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I am working on a bathroom project, which is a brand new room. I've gone out to purchase 2x3" lumber for this project (I don't prefer metal studs). It seems like everywhere I go to buy lumber, almost all of it is bowed, bent, or twisted. Even worse, especially at my local Home Depot, the lumber is wet and even moldy sometimes.

As I've gutted some of the parts of my house, I've found nothing but really nice, straight, clean 2x3"s. Luckily I kept them and was able to reuse them in various places. Here is a picture of a small piece:

enter image description here

As you can see, the edges are nice and crisp, and I can assure you that the longer stud that this piece came from is straight. It seems like maybe these were milled better than nowadays. My house was built in 1954.

So my question is, do they still produce 2x3" studs that are straight? I don't mind paying more for a good product. And I guess if I have to I'll drive further too. FWIW I'm in Maryland.

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    Are you looking at construction grade 2x4's? The home depots I've been in usually have a few different racks for 2x4's.
    – JACK
    Mar 24 at 23:13
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    That piece of lumber you’re showing appears to be “trim” grade not framing lumber. (It’s only 3/4” thick and appears painted...finished.) You can easily order lumber to match that piece of lumber...it even has a knot on one side of the board.
    – Lee Sam
    Mar 24 at 23:44
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    My mill has a large log band mill and yes that quality is high but it is the huge logs that places like hull-oaks lumber mills that is unobtanium. Up to 1 log per truck. The problem is in the 50’s there was a ring count for graded lumber that was removed in the late 60’s or early 70’s today you can get a 2x4 with 6 rings that was pallet wood back then.
    – Ed Beal
    Mar 25 at 2:33
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    May I ask why are you buying 2x3 lumber for a new room? I believe code in the Northeast has been increased to 2x6 for exterior walls and 2x4 has been standard on interior walls since well before I was born.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Mar 25 at 17:41
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    If you really don't mind paying more or shopping elsewhere it may be worth looking into engineered products such as LSL (laminated strand lumber). Those are perfectly straight like metal studs, but made from wood. They do have a higher cost than stick lumber, and you probably need to go to the local building supply rather than a big box store. Mar 25 at 23:53
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I've worked through hundreds of units of framing lumber over the last 30 years, and the difference between big box lumber and "lumber yard" lumber is insubstantial, on average*. In fact, it's often better from big boxes due to higher customer expectations. The local HD competition were actually forced to raise their lumber quality to compete on that front. The reputation at Home Depot, for example, mostly comes from folks walking in to buy their first 2x4 and not recognizing that this is a natural product with natural variation.

The simple fact is that two things primary affect lumber quality, aside from grade (and most stores sell more or less the same grade):

  • Age of the trees. We consume so much lumber these days that most of it is "new growth", planted (naturally or artificially) 20-30 years ago specifically for lumber harvest. This means wider grain and softer wood, which can warp more.

  • Storage practices and sales trends. If lumber isn't kept dry and sold quickly it'll warp. 2x3s in particular don't sell nearly as quickly as 2x4s, so they're sitting in a store drying out and warping longer. They also tend to be used by finicky homeowners who don't know how to use them correctly more often, so the slightly bowed ones are left behind to accumulate and become severely bowed. You can see how this skews perception.

Yes, modern lumber is softer and may warp more. No, it's not really a problem with a few techniques:

  • Sight down one corner lengthwise to properly assess straightness. Don't be too picky. Shoot for < 1/4" of bow in 8'. Reject severe twists, though, as you can't really work that out during installation. "Fifth-sided" boards with a little bark on one corner aren't usually a problem if they're straight.
  • Use bowed boards where you can straighten them, such as in wall plates that are anchored at close intervals.
  • Crown your studs to put all the slight edgewise bows to the same direction. This reduces waviness at the center of the wall's height.
  • Use badly bowed or twisted boards for drywall backing and other places where they can be cut to shorter lengths.
  • Take care of your lumber. Store it under cover and use it or weigh it down soon after purchase. Lumber that's exposed to very wet or dry conditions will warp whether it's bundled or not.

The bottom line is that, unless you're building furniture, the hassle of buying a few boards through a lumber yard's process or special ordering boards isn't likely worth it.

* I'm in Minnesota. Could be that we get better (mostly Canadian) lumber than in other regions.

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    Big +1 for mentioning how to use somewhat warped wood correctly. IMO, that's what OP should do (it's what everyone does these days really), rather than spending a ridiculous amount on some perfect wood that's only going to be covered up with drywall.
    – Nate S.
    Mar 25 at 16:19
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    +1 for the advice. My experience is, unfortunately, extremely different than your first paragraph indicates it should be.
    – FreeMan
    Mar 25 at 18:08
  • Could be a regional thing. My HD usually has really nice SPF lumber.
    – isherwood
    Mar 25 at 18:09
  • I'm a bit south of you in Indiana. A fair bit of lumber I see in the local racks would be ideal as a canoe keel without any additional effort. Fortunately, after 30 years of working together, my wife & I make a pretty good lumber selection team.
    – FreeMan
    Mar 26 at 12:44
  • +1 For studs with just a bit of twist in them, you can often square them with a prybar like this - I don't think this tool has a proper name, but it's the perfect size to hold a 2x4 and lets you put some torque on it when you're framing. Just line it up with the pencil mark and hit it with the nailer - voila. Twisty board done straight.
    – J...
    Mar 30 at 0:08
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You can find “straight grain” lumber, but most people don’t know how to order it and most “yards” (Home Depot, etc.) won’t order a small amount (half units, etc.).

