Editor’s Note: Last year, some folks in Illinois were so upset over the naming practice of lumber, they sued a couple of building supply retailers for “deceptive” marketing practices. Last fall, the case was thrown out, with U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang stating no reasonable consumer would find the descriptions for a 4x4 piece of lumber deceptive, even though the dimensions of the lumber is actually 3 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches. Below, I wrote about my own experience with “nominal” lumber, and a possible solution for this DIY lingo that gets lost in translation.


One of my first home improvement projects several years ago was building a set of custom floating shelves.

I found the idea online and sketched out my plan. I went to the lumber store and purchased what I needed.

My coworkers have some unfounded concerns with me using power tools, so I asked a friend to assist with some of the construction work — namely the sawing and the nail gun.

I showed my plan and we got to work.

We sawed the boards to the measurements I provided. Then assembly began.

It didn’t fit. 

“But it’s supposed to be a 1x2?!?!” I wailed, dismayed to find my measurements were just slightly off.

It was then I learned that a 1-inch by 2-inch piece of wood is not exactly 1 inch wide or 2 inches tall.

“What a bunch of cheats!” I said, determined this was some lumber industry conspiracy.

It wasn’t. It’s standard industry terminology, is all.

Turns out lumber is rough cut from logs to be these standard dimensions we call it. The wood is still green and wet at that point. As it dries, it shrinks.

I relate this to when you try to cut your own bangs while the hair is wet. The locks that lined up perfectly with your eyebrows when cut will be decidedly (and embarrassingly) shorter when dry.

Thankfully, we were able to reconfigure my drawings and adjust the wood I had already purchased. The floating shelves turned out great and I was very pleased with my first home-owner home improvement project.

And the next time I decided I wanted to build something, I went and actually measured the wood first. Lesson learned.

When I read last month about some folks suing lumber retailers because their 4x4 boards were actually three-and-a-half inches square, I had some empathy for the plaintiffs. 

“Defendant’s representations as to the dimension of these products were false and misleading,” said the suit against Home Depot.

A similar suit against Menards says, “Defendant has received significant profits from its false marketing and sale of its dimensional lumber products.”

The two suits were filed within five days of each other in federal court in the Northern District of Illinois. Attorneys from the same Chicago law firm are representing the plaintiffs in both cases. Each suit seeks $5 million in damages.

The retailers have responded by stating that it’s simply “common knowledge” that these nominal measurements — meaning in name only — aren’t the actual measurements.

Maybe it was, once upon a time, but that knowledge is missing some folks. 

Perhaps if I’d taken the vocational orientation class in high school, I’d have known. Back then, every freshman had the chance to spend a few weeks in every vocational or trades class the school offered. You’d learn a lot of important life skills in short order, like how to change a tire in automotive technology, how to sort your laundry for washing in home economics, and how to build a simple box in construction.

But I didn’t, so I didn’t know. I’d wager the folks bringing this suit didn’t either.

According to an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the three plaintiffs were all buying lumber for home improvement projects. When they got the supplies to their respective homes and began work, they discovered the problem. 

And then they turned to the law firm. The firm wouldn’t comment on the apparent coincidence of three different men finding the same issue with lumber and then all deciding to go to the same law firm.

The plaintiffs say they got 23 percent less wood than was “advertised and represented.” The stores say they got exactly what they were supposed to.

Both are right. 

But instead of bringing a lawsuit, perhaps we should be focused on bringing a bit more Do-It-Yourself literacy. 

There’s a renewed focus on greater access and career and technical education in our schools. Locally, we have a robust CTE program in our middle and high schools, and the Tennessee College for Applied Technology offers a fantastic opportunity for anyone wanting to earn certification in some the most in-demand skills — like construction!

These programs offer practical applications for academic standards and have been shown to improve overall student motivation. CTE courses also help develop those all-important “soft skills,” like teamwork, communication and time management. 

And they help students learn how to solve those pesky problems they can encounter on a project — like lumber that’s not quite the size you thought it would be.

Heather Mullinix is assistant editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.

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