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Selecting the Right Type of Wood Pt 1: Hardwood vs. Softwood

Posted  on by Heartwood Carving, Inc.
Image Selecting the Right Type of Wood Pt 1: Hardwood vs. Softwood

One of
the most important aspects of woodworking is selecting the best type of wood to
accompany your project. This may seem like a daunting task for anyone new to
the diverse world of woodworking. There are currently 60,065 identified tree
species—a large enough number to make anyone’s head spin. However, no one is
going to sift through several thousand types of trees to determine the option
that works for them. Once you familiarize yourself with all aspects of
woodworking, the selection process becomes a matter of elimination.

Before
anything else, you’ll decide whether you should use hardwood or softwood. A
common misconception is that the difference between the two is their density.
However, this isn’t always the case—the difference actually lies in the tree’s
shedding pattern. Hardwood usually comes from a deciduous tree, which means
that every year it loses its leaves. Softwood, however, comes from a conifer
and stays evergreen throughout the year.

Having
this knowledge is useful in identifying a species’ durability, but there’s a
lot more that goes into selecting the appropriate wood for your project. Below
we go a bit more in-depth regarding the difference between hardwood and
softwood and give a brief overview of types that woodworkers commonly use.

Hardwood

Hardwood,
though more expensive, is a choice that promises long-lasting results. Hardwood
is easy to clean, aesthetically pleasing, and incredibly sturdy. For projects
such as cutting boards or worktables, hardwood is the obvious choice. The use
of hardwood adds notable value to your home, and other than the occasional
waxing, you needn’t worry about it losing its luster.

While
being the obvious choice for many, hardwood can be difficult to work with. For
anyone inexperienced, it can be difficult to cut and may not hold nails as well
as softwood. You want to be careful when using power tools on hardwood—take
your time. Mistakes can be costly, and it’s best to avoid them when possible. These
same properties of hardness and higher density make hardwoods the ideal machine
carving wood with the denser woods, such as maple and beech. Heartwood Carving
consistently utilizes this information, providing clients with the best results
possible.

Part of
the reason behind hardwood’s expense is its sustainability. It takes hardwood
trees longer to grow, meaning they regenerate at a slower rate. Softwood, in
comparison, has a notably faster growth rate and therefore provides a faster
turnover.

For
select furniture that you wish to last a lifetime, hardwood is the best option.
It can withstand wear and tear and is less likely to change shape according to
the seasons. When creating pieces that require a perfect fit, such as cabinetry
drawers, hardwood is the ideal option.

Common Types
of Hardwood

Mahogany:
This type of wood has a reputation for being desirable due to its stunning
color and longevity. It’s oftentimes used for furniture and floors as it
provides a luxe look to any environment; some extremely skilled crafters may
even use it to craft writing instruments. Though it requires patience, mahogany
is known for being incredibly easy to work with. Although true Mahogany from
Honduras is not readily available, other species from Africa—including Sapele
and Khaya—are currently more common in North America.

Walnut:
More expensive than many hardwoods due to its limited quantities, walnut is an
incredibly sturdy wood with the ability to withstand a variety of elements.
It’s the heartwood—which is the wood in the center—that gives it the dark
chocolate color we associate with walnut. Many consider the white, creamy
colored sapwood in the outer growth rings less desirable and reduces yields. In
addition, due to the many branches on a walnut tree, this wood is likely to
boast a variety of knots, which many consider an attractive element in
woodworking. Woodworkers often use walnut in furniture making as no other North
American wood carries the natural dark color. In order to create a symmetrical
pattern with its knots, a woodworker can cut a piece of lumber vertically and
place it side by side for consistency and a book-matched appearance.
Walnut machine carves extremely well.

Oak: This
is one of the most common types of wood by far, often referred to as the king
of woods, and you most likely have some in your own home. There are a few
different species, and how it looks will depend on if you purchase red or white
oak. Red Oak is quite grainy when stained, which may not be appealing to some,
but it’s extremely sturdy and decently priced. White Oak is water-resistant,
which makes it an ideal option for outdoor furniture and doors.

