Grade inflation isn't just going on at schools. Across the country, lumber dealers are nearly unanimous in declaring that framing lumber isn't as high quality as it was a few decades ago, even though it bears the same grade.

Are dealers right? Yes and no, manufacturers say.

Timber companies' preference for cutting trees as little as 6 inches across means there's more pith and less quality wood per tree than in the days when ax men were felling redwoods wide enough for a car to drive through. But experts say dealers' standards also have changed. They say the insistence by the big boxes to get wain-free 2x4s has led all dealers and their customers to regard that as the standard.

"What has changed over the years is the buying habits of the dealers," says Jeff Easterling, president of the Northeastern Lumber Manufacturers Association, which manages grading of northern woods from Maine to Minnesota. "The grade itself is a range; it hasn't changed over the years."

On the other hand, because there is a range within grades, you can see variations between mills or even between a single mill's products over time. A company "can go to the middle or the limit or the bottom of the range," Easterling says.

"That question [of grade inflation] has been around for 25 years," Easterling says. "I don't think it'll change."

–Craig Webb