I read Michael Pollan's A Place of My Own, in which he builds a small building to use as a writing studio. The architect's design called for wall studs to be cut to 8ft 1in (out of 10ft sticks), resulting in a huge waste pile. Apparently the architect thought that if it was an inch lower Pollan would hit his head coming in; any higher it would have felt cavernous.

Whatever. That is not how I think. I want to use standard materials with minimal waste.

But it's not always obvious how to do this, at least to inexperienced builders. For example, an 8' x 12' shed can have a subfloor built of 3 sheets of 4' x 8' material (great!). However, the interior and exterior walls can't both be increments of 4' wide, if the wall has non-0 thickness. So, you pick one (presumably the exterior) to be at 4' increments, and cut to fit at the other face (presumably the interior).

Similarly, if a particular span is slightly too long for a 2x6, a 2x8 wouldn't be fully used. Either make the span shorter and use the 2x6, or longer and make full use of the strength of the 2x8.

It seems like there should be a list of such tips that experienced builders carry around in their noggins, and that I want to learn without spending 20 years in the field. :-)

I'm limiting the question to sheds because I assume the dynamics of larger buildings change what is worth optimizing for. Let's say we're building under 200 sq. ft.

4 Answers 4


Most builders never even consider this and just create a building large enough that some waste can be reused (e.g. small pieces of drywall in a closet or a bad piece of lumber as a cripple below a window) while most waste is just tossed.

For something you build yourself, start with the outside measurements and get those on an even measurement. Consider how the wood sheathing will overlap on the outside, so an 8' span of 1/2" material can actually cover 8' 1/2" since one corner will have the next piece overlapping the end. Don't worry about cutting an inch or so off the floor, since as you say, you're better off removing material than cutting a patch from a larger piece. Studs come in standard heights, so just use that height.

When it comes to picking the thickness of lumber, I'm a firm believer in overbuilding the floor of the shed. It costs a lot less to overbuild this today than to rip things apart because the joists have weathered poorly. For the rest of it, I suggest leaving it exposed as a shed. The ceiling joists make a great storage space, and it's nice to nail things on the walls, so interior finishing of a shed is a waste of material IMO.

For things like siding, doors, or other less generic materials, see if the local Habitat ReStore has anything useful in stock. Most of these are waste products from a contractor that bought too much or the wrong style, so you get to help a charity and keep things out of a landfill at the same time.


Part of the trick is in looking at what sort of lengths you'll need, and then figure out how to optimize the cuts.

Odds are, there will be some sort of shorter pieces needed (eg, header, sill and cripple studs around the windows), and so you can sometimes get less waste by mixing multiple parts on a board. If you don't have parts that need under-23" boards (cribbing for the floor?), look to see if you have something that's needs ~47", and get 12' sticks rather than 10'.

Now, if you make things too complicated, then you'll be wasting more time figuring out the right cuts than just building, and if someone's building to sell, man-hours are cost, so they've got to balance things out. If you're doing it yourself, you might consider your time to be free, and you'd make a different decision on if the reduced scrap is worth it.

(this sort of thing almost seems like something for a computer program ... put in all of the lengths & quantities, and it makes recommendations on what sticks to buy and how to cut it ... it'd be easier than planning on cuts on sheet goods)

Another consideration is the exact opposite of BMitch's ReStore recommendation (which is a great idea ... also check to see if there are architectural salvage places if you're adding onto an existing older building to keep the doors, trim & radiators similar) ... but find someone to give the scrap to. My step-father one year made a bunch of angels as christmas decorations made primarily out of the end scraps of 2x4s. He rips it down as corner reinforcement for birdhouses, etc. Odds are, there's going to be someone else who can use what you consider to be scrap, but it's a matter of finding the right person.

.. and I'd personally never make a 200 sq.ft. shed ... because at 150sq.ft is when you have to get a permit in my county, and that requires plans (structural, site, etc.) ... which means I have no flexibility if on the day when I got to buy lumber I get some length other than my original plan called for, and I decide to change things around at the last minute. (so yes, sheds are different from larger buildings, in that regard)

also odds are, there's someone else with the same obsession for lack of waste that has some plans out there that have the roof pitch / eve length set to minimize waste.

  • 200 sq. ft. is the maximum for no permit in my county, which is why I picked that number, but for you, let's talk about 150 sq. ft. or smaller structures
    – Jay Bazuzi
    Commented Sep 26, 2011 at 4:57
  • I googled for plans or advice about how build with minimal waste, but couldn't find anything. sigh
    – Jay Bazuzi
    Commented Sep 26, 2011 at 4:58
  • I could've sworn I've seen a book on it before ... but not all of the books on shed design at Amazon have 'search within this book' so I can see if they have a section on their methodology for the designs. Back when I lived in Lexington, Ky, I'd browse the section at Joseph-Beth, but all of the bookstores near me don't have as great a selection.
    – Joe
    Commented Sep 26, 2011 at 12:51

This is pretty reminiscent of a very common calculus problem, and the most important thing, which hasn't been mentioned yet, would be to build it square or nearly square.

10'x10' = 100 sq ft
15'x5' = 75 sq ft

Both have 40' perimeters, but the square version has 33% more interior area. 8'x12' is perfectly fine (96 sq ft), but don't get too carried away with a rectangular shape.

Outside of that, just worry about the pieces that are over 5' and numerous: the studs (primarily) and the rafters... perhaps a few others, depending on the roof design.

Keep in mind that the rafters/joists lengths can be calculated quite easily. With a 30/60/90 triangle, the sides are 2, sqrt(3), and 1 (times some coefficient, forming triangles such as 4 x 3.464 x 2, which would cover a span of 8', plus or minus a foot, depending on how you make them.) Another triangle that you could use is 36.87/53.13/90, which produces a triangle with sides that are multiples of 3, 4, and 5.

A lot of this stuff is going to be affected heavily by the type of rafter design that you want, e.g. rafter tails, collar ties or joists spanning the top plates, etc.

  • Round buildings are even more efficient with wall surface area (40' perimeter -> 128 sq ft), but the cost of roof and floor don't scale the same way.
    – Jay Bazuzi
    Commented Sep 26, 2011 at 4:55
  • @JayBazuzi they do if you use concrete! e.g. you-are-here.com/modern/bubble.html Commented Sep 26, 2011 at 18:27

I totally agree with your question! I recently read an article in Hunker that said common shed sizes are common because they are more efficient to build, less waste due to common lumber sizes...I’m paraphrasing but that may be a good place to start, like 12x16 and so on


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.