners' properties and will cut down and saw up some more "rare" trees that loggers usually don't take because they don't sell well. I've seen some beautiful pieces of hackberry and honeylocust that he's made, and if I had a kiln, I could put them to use.

By jmc88 — On May 13, 2012

@Emilski - I would agree with you. Unless you really need special wood thicknesses or want to find certain grain, just keep with commercial wood.

I live out in the western U.S. so I don't have a lot of the oak lumber that a lot of people have access to, so I have to do a lot of work to get it. Cedar lumber and redwood lumber are pretty common around here, though. At least in my limited experience drying hardwoods, it seems like they take a lot longer to dry than softwoods do. I guess it makes sense. On the other hand, though, you have to be careful how you put the softwood lumber in the kiln or it will warp easily.

By Emilski — On May 12, 2012

@cardsfan27 - Those are good questions. I had a lot of the same concerns when I considered using rough sawn lumber for the first time. I guess one of the questions you should ask yourself sort of comes from the article - are you dissatisfied with the lumber you normally get from the lumber yard and want it to your own specifications? If not, I would suggest just keeping with your current system. The work of tracking down lumber and drying it will probably not be worth the extra cost of pre-planed wood.

I make a lot of specialty furniture where I am always looking for unique pieces of wood. In my experience, I've found most places don't sell stuff that I like, so I dry my own wood. It also helps that I have a friend who has connections to a local sawmill.

As far as drying the wood yourself, what I use is called a sun kiln. Like the name implies, it uses the sun's heat to dry out the wood. They are relatively easy to make, and you can find several plans online.

By cardsfan27 — On May 11, 2012

I have heard a lot about using rough sawn lumber, but I have never personally used it in any projects. For anyone who may have used it in the past, how do you feel about using rough sawn lumber compared to the dried and finished stuff that you can buy at various stores and lumber yards?

Most of what I make is made using either maple or oak lumber, so specific information about those two types would be most helpful.

I guess if I were to use rough sawn lumber, my biggest question would be what is the best way to actually dry the wood? I don't have any type of a kiln or even a really warm place to keep the wood. I do most of my work in my garage, and I don't even always feel comfortable leaving regular wood out there if it has rained recently, since it can get kind of humid in there.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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