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What’s In a Board Foot?
Board Footage: Measuring board footage, being more complicated than it might appear, has caused some confusion in our industry. Dr. Brindley analyzes the factors involved and how to interpret them.

By Ed Brindley
Date Posted: 12/1/2006

   When anyone considers the board footage in a pallet, caution should be exercised. It is often said that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” It can be said as well that “board footage is in the mind of the individual.’’ The basic definition of a board foot remains 1 ft x 1 ft x 1 inch. The differences come mainly in how these dimensions are defined.

   It doesn’t take a lumberman to know that a 2x4 doesn’t measure 2"x4". A softwood 2x4 is typically finished to 1-1/2"x3-1/2". A 2x4 is skinnier than it was in grandpa’s day. West of the Plains States, where many pallets are made from softwood, measuring board footage is not a major problem because they are working with resawn dimensional lumber. Western pallet manufacturers buy low-grade surfaced softwood and either cut it to length or resaw it and cut it to length. Footage differences can still arise when incorporating waste and unusual lumber lengths into the footage count. Because western pallet manufacturers generally buy their lumber on standard softwood dimensions, problems with measurement methods are minimal. The same can be said for softwood pallets outside of the West as well. East of the Plains States, however, the picture changes in hardwood land.

   While softwood is sold on established nominal dimensions, rough green hardwood, the principle wood source of pallets, is usually bought and sold on a full count. Softwood stringers are typically remanufactured 2x4s, so the board footage is based on 2x4. Softwood decking is usually resawn 2” material, typically either 2x4s or 2x6s, so board footage is based on a 1” scale.

   A one-inch rough hardwood board will typically measure 1- 1/16", or even 1 1/8" thick. A hardwood cant will similarly actually measure at least 1/16" over its scale. Hardwood grading rules specify that rules can be superseded by arrangements between the buyer and seller. At one time hardwood warehouse pallets conformed with the established hardwood grading specifications. One-inch decking might be finished 13/16" and a two-inch stringer could be surfaced to 1-3/4". Now, however, hardwood specs which call for 1" nominal decking and 2x4 nominal stringers may receive a wide range of actual dimensions, depending upon the supplier and the circumstances. A one-inch deck board rarely measures the old standard of 13/16". Instead it will be 3/4", or 11/16", or 5/8", or 9/16", or even 1/2". Do not misunderstand us; there are plenty of pallet manufacturers who are careful about supplying what a customer wants and needs. Readers should be aware, however, that the door for misinterpreting board footage and lumber dimensions is wide open. It has caused very serious problems in our industry, serious enough that it is partially responsible for jeopardizing pallet markets. The GMA grocery pallet shambles which exists today is to a great extent caused by inconsistent buying practices over the years.

   Some pallet manufacturers buy cut stock or lengths of dimensioned hardwood and figure footage in pallets in a manner compatible to the way they buy wood. There are so many different types of milling and sawing machinery and so many different ways of purchasing and cutting logs and rough hardwood that what seems reasonable to one pallet manager may look like folly to another. If it causes confusion within the industry, just imagine the confusion and deception it can bring to pallet purchasing.

   There are two general methods of measuring hardwood board footage, although they each have a good many wrinkles. Many people measure hardwood on a nominal scale in that they try to state the pallet lumber output in terms of the rough lumber input. For example, allowing kerf for sawdust, a 5/8" deck board might be scaled as 3/4". With most gang sawing systems, however, somebody gets slighted in this arrangement, either the pallet manufacturer is not getting enough yield or the buyer is not getting a full 5/8". If a pallet plant is processing low-grade boards, they are typically buying material on a 1" scale; so they sell it as 1". If they resaw it down the middle into two pieces (often called 1/2", even though they usually measure less than 1/2"), then they will sell each piece on a 1/2" scale, thus a 1" purchase yields a 1" product.

   Occasionally people measure hardwood lumber on an actual scale. Under this practice, a 3/4" thick board is scaled as 3/4", not as 7/8" or even 1", as it may be by many others. There are even those who will scale deck boards on their actual widths, not the 3-1/2", 3-5/8", 3-3/4" or 4" which might be common.

   Over the years, many cants are cut and sold as 3-1/2 x various widths instead of the once common 4x4, 4x6, 4 x random, etc. A pallet manufacturer may be buying on a 3-1/2” scale, so he might figure footage on this same scale.

   Some people say that to measure footage on actual board footage in terms of actual finished dimensions is absurd because you are giving away the saw kerf (sawdust). Others feel that working within poorly defined nominal specifications is opening a can of worms. Both methods are used, and both can work when all costs are properly included. The key is that a company’s management information system has to allow for covering all waste items, including sawdust, unused shorts, defective pieces, etc. If some of these are not properly accounted for, then what was perceived as being profitable may mysteriously not turn much of a profit. All lumber material items must be covered either by using a higher price per board foot for the lumber involved, or covering all scrap and waste in the board footage count, or covering scrap and waste in some other fashion in your pricing model.

   For pallet manufacturers, conventional wisdom suggests that they use a pricing system based on all manufacturing elements, including lumber. It is not wise to price strictly on a price per board foot basis. However, lumber board footage is typically an important element in any pricing system. When measuring the footage to be used in pricing, make sure all raw material elements are covered. This can be a challenge and is not to be taken lightly. It often leaves room for controversy, particularly when it comes to accounting for lumber downfall from the cutting operation.

   For pallet buyers, there is a straightforward rule. Specify your pallets in terms of actual dimensions, not nominal ones. And do not settle for anything less than what is specified. Make sure that quotes are on the spec; compare apples with apples. Make certain that your specs indicate what you really need. Have incoming pallets carefully checked by somebody who knows what he is looking for and knows what the actual specifications are. Possibly the most important thing is to establish a relationship with dependable suppliers on whom you can count. Your best buying practice is to make your suppliers know that you will hold them to the spec and then do so. A good solid understanding on each side makes for happy customers with a good product and dependable suppliers who can stay in business.

   The hardwood GMA pallet provides a good example of the differences in board footage counts. Figured on a full 1” count for decking, full 4” and 6” board widths, and a full 2x4 count for the three stringers, there is 23.555 board feet in a GMA pallet. If board thickness is measured on a ¾” count, stringers are measured on a 6/4x4” count, and board widths are calculated as 4” and 6”, then the GMA board footage would be 17.667. Readers should understand that it is possible for two different suppliers to justifiably use these two different board footage scenarios and supply pallets that look identical when it comes to dimensions. The footage could be even less if board widths are figured on less than full 4” and 6” counts. If 3-1/2 x 6” cants are being used, then it might make sense for 4” wide boards and stringers to both be cut from and figured on a 3-1/2” scale, further reducing the footage count to less than 17.667 bd.ft.

            So, while a board foot is based on width x length x thickness, the numbers that are used for these dimensions can vary according to buying habits, cutting practices, and costing models.

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