Thinking Outside the Box About Lumber Sizes, Part 2

active sawmillWhat’s wrong with short lumber? What’s wrong with short people? Contrary to Randy Newman’s song from the 1970s, the answer is the same for both: Absolutely nothing. Here’s a fun fact that backs up that claim: The U.S. lumber market is really the only one that specifies lumber according to such a term.

In America, the term “short” refers to boards shorter than 8 feet. It’s not like we’re talking about 2-foot-long boards here. Most of the time, “short” boards are between 6 and 8 feet long, typically between 7 and 8 feet. By contrast, many Americans request boards that are between 10 and 12 feet in length. European architecture and lifestyles simply don’t require oversized lumber the way we Americans do. But we don’t have to succumb to that kind of peer pressure or tyranny of the trends. And when we rebel against it, we’ll be winning, in a way.

log mill trucksHow Saw Mills Operate

Because of the U.S. preference for longer boards, U.S. sawmills tend to consistently turn out domestic species in lengths 8 feet and longer. When it comes to imported lumber, though, other sawmills are more likely to produce boards in a greater variety of lengths.

As a result, when a U.S. wholesaler like J. Gibson McIlvain purchases entire containers of exotic hardwoods like Mahogany or Sapele, we receive a percentage of short boards along with the more popular longer boards. What’s the percentage of shorts that we receive? It depends on the mill and the species.

at the saw millMahogany trees tend to be small, yielding a fairly high percentage of short boards — about 20% of a load. Sapele and Utile grow fairly large, easily producing extra wide, long, and thick boards, so only 5% of a typical load will be shorts. Other imported species such as African Mahogany and Spanish Cedar are someplace in between those two extremes.

How You Can Benefit

With all that perfectly good “short” imported lumber hanging around, a savvy customer can save a lot of money — and lead time — on a project. Since those purchasing the longer boards are basically offsetting the cost of the shorter boards that come as by-products of their orders, those who are willing to challenge the status quo can benefit by saving money — between 10 and 30%, in many cases! An added bonus is that you’re being kind to the environment and helping eliminate unnecessary waste — the kind of earth-friendly ideology that many people appreciate.

air drying lumberAllowing for short lumber needs to start early in the building process, all the way back in the planning stages. You’ll also want to keep this “short lumber” card in your back pocket for when a customer asks you how to save money without compromising quality. You just might win a new lifelong friend!

If short lumber isn’t an option for you, maybe odd-length sizes can be. Read more about that option here in Part 3.

J. Gibson McIlvain Company

Since 1798, when Hugh McIlvain established a lumber business near Philadelphia, the McIlvain family has been immersed in the premium import and domestic lumber industry. With its headquarters located just outside of Baltimore, the J. Gibson McIlvain Company ( is one of the largest U.S. importers of exotic woods.

As an active supporter of sustainable lumber practices, the J. Gibson McIlvain Company has provided fine lumber for notable projects throughout the world, including the White House, Capitol building, Supreme Court, and the Smithsonian museums.

Contact a representative at J. Gibson McIlvain today by calling (800) 638-9100.

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