Lumber is divided into three “Grades”: boards, dimensional, and timber. Further, dimensional and timbers are graded into “light framing”, decking, beams, timbers, etc. Those grades are further graded into: standard, select, utility, economy, No. 2 & better, No. 1 , etc.

For “Boards”, it’s further graded into “appearance grades”, they are further graded into: finish grades, casing, flooring, siding, etc.

Lumber yards keep a standard grade for framing and a standard grade for trim, etc.

In order to get the material you want, you’ll need to special order the size and grade. (Remember, lumber grading rules allows 10% mis-graded boards in a unit and it’s still considered acceptable. I’d order 10% - 20% more than needed if the appearance grade is critical.)

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The problem with today’s lumber it comes off much smaller trees and unless #2 or better kiln dried it can look like what you are finding.

Today to get what you have you basically have to purchase vertical grain lumber (way expensive).

Sometimes it gets mixed in the sorter but you have do dig through a unit to find it if the mill does both like mine.

In any case to find premium pieces today you have to purchase vertical grain or buy kiln dried it is usually straight and dry but dig to find the best pieces.

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Without 'fixing the system' haha, one approach you can use to try and mitigate the worst of it, at your local Hope Depot, lay the boards down on the store floor, on all sides and see which ones are the straightest.

It doesn't completely fix the problem but it does help mitigate and reduce the worst of it.

It helps if they've just refilled the wood of course and you get one of the first chances to do this. You'll notice that others already do this so when there are only a few planks left... they are often really crappy.

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    Laying boards on the floor is a hassle and makes you look like a noob. Just sight down a corner with your eye. Any bows become immediately apparent. With a little practice you can detect 1/16" in 8'.
    – isherwood
    Mar 25 at 12:47
  • Or just buy 3x more than you need and return the crap
    – Kris
    Mar 25 at 12:57
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    That's also a needless hassle.
    – isherwood
    Mar 25 at 12:58
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    If I cared about how other people look at me that might an issue @isherwood however I don't give a crap. Using the eye method however is useful. Have to see how well it works with my older hard to focus eyes though. thank you. Mar 25 at 13:18
  • yeah good point - make sure the floor is flat in the fist place! Mar 25 at 13:20
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So my question is, do they still produce 2x3" studs that are straight?

Yes. The better question is - Who is "they"? Straight lumber is plentiful and cheap in Canada, for example.

It's important to understand that pricing and availability of quality lumber in the United States has long followed the ups and downs of the Canada/US Softwood Lumber Dispute, which has been going on since 1982.

Most recently, this dispute was inflamed as a part of former US President Trump's policies of economic protectionism. As such, since 2018 there has been a significant increase in the cost of lumber and a decrease in the availability of quality lumber as builders fight amongst themselves for the best of available domestic inventories while quality imports remain heavily taxed and expensive, driving up prices and reducing supply. The NAHB estimates that this is adding up to $9k to the price of new homes.

Sometimes the world of politics can feel abstract and distant, but this is one example where political sabre-rattling has real consequences - namely, sad faces in US lumber aisles.

Other factors are also compounding the issue at the moment, including the impact of recent wildfires in the Western US that destroyed thousands of acres of lumber forest.

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    This is very interesting!
    – Mark
    Mar 26 at 16:12
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Yes, the "HD Prime" stuff is usually quite terrible. Even if you find a straight piece you better use it that same day or else it will warp and bow by the end of the week.

My Home Depot sells premium Burrill brand lumber. For me, 9 out of 10 boards at the store are straight and will stay straight for weeks. HD Prime is more like a 2/10 and I've never had one stay straight in storage.

If you have a table saw then buy a 2x6 and rip it into two 2x3 boards.

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My preference is Lowes over HD, but I'd assume they're basically the same.

When I go to get lumber, I bring gloves because I know I'll be moving a lot of wood to get something decent. I'd guess that on average I only take about 50% of the boards, sheet or dimensional, that I pick up to look at.

That said, we built a shed last summer and, due to the quantity of lumber necessary, we simply ordered online and paid the $50 to have it delivered. We ordered about 20% more than we needed figuring that would give us a good start on what we needed and we'd go return the bent pieces as "oops, got more than we needed", then pick through the piles for straight lumber to replace it. Out of all the dimensional and sheet goods, we had one 2x4x16' and one 4x8x3/4 pressure treated plywood that were warped beyond use. We had a few that were bent or twisted, but that we were able to get straight shorter pieces (mostly for the gambrel roof trusses) out of them.

I've still got a reasonable stock of lumber from that purchasing experience, and the next time I need to purchase lumber (once prices drop from the stratosphere due to the fear virus), I'll strongly consider buying a stockpile again.

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    I wonder if ordering it online means that it's coming from a warehouse rather than a store, so it hasn't already been picked through for the straightest pieces by everyone else.
    – Nate S.
    Mar 25 at 20:34
  • @NateS. out thought was that delivery was expected to be primarily for commercial users (who else orders enough to make it worth the delivery charge, right?). We were thinking that the orders were pulled from fresh stock that had just been delivered and hasn't had the time to sit around in the store getting warped, therefore it's about as straight as it was when it left the lumber mill. It's those pallets of leftover lumber that are partially picked through by the crews that are put out front for Joe Homeowner to pick through when he gets to the store.
    – FreeMan
    Mar 26 at 10:38
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Home Depots wood is the worst. I live in Northern California and use Freedman's out here. Use smaller retailers with lumber yards and you will have much better success. Also it helps to look down the slim side of the board like you look down a rifle barrel (one eye closed) to see if the board is straight. I get straight wood every trip to the store, but like I said, I don't go to HomeDepot.

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