The wood you select is just as important as your woodworking skill.
Despite your years of training and all the knowledge you possess, you can’t make a bad piece of good into something great (unless you count driftwood projects).
There’s a few tricks to starting with the very best wood, and it’s all in knowing what to look for.
But that’s not you, and that’s not me, so together let’s cover the bases on every single aspect of purchasing lumber for your next woodworking project.
- 1 Hardwood vs. Softwood
- 2 What Type of Wood is Best?
- 3 The Difference Between Engineered and Solid Wood
- 4 What to Pay Attention to While Looking for Lumber
- 5 Different Grades of Both Wood
- 6 Different Types of Softwood
- 7 Different Types of Hardwood
- 8 How Are Wood Ratings Calculated?
- 9 Related Questions
- 10 Time to Make Something Great
Hardwood vs. Softwood
There’s no better place to start than with the wood types.
Hardwood vs softwood is basically going to be the biggest debate you face depending on what project you’re working on.
Let’s go through some information about hardwood and where it comes from in order to understand why it’s the prime choice of most woodworkers.
Hardwood comes from trees that lose their leaves in the fall.
That’s the quickest way to tell them apart.
The thing is, even though hardwood is better for a lot of woodworking projects and construction (think hardwood floors, it’s right in the name), it only accounts for approximately 20% of the global lumber trade.
It’s a lot harder to find it in abundance, and it’s why it costs a lot more.
Hardwood is dense and durable, hence the price. They’re used to construct heavy pieces of furniture, cabinets, and decks.
The applications are nearly endless, and they even have a slightly better fire resistance rating against softwood. Oak, balsa, maple, teak and walnut are a few examples of hardwood.
When it comes to softwood—80% of the global lumber trade—you run into things like pine, spruce, redwood, and yew trees.
These trees grow a lot faster than hardwood trees (think of Christmas tree farms), but they are a lot more prone to catching fire than hardwood.
Despite hardwood being better, softwood still has its place in construction and woodworking.
You can use it to create window frames, small furniture, and it’s the primary wood type that paper is made out of.
So how do you really decide between the two? Look at your project list, and determine what type of woodworker you are.
If you have your sights set on making chests, bunk beds, coffee tables and other furniture, you’ll want to opt for hardwood as often as possible.
Working on individual crafts, low-density pieces and decorative woodworking pieces? Save some money and get some softwood.
What Type of Wood is Best?
Some comes down to preference: do you like the look of cherry or oak better?
Another part comes down to cost: what can you afford?
There are two different types of wood: hardwood and softwood, and each have their own aesthetics and attributes.
These are some of the most popular wood types for woodworking and light grade construction.
- Oak: Sturdy, built to last, very resistant to expansion and contractions.
- Maple: Aesthetically pleasing, nearly as durable as oak wood.
- Mahogany: Expensive, rich in color, fairly durable for woodworking.
- Birch: On the lower end of durability, but rich in ashy white coloring.
- Pine: Rather soft, good for woodworking but not for construction.
- Walnut: Very durable, fairly bland looking but median in price.
- Rosewood: Aesthetic and slightly durable, will cost you a pretty penny.
- Redwood: Very expensive, very aesthetic, only sourced from California.
You may find engineered versions of these different wood types, which could significantly bring the price down.
The Difference Between Engineered and Solid Wood
We’ve all gotten those aggravating flyers in the mail, the ones who tell you that you can have a hardwood floor for $0.50 per square foot.
Well, if you read the fine print, it’s usually engineered wood.
There’s nothing wrong with engineered wood, but there are big differences between that and solid wood.
For one, engineered wood isn’t something you want to use in woodworking.
If you’re building a playhouse or clubhouse for your kids, you can used engineered hardwood on the floor, but its uses in woodworking are few and far between.
Engineered wood is made from thin layers of solid wood laid on top of plywood.
It also usually comes in limited selections, is easy to install, but is also more susceptible to damage.
