Hardwoods vs. Softwoods – Which Should You Use?

The two basic categories of wood are hardwood and softwood. There is also manufactured wood like plywood.

What you use for any given project depends on various factors: strength, hardness, grain characteristics, cost, stability, weight, color, durability, and availability.

Hardwoods are those species that come from leaf-bearing trees that produce flowers, fruits or nuts. Common North American hardwood lumber includes maple, oak, ash, walnut, cherry, beech, birch and poplar.

There are many less common Western hardwoods as well, like butternut, mesquite, holly, pear, and sycamore. Other countries log innumerable hardwood species as well. Some of these exotics include teak, mahogany, ebony, rosewood, bubinga, purpleheart, and pear. These exotic woods can be purchased through the Internet or specialty catalogs; however, they are pricey and may only come in a limited size.

Working with hardwoods is quite different from working with pine; you cannot drive a screw through hardwood lumber without first boring a pilot hole. Cutting and planing hardwoods requires extremely sharp tools.

Hardwoods are good to use when building furniture.  Oak and ash are known as open-grain woods. These species have alternating areas of relatively porous and dense wood when stained the open-grain areas absorb the color readily while the harder areas are more resistant. This accentuates the grain patterns, creating a dramatic effect.

Cherry, maple, and birch are closed-grain woods, demonstrating a more uniform texture throughout the board. Poplar is also a closed-grain wood, but its color ranges from a beige to olive green and often has purple highlights thrown into the mix. Because of this unusual coloration, it is rarely used if a furniture piece is going to have a clear finish. This wood is best when stained or even painted. Poplar, being less expensive, is also a good choice for framing hardwood projects.

Hardwood is more durable and less prone to dents and scratches. It is also more expensive but will finish to a better advantage. Softwoods, like pine, are more prone to dents and scratches and do not have the durability of hardwood. Softwoods are much less expensive and easier to find.

Usually, beginning woodworkers start out with softwood such as pine. It’s soft and easy to work, and you don’t need expensive tools to get good results. It is readily available at local lumberyards and home centers. It has its limitations in furniture making; it is a soft wood and will damage easily.

Softwood is from an evergreen or coniferous (cone-bearing) tree. Common varieties are pine, fir, spruce, hemlock, cedar, and redwood. These woods are mostly used in the home construction industry. Cedar and redwood are excellent choices for outdoor projects, while pine is often used for “Early American Country Style” furniture.

Pine and most other softwoods will absorb and lose moisture more than hardwoods so are not as stable. Purchase the lumber at least two weeks before starting your project and keep it indoors.

You will find that softwoods are sold in standard thickness and widths, for example, a 1 X 4 will be 3/4″ thick and 3 1/2″ wide similar to construction materials. The material will usually be priced per lineal foot and the price will increase accordingly for the wider boards.

They are sufficiently strong for structural applications, yet are easy to work with common hand or power tools. Another advantage is that cone-bearing trees grow rapidly and develop straighter trunks and branches than the hardwoods. And finally, more softwood trees can be planted per acre than hardwood trees so they produce a higher lumber yield in less time.

The two most common manufactured sheets goods used in furniture making are MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) and Particle Board. Both are made from wood particles, combined with glue and bonded under pressure. MDF has finer particles than Particle Board so produces a smoother and stronger finished product.

MDF machines very well and is often used for moulded components on painted furniture. Its main drawback is that it is a very heavy product compared to real wood.

Because of their laminated construction, they are extremely stable in all dimensions. Since the veneers on any given panel are usually cut sequentially from the same log, the panel should display a uniform color and grain. Matching the grain pattern of solid wood to the generally uniform grain pattern on the panels can be difficult. But careful planning can yield good matches in the most visible areas of your project.                                            ..

Manufactured sheets do have limitations, whenever they are used, regardless of the core, the edge must be hidden and the veneers on the surface are extremely thin, often less than 1/32 in. Because of this, the surface is fragile and has a tendency to split out, especially on the back side of a saw cut. Also, since the veneer is so thin aggressive sanding can quickly work through the veneer and expose the unattractive core underneath.

As we said, the wood you choose depends on what kind of project you are undertaking.  For projects that will be painted, you can use simply MVF.  For furniture, it’s often a good idea to choose something that will finish well like cedar or oak

Common Misconceptions

It is a common misconception that hardwoods are called hardwood because the wood is hard, while softwood is so named because they are soft. it is true that many hardwoods are more difficult to machine than softwoods, however, the distinction actually has nothing to do with the hardness or workability.

Southern yellow pine, for example, is heavy dense softwood used for stair treads and large framing lumber. It machines and accepts fasteners in a manner like that of hardwoods. Walnut and poplar are common hardwoods, but they can be routed and sawn as easily as cedar or redwood.

Even pricing is not a good indicator of hardwoods or softwoods. More softwood is manufactured into building materials than furniture-grade lumber, but what does become lumber can be quite expensive. Take, for instance, clear sugar pine lumber, it is just as costly as premium cherry or white oak.

