2x4 judgment costs $1.6 million
September 29, 2014 | 7:00 pm CDT

When has a 2x4 bought in a regular lumber yard really measured 2 inches by 4 inches? Not in my lifetime unless specifically ordered as full-dimension stock from a saw mill. And I don't know anybody, from do-it-yourselfers to experienced contractors and professional woodworkers, who doesn't know that the nominal dimensions of standard lumber are not an accurate reflection of the true dimensions of the product.

But the powers that be in California have apparently gone after Lowe's home centers for misleading consumers by selling 2x4s that aren't exactly 2 inches by 4 inches. And now a judge has ordered Lowe's to pay $1.6 million in damages in a lawsuit brought by the Marin County district attorney. District attorneys from Los Angeles, Monterey, San Joaquin, and Stanislaus counties also piled on with Marin in the action. Lowe’s now has to make sure that regardless of what the nominal size of a product is, the exact actual size must be listed.

Now we might be inclined to laugh and say what a ridiculous thing the whole case is, but stop for a minute and think what it might mean for woodworkers. If you specify "3/4-inch plywood" in a kitchen bid, and somebody measures the thickness and finds it is not exactly 3/4 inch, they can sue you. And based on this case, the argument that these are longstanding "nominal" industry standards apparently holds no weight. The potential effects are mindboggling. On a building products industry website after the ruling, there were warnings from the West Coast Lumber and Building Material Association cautioning lumber dealers to check and report actual sizes, not just common nominal terms.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for truth in labeling, and certainly everyone at some point early on in their woodworking career questions why 2x4s aren’t actually 2 inches by 4 inches (of course, they were when rough sawn, but finish planning brings them down to about 1.5 inches by 3.5 inches with allowances for changes in moisture content). The sub-size 2x4 was officially codified in the first national lumber standards issued in 1924. So, we’ve been operating with these nominal sizes for 90 years. Why is it suddenly a problem for California? And when will it become a problem in your neck of woods?

It seems to me it has more to do with gold-digging, publicity seeking politicians than it has with protecting the public.

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William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editor of FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.