What is softwood? This is going to be the primary focus of this article, answering questions around softwood.
When sourcing wood for a project, you’ll come across two terms – softwood and hardwood.
These are terms used to describe the different timber species available for woodwork, and you must understand their differences to know which one is best for your project.
In this article, I’ll focus on softwood, discussing its features, uses, and examples to give you a better insight into it as a building material. So, here we go, what is softwood?
Softwood refers to timber sourced from gymnosperm /evergreen trees that remain green year-round.
These trees grow fast, taking only 40 years to be ready for harvesting – a feature that makes them less dense than the slow-growing hardwoods.
Since softwood trees grow fast, there is an endless flow of wood; thus, they make up a large percentage of building materials worldwide.
Their low density also gives them excellent workability; thus, they have many applications, including making house components like windows and doors, furniture, decks, roofing, etc.
Types of Softwood
Terms to know
- Heartwood – the denser wood close to the tree trunk’s center
- Sapwood – The outer edge of the tree trunk just before you reach the bark.
Even though softwoods come from trees with similar characteristics, each of them has unique features that make them suitable for some projects more than others.
Here, I’ll discuss the most popular types of softwood individually, highlighting everything from their best features to their significant disadvantages.
Pine is the most popular softwood worldwide because it is easy to obtain, and you can use it for various applications.
It has a lengthy lifespan; therefore, woodworkers mainly use it for construction work like flooring, roofing, and framing, or to make all kinds of furniture.
One of the best features of pine wood is its ability to bend easily without breaking. This feature makes it a superior choice for making turned furniture and objects.
It is also easy to carve and accepts stain readily, which is perfect for when you need to customize the appearance of your finished products.
The features mentioned above describe pine wood in general.
However, this wood type has different sub-species with different colors, strength levels, and basic properties, which you must know to select the best one for your project. So let’s dive a little deeper.
Types of Pine Wood
There are four types of pine wood – white pine, western yellow pine, southern yellow pine, and red pine.
- The White Pine Wood
This category of pine trees produces white-colored timber, as the name suggests.
They have a light brown heartwood and white or pale yellow sapwood, which sometimes can be a little challenging to tell apart.
This subspecies produces wood with low density that is easy to manipulate and carry around during projects.
It also has a fine texture, and its grains are even, giving it a beautiful soft appearance.
The white pine wood does not split or swell easily, thanks to its flexibility. For this reason, it is one of the most durable subspecies.
- The Southern Yellow Pine
This subspecies produces harder and denser wood than most regular pine woods.
However, its density does not affect its workability or make it hard to move around during projects.
In terms of color, it is easy to confuse the southern yellow pine with the white pine because they both have a light hue – but only if you’re an amateur.
If you’ve worked with pine wood for a long time, you will notice that the southern yellow has a more golden look than white pine.
If you cannot differentiate them by color, their different densities should help you figure it out.
- The Western Yellow Pine
This subspecies looks like the southern yellow pine in terms of color, but it has a more even grain pattern.
In terms of hardness, the western yellow pine falls right in the middle of the white pine and the southern yellow, meaning it is neither too dense nor too light.
- The Red Pine Wood
The red pine tree has yellowish sapwood and a reddish-brown heartwood.
Loggers source their timber nearer to the heartwood, which is why it has the unique red color that sets it apart from its light-colored cousins.
This wood is the strongest of the four pine subspecies, making it ideal for construction projects.
You can use it to make cabin logs, poles, railway ties, etc. – applications that require durable materials.
Uses of Pine Wood
Pine wood is mainly used for flooring and to make furniture and cabinetry.
Since it comes in various colors, most people prefer to use it for interiors, especially for projects where you want to maintain the beautiful wood appearance – that means no painting or staining.
Pine wood is also great for design-focused projects because it is light and flexible; hence it is easy to carve.
- It is light; therefore, it is easy to move and manipulate.
- It comes in various colors giving you choices for different projects.
- It is easy to source.
- It is cheaper than most popular wood species like teak and mahogany.
- It is flexible and hence resistant to splitting and breaking.
- Its low density makes it susceptible to scratches and dents.
Cedar is a premium softwood that is denser, tougher, and more durable; thus, it is mainly used for making outdoor furniture, decking, and other exterior projects.
On top of its durability, it is decently resistant to moisture, decay, and insects, which are the significant causes of failure in wood projects.
Like pine, there are multiple varieties of cedar wood with different properties and uses.
Some work well for decking, while others are used to line closets and cigar humidors. Let’s discuss the different types of cedar wood to help you make the best choice.
Western Red Cedar
The western red cedar has a reddish-brown hue in its heartwood and creamy-white sapwood.
Lumbers source the wood close to the heartwood, which is why it has the signature red color.