Cherry:
This attractive variety of wood comes in a diverse assortment of colors that
allows for convenient customization. Both durable and aesthetically-pleasing,
cherry is also a joy to work with. It has a medium density and reacts
beautifully to hand and machine carving and woodworkers can select and stain it
to match any room.

Alder: A
clean wood, alder is an excellent choice for cabinetry and chairs. Due to its
light finish, woodworkers can stain alder to replicate the look of other wood
species, most notably cherry, but including walnut and mahogany. Alder reacts
well to tools and can easily withstand nails and screws without fear of
splitting. Lauded for its workability and diversity, alder is the wood of
choice for many woodworkers. In the machine carving world alder is not always
the best choice as it has less density and therefore does not hold sharp peaks
and edges and can be fuzzy to clean and sand.

Maple:
This is another wood that’s praised for its variety. Unlike the two species
above however, maple is not easily stainable and so it is difficult to alter
its appearance to fit the woodworker’s preference through staining. It’s
beautiful grain pattern makes this wood unique and many are content to merely
sand it and leave it as-is. Maple is ideal for flooring, as it’s incredibly
dense and durable. Further, when machine carved you can shape it into designs
that are both stunning and clean because of the high density.

Softwood

Though
many lean toward the variety and luxury that hardwood provides, we shouldn’t be
too quick to discount softwood. Especially beginners, who may find softwood
more pliable and easier to work with. However, the size of this wood’s grain
can make it less durable; the pattern and width of these lines can cause the
wood to split. However, some find softwood’s grain pattern to be quite
attractive, suiting the intended look of their project.

As stated
above, softwood is simple to work with, and hobbyists appreciate it for its
versatility. Putting aside the occasional lack of durability, it can be
extremely forgiving. Many enjoy it for creating fine details in decorative
woodwork. However, for machine carving, these same properties can make for a
fragile carving with fuzzy grain that requires extra finishing and sanding to
fully remove.

The
combination of its fast growth rate, low density, and high production makes
softwood a cost-friendly option. And although it is less durable, softwood can
last for decades if properly cared for. If you choose the correct finish and
provide regular maintenance, you can get your money’s worth, plus more.

Common
Types of Softwood

Cedar: A
lovely, light-colored wood with an attractive scent, woodworkers oftentimes use
cedar for storage containers, including trunks, wardrobes, and gardening beds.
Cedar is usually resistant to rotting, making it a popular option for outdoor
use and attics. Although it’s fairly easy to work with, cedar is not very
structurally sound and does not always do well with fastening and can detach
from screws and nails over time.

Pine:
Oftentimes containing knots and irregular patterns, pine is a good option for
rustic themes. It also takes stain well, so you can really optimize a vintage
look if that’s what you’re going for. Due to its porosity, you want to make
sure that your pine furniture is well protected. A negative of pine is that it
can dispel sap and it isn’t the most durable option, as it is susceptible to
scratches and dents. For machine carving it is also not a very good choice as
the low density does not withstand the rigors of machining fine peaks and
edges.

Fir: This
softwood is one of the most inexpensive options, so anyone new to woodworking
may want to try their hand at fir while they work through trial and error. It
has a thin, straight grain that makes it useful for projects requiring
symmetry, such ask picnic tables and rocking chairs. Although Vertical Grain
Fir is part of the same family, it comes at a much higher cost due to the style
of the cut required to get create a parallel grain. This reduction in yield
pushes the costs for ‘VG” Fir much higher. Fir again as a softwood can be
machine carved but the results are mixed and a harder wood is preferred.

Conclusion

Selecting
the proper species of wood is one of the most important aspects of woodworking,
but it isn’t the only thing that you’ll need to decide on before you begin your
project. Once you select the type of wood you’ll use, you’ll have to turn your
attention to finishes and end grain. This blog is the first of a three-part
series in which we focus on all the aspects behind selecting the proper tools
for your project. Check back for part two, where we will focus on finishes and stains.


Hardwood vs. Softwood info

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