In the 1800s and earlier, lumber was cut and milled locally, and sized on site by carpenters. Using lightweight studs to frame houses became the most common practice and 2” by 4” was a common size board builders liked to use.
As the demand for new construction grew, lumber suppliers began transporting lumber further away from the source. So now, a lumberyard might contain an intermingling of wood species from different sources. The actual dimensions of a 2×4 from one supplier might not match one from another mill that was dried and surfaced differently. Some suppliers made their boards slightly smaller and lighter to save on shipping costs. Larger “2x4s” needed to slim down in order to compete. Over many years, almost imperceptibly, 2x4s got smaller.
As early as 1920, lumberyards and carpenters began to demand uniformity, but it wasn’t until 1964 when lumber associations agreed on 1.5” x 3.5” to be a standard 2×4 once a board is dried and milled.
So for the most part, 2x4s have hardly ever actually been 2×4.
Harvard Design Magazine
Nominal Versus Actual: A History of the 2×4
by Oliver J. Curtis
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