Lumber is the raw material that goes into making buildings, furniture, fences and other structures. It can be confusing to understand what's meant by lumber sizes such as 2 X 4. These are called "nominal" cross-section dimensions.
Wood rays (see photo) are a decorative, spotted pattern seen in quarter sawn boards.
Wood is a versatile material, which can be used for flooring, furniture and even paving. It’s also the raw ingredient for numerous other products that are made from the leftover bark, tops, branches and sawdust. In fact, every scrap of timber has a use, with the majority of waste from tree production recycled into paper, cardboard, toilet and kitchen rolls.
Among the many different types of lumber available, hardwoods are preferable for high-impact structures and surfaces intended to last for a long period of time. They are also a popular choice for woodworking projects, such as constructing cabinets, doors and other wooden home furnishings. In addition to their durability, hardwoods are aesthetically appealing and come in a wide range of colors, grain patterns, and textures.
The term “hardwood” refers to trees that are angiosperm (plants that produce seeds with a covering), while softwoods are gymnosperm (trees that produce naked seeds). Hardwoods grow slowly and tend to be denser than softwoods.
In the United States, popular hardwood species include oak, maple, cherry, hickory, and spruce. These are deciduous trees, meaning they lose their leaves in autumn and go dormant during winter. They also take a longer time to grow, with some species taking up to 150 years to be ready for harvesting.
Because of their strength and longevity, hardwoods are used for structural framing and cladding. They can also be crafted into attractive and durable furniture, cabinetry and flooring, with each individual tree offering a unique appearance with variations in color, texture and grain pattern.
Whether you’re looking for sturdy and reliable hardwood or a more decorative material for your home, our friendly team at Among The Trees can help you choose the right timber for your project. We stock a wide variety of both hardwood and softwoods, in various densities, species, and grades. You can browse our selection online or come in to visit us, where we’ll be happy to discuss the various options and offer expert advice. If you’re unsure of what type of wood you need, we’ll provide samples so that you can test it out and see how it works for you.
Despite the commonly used terms “hardwood” and “softwood,” the distinction between the two types of lumber doesn’t have anything to do with density or hardness. Instead, it’s all about how the tree reproduces. Softwoods are angiosperm trees that reproduce via seeds and fruits. Hardwoods, on the other hand, are angiosperms that reproduce with broad leaves. Hardwoods tend to grow much slower than softwoods and may take up to 150 years before being harvest ready. Because of their slow growth rate and complex cellular structure, hardwoods are typically stronger and more durable than softwoods.
Rather than reproducing with flowers and fruits, softwoods, like pine, cedar and spruce, reproduce using needle-like leaves called cones or seeds. Technically, these are gymnosperm trees, and because of their evergreen nature, they’re also known as coniferous or evergreen trees. Gymnosperms are very efficient reproducers, as the seeds stay on the branches until they’re dispersed by wind or animals and then spread across the landscape.
Because of their faster growth rates, softwoods are less expensive and flexible than hardwoods, making them an ideal option for a wide range of internal and external projects including furniture and flooring. They are also a popular choice for a variety of timber products, including interior moldings, manufacturing window frames and generating sheet goods such as plywood and fibreboard.
In addition to the aforementioned perks, specific softwoods have unique characteristics that make them particularly appealing for various applications. For example, cedar contains natural oils that help to prevent warping and rotting. This makes it a popular material for exterior decking and siding. Southern yellow pine, meanwhile, is often used for framing and roofing because of its natural resistance to insect attacks, rot and shrinkage. Both cedar and southern yellow pine can be pressure treated to add longevity to their lifespans.
Another common type of softwood is Douglas fir. It’s well-known for being a Christmas tree, but it’s also used in many other construction applications as it has the ability to bend easily and resist rot. It also stains well and is very strong and durable, even in the face of heavy use. Like all hardwoods and softwoods, fir can be pressure treated to extend its lifespan and resistance to moisture and insects.
Lumber grades are used to communicate the quality of wood available for sale. Typically developed by lumber companies and maintained by wood products organizations, these systems vary somewhat depending on the species of lumber and region of the world in which it is produced. They also are designed to help reduce disputes between lumber buyers and sellers.
The most important consideration for many lumber users is appearance, and therefore the highest-graded lumber has a clear grain and few knots or other defects that would mar its beauty. Builders prize this lumber for use in exterior and interior trim, siding, paneling and other construction projects that require a smooth finish. The most common appearance-graded lumber is redwood and cedar, whose boards are graded as Clear All Heart, Clear or Select. Other softwoods such as western white or Idaho white pine (IWP) are also graded as Supreme-IWP, Choice-IWP or Quality-IWP.
Other important considerations are strength and stiffness. The highest-strength lumber is classified as FAS (First and Seconds) or FAS One Face. This lumber must contain 83-1/3% to 100% clear cuttings in minimum sized cuttings. This grade is commonly used for molding and joinery products such as door frames and architectural millwork, and is often combined with No. 1 Common or Select grade to create a shop or cabinet lumber.
The next higher grade is No. 2 Common, which is a shop or cabinet lumber that contains No. 1 Common plus some sound defects that are not considered flaws in appearance applications. This is a good choice for shop work, such as making doors or pencils, and for framing applications in which the high-strength design values of No. 1 lumber are not required. Those looking for the lowest-cost options for utility uses should consider No. 2A and No. 2B Common, which admit some stain and other sound defects and may contain some pin knots. Also, look for machine stress rated (MSR) lumber that has been mechanically tested to ensure its structural integrity. This is a non-destructive test that uses a vibrating probe to detect bending and shear strengths, with the results compared to established correlations between appearance and strength grades.
Wood characteristics determine the suitability of lumber for various applications. These include strength properties, dimensional changes, density and appearance. Strength properties are determined by a combination of several factors, including fiber stress in bending, tension parallel to the grain and compression perpendicular to the grain. The values are based on specimens that are air-dried and size-adjusted. These design values are used for construction framing lumber and other building components, but the values must be adjusted for specific species and grades.
The basic strength properties of wood are established on the basis of a large number of tests on clear specimens in the air-dry condition. These are then used to establish a set of design values. These are then further adjusted for specific grades and conditions of use. These adjustments are based on the assumption that all lumber will be dried to a moisture content below the fibre saturation point, but variations in properties due to different drying conditions cannot be excluded.
In addition to its tensile and compressive strengths, the acoustical properties of lumber are important. Wood has excellent vibration damping and sound absorption properties, but its acoustic transmission is poor.
Other important wood characteristics are grain patterns, texture and ringing (the sound it makes when struck). In general, hardwoods have finer grains than softwoods. The texture of wood is defined by the size of cells within it and may be described as even textured or uneven textured. Grain pattern describes the direction of the cells, which can be straight or wavy. It can also be spiral or interlocking.
While the majority of lumber is cut from deciduous trees, a significant amount of softwood is harvested from coniferous trees such as pine and spruce. The lumber produced from these trees is often used for siding and decking, as well as interior woodworking projects. It is also used for a variety of outdoor projects such as supports, beams and fence posts. Other popular softwood lumber includes larch, western hemlock and yew. In general, coniferous softwoods are stronger and more durable than hardwoods. They are also more resistant to insects and decay than hardwoods, making them an excellent choice for structural applications.