Its tree can grow as tall as 200 ft with a trunk up to 10 ft wide, producing large wood boards ideal for big outdoor constructions such as decks, pergolas, and shingles.
Trunk size aside, this cedar wood species has a natural decay resistance and can repel water – all the more reason to use it for outdoor construction.
This wood is easy to cut and shape using either power or hand tools because It has low fiber density and is lightweight.
However, you must always wear protective gear when sawing through it because contact with the sawdust can cause respiratory problems and rashes.
In terms of beauty, the western red cedar has no knots, except in the lower grades sourced closer to the sapwood.
You can benefit from the lower grades if the presence of wood knots doesn’t compromise your project.
However, you will have to take better care of the wood because wood closer to the sapwood has little decay resistance compared to those sourced from the heartwood.
Northern White Cedar
The northern white cedar tree has light brown/tan heartwood and creamy white sapwood.
Like the western red cedar, this subspecies is naturally resistant to decay and insect infestation, allowing it to better resist harsh outdoor conditions.
It also has a long and large tree trunk ideal for sourcing wood for large outdoor constructions.
This wood appears less smooth than other light-colored cedars because of the numerous small knots on its surface.
However, the knots provide a beautiful natural wood appearance; if you don’t like it, you can paint the wood to cover them.
This wood is softer and more lightweight than the other cedars on this list; thus, it is easy to shape with power or hand tools.
However, it cannot hold screws firmly due to its softness; hence the best fastening method to use on it is mainly glue.
Moreover, the northern white cedar tends to be brittle; thus, it can easily tear out if you don’t use sharp cutters or a backer board.
Eastern Red (Aromatic) Cedar
The eastern red cedar produces the strongest woody smell of all the other cedar woods; hence, it is popularly referred to as the “aromatic cedar.”
Crafters use it to line the inside of closets and make pencils and other souvenir wooden trinkets because they’ll smell fresh for long periods.
This subspecies is highly stable thanks to its tightly packed wood grains; therefore, you can cut and shape it with hand or power tools without fear of it breaking.
The aromatic cedar has knots on its surface; therefore, it isn’t as smooth as the western red cedar.
You can use this slight difference in appearance to tell the red cedars apart if you’ve never worked with them before.
Like all cedars, always wear protective gear when working with the aromatic cedar because its dust can cause rashes and respiratory problems.
Yellow Cedar/Alaska Cedar
Yellow cedar wood appears yellow because its sapwood and heartwood have varying shades of creamy yellow.
They blend seamlessly with each other hence it is a little challenging to tell them apart unless you have years of woodworking experience.
Unlike the other cedars on this list, the Alaska cedar grows very slowly, and you can tell this by the presence of tight rings on its wood.
It is also harder and denser than the other cedars making it more durable; however, it remains lightweight like the rest.
Because of its impressive weight-strength ratio, the Alaska cedar is perfect for building durable canoe paddles, decks, interior panels, and railings.
It is also perfect for making musical instruments like guitars and violins due to its excellent sound quality.
- Cedar is naturally resistant to decay and insect infestation.
- Its tree trunks are larger; hence you can source large wood boards.
- It is lightweight; hence you can cut and shape it easily.
- It has a beautiful wood smell, especially the aromatic cedar, which has the strongest smell.
- The sawdust from this wood causes rashes and respiratory problems.
Redwood is one of woodworkers’ most commonly used outdoor building materials – for a good reason.
It’s naturally resistant to rot and insects and less resistant to swelling and shrinking; thus, it is more durable than most softwood.
Moreover, its reddish tones give everything you build an aesthetically pleasing appearance.
Even though redwood lumber comes from the same tree, they are not all alike.
There are different grades of this wood characterized based on their features, appearance, and where you cut the tree trunk to source the wood.
There are more than 30 grades of redwood lumber, but in this article, I’ll discuss them in three major groups: Redwood Con Heart, Redwood Con Common, and Redwood clear Heart.
Redwood Con Common
“Con Common” is short for “Construction Common,” indicating that this Redwood grade is popular for construction projects.
Loggers source it from the tree trunk’s outer edge (sapwood) – a part of the tree without many significant benefits.
For this reason, Redwood Con common is more affordable than the other grades.
This wood grade has some color variations, including shades of red, ivory, brown, tan, and pink. The various colors are an advantage because they make the wood have a unique appearance.
On the downside, Redwood Con Common tends to have a lot of knots because its source is the trunk’s outer edge. The knots are indicators of where you cut off the tree’s branches.
Moreover, woods in this grade are more porous than the other grades and have less natural protection against insects and decay.
Therefore, you must ensure that you don’t put them in direct contact with the soil and apply a sealant yearly to ward off harsh elements.
