Sam Venable 

Department of Irony

pressure-treated woodExcept for the fact I’m staring at the cotton-pickin’ thing right now, I’d swear this never happened. Maybe the product of excessive drink, or a weird dream, or both. But no, there it is, right before my eyes.

“It” is a piece of pressure-treated wood known as a 3-by-3.

It is not a 4-by-4 (which actually measures 3½ inches by 3½ inches.) It is not a landscape timber. It is not a fence post. It is not a fence rail.

Instead, it is a 3-by-gosh-by-3. On my old newspaper line gauge, it measures 2 and 15/16ths inches by 2 and 15/16ths inches. And therein lies a mystery.

In the summer of 1997, when our log house was being built, I happened to be onsite one day when an electrician was installing the pump outlet for my wife’s backyard fishpond. He asked me to run to the store for a 3-by-3.

“Yeah, right,” I sneered. “There ain’t no such animal as a 3-by-3.”

I might as well told him there’s no such thing as voltage.

“Sure there is!” he responded. “Trust me.”

Certain I was being primed for a snipe hunt, I drove to Home Depot. In the lumber department, I flagged down a salesclerk and said, somewhat sheepishly, “Some clown sent me here for a 3-by-3.”

The guy didn’t blink.

“Right over there,” he replied, pointing to row-upon-row of treated lumber: 2-by-4s, 4-by-4s, 6-by-6s, on and on, in various lengths. Plus a huge stack of eight-foot, pressure-treated 3-by-3s. I purchased one and brought it home.

“See?” the electrician shrugged as I handed the piece to him, “told you so.”

That summer and fall, I must’ve bought a dozen of them. They were the perfect size for any outdoor project too large for a 2-by-4 but too small for a 4-by-4.

As I type these words, I can look out my office window at a stairstep railing I built. Each post is one of the aforementioned 3-by-3s. So are the support posts, and top pieces, of a rack for my johnboat “Murph” (which, as an aside, is nicknamed after Murphy’s Law and has consistently lived up to its reputation on the waterways of East Tennessee.)

However, any time I mention 3-by-3s, I might as well be talking about unicorns.

This year, I determined to find an answer. In person, over the phone and by letter, I quizzed at least 20 pros: lumber salesclerks at big-box stores (including the same local Home Depot from 1997, plus the company’s headquarters in Atlanta), lumber wholesalers, home builders, home repair specialists and forest products trade associations.

The result?

Zip. Nada. Zilch.

“Listen, buddy,” one fellow insisted, “I’ve been sellin’ lumber for well over 30 years, and I’ve never seen a 3-by-3 or even heard of one.”

Then what’n’hell is holding up that pump outlet, stair railing and boat rack?

Sam Venable is an author, comedic entertainer, and humor columnist for the
Knoxville (TN) News Sentinel. His latest book is “The Joke’s on YOU! (All I Did Was Clean Out My Files).” He may be reached at