In woodworking there are two types of wood: softwoods and hardwoods. These are based on a botanical distinction.
Hardwoods describe lumber from that comes from leaf-bearing trees that produce flowers, fruits or nuts. Common North American hardwood lumber includes:
There are many less common Western hardwoods as well, like butternut, mesquite, holly, pear and sycamore.
Some hardwood species come from other regions outside of North America. These types of wood are commonly referred to as exotics and include:
You can purchase these exotic types of woods through the Internet or specialty catalogs; however, they are pricey and their sizes may be limited.
Some lumber yards will have these exotic woods in stock, or special order them for you. Call you local lumber yard to see what they offer.
Softwoods come from the large family of cone-bearing trees that bear needles rather than leaves.
Typical North American softwoods used for board lumber are firs and pines, redwood, cedar and cypress.
Since these species are well-suited for construction purposes, most of the lumber you see used in construction projects and framing comes from these types of wood.
While strong enough for structural applications, these types of wood are easy to work with using both common hand or power tools.
Softwoods are more sustainable than hardwoods as well. Cone-bearing trees grow rapidly and develop straighter trunks and branches than the hardwoods. Also, more softwood trees are planted per acre than hardwood trees so they produce a higher lumber yield in less time.
Softwoods are generally less expensive as well. You can find these types of wood available at just about any hardware store for a decent price.
Watch this video for help with identifying what type of wood you have.
A Misconception About the Two Types of Wood
It makes sense to think that hardwoods are called hardwood because they are more durable. After all, the name implies that.
At the same time, it is often thought that softwood is so named because they are soft.
Now for the truth. Yes, many hardwoods are more difficult to machine than softwoods.
However, the names actually have nothing to do with how strong or durable the wood is. Nor does it reflect how easy it is to work with either of the types of wood.
Let’s look Southern yellow pine as an example. It is a heavy, dense softwood used for stair treads and large framing projects. It machines and accepts fasteners in a manner similar to that of many hardwoods.
Walnut and poplar are hardwoods commonly used in woodworking. However, these types of wood can be routed and sawn as easily as cedar or redwood.
Finally, it is commonly thought that hardwoods are always more expensive than softwoods. Again, this is a common misconception about these types of wood.
For instance, look at the cost of clear sugar pine. It is usually just as expensive as as premium cherry or white oak.
Pricing the different types of wood has more to do with the basic economics of supply and demand. Since there is more softwood due to the ability to grow more, it is often cheaper.
Hardwoods often have a nicer finish to them when they are made into lumber so there is a higher demand, while the supply is not as plentiful as softwood.
What Types of Wood Should You Use for Your Project?
Woodworking projects often call for both types of wood.
It is more common to use hardwoods for indoor projects such as furniture, trim-work, cabinetry and turnings. This is because the wood grain and figures create a more desirable look.
Softwoods are more often used to build outdoor furniture, utility projects or with projects where you plan to paint or stain the wood.
However, keep in mind that you can stain softwoods to achieve the desired look of a hardwood.
This makes the answer less cut and dry.
The best guideline to choosing the type of wood for your project is answered by a few questions:
Is this an indoor or outdoor project?
Most wood will degrade over time in the presence of water or sunlight. Moisture poses another threat to wood; it invites mold and wood-boring insects.
For projects that will be outdoors for any length of time, choose one of the more durable types of wood. These include western red cedar, cypress, white oak and redwood.
The natural oils or profiling compounds that these types of wood contain help resist rot and repel insects.
If you r project will is not used for food or contact with skin (such as a chair or bench) consider using a pressure-treated wood. These types of wood take paint well once the
infused chemicals dry. Pressure treating wood also helps defend against rotting.
Be careful when machining, sanding or cutting pressure-treated lumber by wearing a dust respirator. This will help keep you from inhaling the sawdust that contains the chemicals used to treat the wood.
Will the project be painted or receive a clear finish?
If you plan to paint or apply a finish to your project, choose wood that has a smooth texture without a heavy grain pattern.
You can better prepare the wood for this by sanding and finishing the wood smoothly so that the grain disappears.
If your project calls for a hardwood, choose one that takes paint well. Birch and aspen are both good choices. These types of wood tend to be less expensive than hardwoods with more attractive wood grain patterns.
Softwoods like pines, firs and white woods may produce a blotchy, uneven tone when they are finished with a stain. If you take your time to prepare the wood beforehand, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Also, you can always sand any imperfections out and re-stain the wood if you are not satisfied with the end result.
These types of wood, however, they make excellent choices for projects that require painting.
What thickness and proportions of lumber does your project require?
Nearly all the board lumber you will find in a home center or lumberyard is 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 that go up to 3 inches thick.
The lengths of these ‘craft’ woods are often limited to about 3 feet.
If your project requires large panels for use in tables and entertainment centers you have two choices.
The first is to use a jointer and clamps to glue your own wide panels from narrower boards.
The second is to check with your local home store or lumberyard to see if they sell pre-glued panes. They may even be able to order a panel to the dimensions you need.
What Kind Of Finish Should You Use?
What types of wood fit your budget?
Lumber can be quite expensive, especially if you buy it completely surfaced.
If the price of your first choice is too far out of your budget, opt for a less expensive type of wood and stain it to match the desired effect.
In the end, the type of wood you choose could have a rather large effect on the finished project. However, for beginning woodworkers, it may make sense to start with projects that use less expensive types of wood.
Once you master your woodworking skills, you can start working with the more expensive woods.
Let us know about the types of wood you use in your projects by leaving us a comment below.