Redwood Con Heart
Redwood Con heart is cut closer to the heartwood/center of the tree trunk. Its color is more uniform and has fewer knots compared to the Con Common grade.
Even though the wood comes from heartwood, it is not pure heartwood. A little sapwood gets cut along with it, which explains why some planks have knots while others do not.
However, the heartwood ratio is higher than the sapwood; hence you don’t have to worry about the wood being porous.
This wood grade is more resistant to pests and rot; hence it can be in direct contact with soil without issues.
It can also withstand harsh outdoor conditions for a long time without needing a sealant.
This elevation in quality and durability makes Redwood Con Heart about 20% more expensive than Con Common.
Even though woods in this grade can resist pests and rot, the resistance does not last forever.
It loses this ability after a few years; therefore, I recommend applying a sealant yearly to keep your products in good shape.
Redwood Clear Heart
Redwood Clear Heart is wood that is cut purely from the heartwood. It has no sapwood, knots, or any other common defects associated with the sapwood.
It also has better pest and rot resistance, making it more expensive than the other Redwood grades.
The functionality and durability of Clear Heart lumber equal that of Con Heart lumbers, but people choose them for their clear and more uniform appearance.
- Its heartwood grades are naturally resistant to pests and rot.
- It has a red color that gives objects a unique appearance.
- It doesn’t break or split easily.
- It resists moisture with the exception of the porous Con common grade.
- You can only get the full benefits of Redwood timber if you purchase the “heart” grades, which are more expensive.
The Douglas-fir is also a popular softwood known for its strength and workability. Its wood is light brown with a hint of yellow or red with visibly darker growth rings.
There are two primary varieties of Douglas-fir trees – coastal and interior. Their woods have the same properties, except for size and color.
The Coastal Douglas-fir is a much bigger tree than the interior variety, producing larger wood boards.
Its timber also has a lighter color with a more uniform texture than the interior trees.
Timber from the Douglas-fir dries quickly with minimal dimensional movement, thus reducing its chances of splitting or cracking.
Therefore, it is widely used for building and construction. You can easily shape and cut it with hand or power tools, although it tends to blunt woodcutters a little.
Moreover, it accepts stains and other finishes well, allowing you to customize your finished projects however you want.
On durability, timber sourced near or close to the heartwood can deter decay moderately well but is susceptible to insect attacks.
Timber sourced from sapwood has no such natural deterrent; hence you must treat it or apply a protective coating to fend off pests and decay.
You will notice a distinct resinous odor when working with Douglas-fir timber, but it is not too intense to interfere with your work.
Uses of Douglas Fir
Douglas-fir is mainly used for building and construction projects due to its excellent strength and availability of large dimension timber, especially from old-growth trees.
It is one of the leading timbers for creating heavy structures, including roof trusses and laminated arches.
This wood is also a first-class choice for manufacturing sashes, windows, and doors. Moreover, you can use it for general millwork, flooring, making veneer, marine pilings, etc.
- It doesn’t shrink as it dries, thus preventing wood checking
- It has sufficient ability to resist decay.
- It has excellent stability, ensuring all your constructions remain standing for a long time.
- It tends to blunt cutters.
- It cannot fend off insect attacks.
- There have been reports of Health issues associated with its sawdust.
Larch is a softwood that grows in cold climates.
It is moderately strong and durable enough to be used in several construction projects like making timber cladding, building garden sheds, fencing, etc.
Larch wood has a reddish-brown to a pale creamy white color and has a dark striped or grainy patterning that you can easily see.
Its sapwood is white compared to heartwood, and you can easily distinguish the two, which comes in handy when grading.
The most significant advantage of larch wood is its ability to resist rotting and borer attacks.
This feature helps the timber remain intact even in projects like fencing where the pickets have to touch the ground.
Furthermore, this wood remains stable even as it dries; hence you can be assured of the strength and durability of your structures for years.
Larch logs have a straight grain pattern, making cutting and machining much easier.
You may find a few selected wood boards with knots, but such incidences are very few.
Moreover, larch wood takes all kinds of stains and paint quite quickly – contributing to its overall good look and ease of customization.
Uses of Larch Wood
Larch wood is helpful in the construction of gazebos, sheds, boats, telephone masts, and fences. It is also significant in creating flooring boards, particle boards, veneer, roof shingles, and paneling.
- It is strong and stable enough for construction projects.
- It does not shrink as it dries, thus reducing its chances of splitting or cracking.
- It can resist both decay and borer attacks.
- It has a beautiful grain pattern with very few visible knots.
- It is easy to stain
- It is easy to cut and carve with all kinds of tools.
- Even though it doesn’t shrink, people have complained about it warping over time.