You can’t really sand engineered wood since the top layer could just come off, so it’s best to stick to solid for woodworking.
What to Pay Attention to While Looking for Lumber
Whether it’s in a big store like Home Depot or you’re buying it from the guy down the block, there’s a few things you have to keep an eye out for.
Before you put a single dollar down, inspect the wood thoroughly and perform a quick analysis. Purchasing lumber is too expensive to treat with abandon.
Expansion occurs when moisture floods the cells of the wood fibers.
When a tree is first cut down, all the wood is actually green—it has a 100% moisture content, and it’s nowhere near ready to be used for anything.
After a curing process of a year or so, it dries out properly, and retains the color, consistency, and shape that we know now.
But how do you know if there’s expansion when you’re buying lumber? You can find out simply by touching the wood.
Check for resistance and if there’s any moisture left behind on your fingertips.
Just press your fingers to the wood rather gently, and if there’s any expansion, it will feel different than other dry lumber you’ve worked with.
The problem with buying most or wet wood is that it’s currently expanded, which means part of its weight is in water that will dry out.
If you’re paying per pound, then you’re just burning money.
The ideal moisture content for workable lumber is between 7-9%, though in some cases it is acceptable up to 15%.
Expansion is mostly an issue because of what it will shrink back down to.
Wood that is currently expanded isn’t workable, because if you cut through it or make holes in it, the wood will shrink in an odd way as it dries and your initial cuts will be warped.
We treat wood for a reason, and if raw lumber has just been sitting there for a long time, it’s not as durable or viable to use for projects anymore.
Older wood will have already expanded and contracted more than a few times, whether it’s from temperature changes or something else.
That’s what makes it creaky, and slightly more flexible even when it’s dry.
The age of the wood matters. It’s not to say that older wood isn’t still good to use in projects, you just have to determine how weathered it is, and how it’s going to look in your project.
We talked about expansion, and contraction is the other side of the coin.
The thing is, contraction is still going to occur when you’re done with your project.
You need to choose a durable wood that can be sealed properly, and be absolutely certain that you seal it.
While temperature can still affect expansion and contraction, it’s not as much of a factor when you have a layer of resin or finish between your wood, and the outside world.
Thicker wood costs more.
Not just because there is more of it, but when it’s refined into boards or planks, they’re more durable and prime for construction compared to thinner boards.
You might use some ¾” plywood to put a subfloor down or something along those lines, but you’re going to use thicker wood to keep the roof from collapsing.
Thickness and density are two different things, but both play an important role in the end product from your project.
Density tells you more about the durability of the wood, whereas thickness is just how thick the board/plate of wood is.
The thicker it is, the more the density matters when trying to find out how sturdy something is.
Different Grades of Both Wood
If you’ve ever gone to buy lumber and wondered what those little numbers were that are printed in the corner, we’re about to tell you.
It’s not just there for the shop or warehouse to organize it, it’s actually vital information that could make or break the purchase.
There are different grades of wood, and they offer different amounts of usable material.
Let’s look at hardwood and softwood individually.
Different Types of Softwood
Every wood has its grade, which will define its viability for your project.
Softwood has a much more up-and-down rating, some of which makes it not so good for anything apart from simple arts and crafts.
It’s the top-of-the-line softwood grading.
This is about as perfect as softwood is going to get, and it’s usually used for crown molding, baseboards, and other trimming in your home.
You’ll also find a lot of cabinets made out of softwood, since they’re not technically undergoing stress like a hardwood floor would.
The grading system is defined by the amount of knots you might see in softwood.
D select is basically just a very tiny bit lesser-grade than C select.
You might find knots in this wood that range from the size of a fingerprint up to a penny, but other than that, it has almost no defects. One knot hole can be the difference in a grade.
If you love that wood panel look and the knotty pine aesthetics, then this is what you want.
#1 common is great for woodworking when you want woodsy-themed items.
The knots are small, so they won’t just fall out of the wood, and can be treated just like the rest of it. This is noe of the cheapest grades of softwood.