Choosing What To Use

Woodworking projects can use both softwoods and hardwoods. Generally, hardwoods end up as indoor projects such as furniture, trim-work, cabinetry, and turnings because the wood grain and figures are highly desirable. Softwoods tend to become outdoor furniture, children’s projects such as tree houses and other sorts of utility or painted projects. These are merely general guidelines. If money is no object, you can build children’s furniture from practically any furniture-grade lumber you have.

The answer to – what species should I choose for a particular project? – is not cut and dried.

Ask yourself a few questions –

  • Is this an indoor or outdoor project? Most wood will degrade over time in the presence of water or ultraviolet sunlight. Moisture is another ‘deadly’ threat to wood; it invites mold and wood-boring insects. Some of the most durable outdoor woods include western red cedar, cypress, white oak, and redwood. These lumbers contain natural oils or profiling compounds that resist rot and help repel insects. Boatbuilding woods such as mahogany and teak are excellent choices, although they are much more expensive than the common weather-resistant species.

Consider using a pressure-treated wood if you are not using it for food or contact with skin (such as a chair or bench). It takes paint well once the infused chemicals dry and the wood tends to be warranted for decades against rotting. Be careful and wear a dust respirator when machining pressure-treated lumber to keep from inhaling the sawdust, which contains the treating chemicals.

    • Will the project be painted or receive a clear finish? For painted projects, choose wood that has a smooth texture without a heavy grain pattern. Ideally, the lumber should sand and finish so smoothly that the grain entirely disappears. Good paint-grade hardwoods include birch, aspen, and birch. These also tend to be less expensive than hardwoods with more attractive wood grain patterns. Softwoods generally produce a blotchy, uneven tone when they are finished with a stain, but they make excellent economical painted woods. Pines, firs and other ‘white woods’ are good candidates for paint finishes.

     

  • What thickness and proportions of lumber does your project require? Nearly all the board lumber you will find in a home center or lumberyard will be milled to ¾-inch thickness. There could be a small amount of ‘craft’ woods in ¼-inch thickness made of oak or poplar as well as laminated blanks in a few sizes up to 3 inches thick. Lengths of ‘craft’ woods will be limited to about 3 feet. Some projects require large panel such as tables and entertainment centers and if you don’t own a jointer and clamps to glue your own wide panels from narrower boards, your local home store probably stocks pre-glued sanded panels as wide as 3 feet and up to 8 feet long.
  • Which project parts will show? Commonly practiced in furniture building is to use a secondary or cheaper lumber on the insides and backs of pieces and the more expensive, nicer wood on the outer areas of the furniture. Places that secondary wood might be used are drawers, shelves inside a cabinet, the backs of cabinets and desks, under the tabletop, legs, etc. Poplar and pine are often integrated into projects as secondary wood pieces.

 

  • What does your budget allow? Lumber is expensive, particularly if you buy it completely surfaced. Sometimes sticker shock will push you over the edge and make your choice of lumber obvious. When tallying up the amount of lumber you will need, factor in another 20 to 30 percent additional wood. The overage invariably gets used in the end. If the price is out of reach, consider using a more economical wood and staining it to match the color of more expensive wood.

At the lumber yard or store, you’ll find wood boards stacked up in high piles according to length, quality grade, thickness, wood type, and many other categories. Even in piles of boards that are grouped as being the same, there are differences in quality, so follow these simple tips for choosing boards that will work for your woodworking projects.

Don’t take boards you don’t want!  Lumberyard novices may feel like they have to take the boards that are first presented to them. Don’t be afraid to examine each board closely and send boards back if they don’t meet your criteria. Why pay for a warped board that won’t work in your current project? Rejecting boards is not an insult, but a way to pay for wood you can use, so get in the habit early.

Check for straightness.  Hold the board at eye level on one end, with the other end on the ground. Look down the board to see if it has obvious curves or twists. Some projects can handle a curved board, but for beginners, working with curved boards may be too complicated.

Check for splits and warping.  Look over both sides of the board to see if there are any long splits or warped edges. Splits and warps reduce the amount of wood you can use for your project, so pass on boards that would result in a lot of waste.

Knotholes can be considered attractive in some kinds of woodworking projects, so if you’re looking for a really knotty piece of wood, that’s fine. Otherwise, check your boards for large knotholes that would become waste wood or loose knot pieces that may fall out, causing gaps or weak areas in your cut pieces.

For fine woodworking projects or projects that need a straight, even grain, quarter sawn lumber offers even wood graining, but is more expensive than regular plain sawn lumber. Decide whether you’re willing to pay for the straight grain before choosing boards.

Look closely at each board to see if the color is even enough for your project, and that there are not a large number of wormholes or other marred areas. Also check for lumberyard chalk or pen markings or dents that may not come off easily.

Used boards gathered from old barns or other projects can be interesting and fun to work with. However, when buying or choosing reclaimed lumber, check for signs of decay. If the board is spongy or soft, or has signs of fungus on it, it may not hold up well as project wood.

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