There’s only a slight difference between this and #1 common.
Knots will be large, but tight. You can build inexpensive shelves with this softwood grade, paneling, and basic woodworking projects.
Larger knots than #2 common, and slightly less viable for shelves.
If you’ve ever felt the texture of a wooden picket fence, then you’ve felt #3 common softwood.
This isn’t recommended for projects that will have a high amount of stress put on them, such as beds or stools, but shelves can hold about eight pounds or so depending on the surface space.
Different Types of Hardwood
Hardwood gets a bit fickle with their ratings, because each of them are still wildly viable for a myriad of projects.
The lowest hardwood rating is still higher than the top softwood rating.
Hardwood will be far more expensive in abundance, but stands the test of time like no other. These are the grades, as well as their abbreviations that you’ll see imprinted on wood.
First and Seconds (FAS)
First and second pick for anything high-end or high-grade.
You’ll see a lot of cherry, oak, and other dense woods in the FAS rating range. Hardwood is also rated by the total usable surface (on one face or surface).
FAS wood has an 83% viability in the usable material category, and the minimum board size required to classify as FAS is 6” x 8”. As you can see, there’s a much stricter rating system for hardwood.
The difference between FAS and SEL is negligent: it’s all about board size.
SEL still has an 83% usable material on one face, however, the minimum board size is 4” x 6”, so when excellent hardwood can’t be classified as FAS due to size, it falls into this category.
For smaller projects where you’ll be cutting hardwood into narrow, thin pieces anyway, going with SEL can save you some money.
#1 Common (#1 Com)
This is the higher end of the common hardwood rating, since #1 com has a usable surface of 66%.
It’s a bit more choppy, and will resemble higher end softwood to a certain degree.
You might see certain #1 com used in lower end hardwood flooring (generally under $3.00/sq ft). The board size requirements are 3” x 4”
#2 Common (#3 Com)
This passes into the hardwood rating, but not by a whole lot.
There’s only a 50% usable surface, and the board size requirements are the same as #1 com. You can use these for small furniture building, as well as shelving.
How Are Wood Ratings Calculated?
The National Hardwood Lumber Association grades hardwood, while the American Association of Lumber Standards control softwood.
In any construction project, you need to make sure the materials you’re using can withstand as many independent variables as possible.
These ratings are in place to conform to building codes for commercial construction, and this info might even pop up in building permits you acquire when remodeling your home.
Certain wood just isn’t viable or sturdy enough to be used in construction, and would otherwise pose a safety concern. Thus, we have the wood ratings system, and it works very well.
Most commonly asked question:
Can I Source my Own Lumber?
If you have the necessary permits and tools, you can chop down trees on your own land and cure the wood for your own project.
You’d better have a good workshop to be able to cut it down into size, but you can do it. Keep in mind that wood takes a very long time to cure
How Long Does it Take to Dry My Own Lumber?
Lumber takes one year to dry.
Expediting this process will result in damage to the wood.
The most you can do it give it the proper environment to dry in, or if you really want to try it, you can kiln dry wood, but it’s an expensive system and doesn’t offer a great deal of speed compared to what you’ll lose.
What Can Happen if You Dry Wood Too Fast?
You can cause case-hardening.
You’re not going to remove the bark before you dry the wood (there’s no point).
Drying wood too quickly will cause the bark (the outer edge) to harden first, and contract.
This constricts the interior wood and causes splits from the core.
You need to keep an eye on moisture content during drying to prevent thing.
How to Measure Moisture Content?
You can buy readers that will determine the moisture content without being too invasive.
They’re expensive, but an absolute must if you are drying your own wood.
They also work well if you are simply drying treated lumber that was left out during the rain.
Time to Make Something Great
Hardwood, softwood, age, expansion—there’s so much to consider, so take away a bullet point list of everything we talked about today so you’ll be fully equipped to strike a profitable deal the next time you go in for lumber.
Inspect your lumber, know what types are best for specific projects, and never stop building.
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