- Contact with its dust sometimes causes skin irritation.
Comparing Different Types of Softwoods
Knowing the different types of softwood helps your selection. However, sometimes the woods may look the same, making it all the more difficult to differentiate them.
Take redwood and cedar, for example. Redwood is naturally red, and there is a cedar species that is red as well.
If you do not know how to tell them apart, you may use the wrong timber for the project.
In this section, I’ll discuss each softwood side by side to help you better understand their properties, uses, and how to differentiate them physically.
Pine vs Cedar
Appearance: You can tell the difference between cedar and pine by looking at them.
Cedar has a reddish color with white accents and a beautiful grain pattern giving it a warm, rich look.
On the other hand, pine has a lighter color that ranges from cream to a very light brown.
Most of the time, pine wood must be pressure treated to fend off insect attacks and decay. The treatment leaves it with a green tint in some places, making it even easier to differentiate it from cedar.
Use: Pine is mainly used for indoor projects to make furniture, cabinetry, wardrobes, tables, and drawers.
It is easy to paint and stain, offering interior design and decoration versatility.
If you want to use pine for an outdoor project, you must ensure that you select the treated type for the best results.
On the other hand, cedar is tougher and more resistant to harsh elements than pine; hence you can use it outdoors without treating it.
It is popular for making yard furniture, fence posts, and decking.
It is also used to make musical instruments because of its good sound quality and beautiful color and grain pattern.
Costs: Cedar wood is more expensive than pine – even pressure-treated pine.
The reason is that cedar is more resistant to the elements, more beautiful, and rarer than pine.
Maintenance: Maintaining cedar wood is much easier than pine because it resists all destructive properties naturally.
You can install the wood anywhere and leave it unstained, unpainted, and untreated; it will stand the test of time.
Pine, on the other hand, must be infused with chemical preservatives to fend off weather bugs and other outdoor elements.
If you use untreated pine, you must clean and check it annually to keep it in good shape. You must also apply a protective coating and reapply it yearly for best results.
Durability: Cedar is generally stronger and more durable than pine.
It does not require special treatment and stands up well to destructive elements without warping or shrinking.
On the other hand, pine warps and shrinks more because it is overly sensitive to the outdoors.
Without treatment, it will start to look weathered or damaged within a few years of outdoor installation.
Even though cedar is durable, pressure-treated pine has stronger resistance to soil and moisture.
For this reason, many people use pine for making fence posts and cedar for the panels.
Smell: Pinewood does not have a recognizable smell, but cedar is popular for its pleasing aroma. This odor difference partly accounts for why woodworkers use cedar to make indoor furniture interior cabinet linings.
Cedar vs Redwood
Protective features: Redwood and cedar have natural acids and oils that remain in the wood long after harvesting.
The oils repel humidity and moisture, keeping the wood from rotting, warping, or twisting over time.
On the other hand, the acid keeps termites and other insects away, thus extending the life of the wood.
Even though both wood types are strong and durable, redwood is denser, protecting it from withering and splintering with time.
Appearance: The appearance of redwood and cedar will differ depending on the type/grade you choose.
Redwood has a brownish-red color, which gets darker in the higher quality grades – wood pieces sourced closer to the heartwood.
It has a tight grain pattern and few knots, but the higher quality grades have no knots or flaws.
On the other hand, cedar can be yellow, red, or white, depending on the sub-species you use.
Red Cedar looks exactly like redwood in terms of color, but it is porous – which is how you tell the difference.
Yellow cedar has a golden hue, while white cedar is the palest with the tightest grain pattern of the three.
Cost: Redwood timber costs more than cedar wood because of the scarcity of the redwood tree.
White cedar is the costliest of the cedar varieties because of its tight grain structure, while red cedar is the cheapest since it is more porous.
Redwood vs Douglas-fir
Color: You can tell Redwood and douglas-fir apart just by looking at the color.
As the name suggests, Redwood has a distinct reddish-brown hue, while the douglas-fir has a very light brown color.
Uses: Both Redwood and douglas-fir are strong and stable; hence they’re popular for making furniture and other structures that require stability.
That said, Douglas-fir has a greater strength-weight ratio than redwood lumber; hence it is structurally stronger. For this reason, it is popular to make strong frames for building structures.
On the other hand, Redwood is lighter than douglas-fir, but it has the added advantage of repelling insects naturally.
Therefore, it is best used for flooring, decking, and any application close to or in contact with the ground.
Price: Redwood lumber is considerably pricier than douglas-fir lumber mainly because of its appearance and availability.
Redwood trees are slow-growth trees that produce wood with vibrant color and fine-grained appearance.
When you cut down one tree for wood, it will take years to grow back, thus contributing to the scarcity of Redwood.
On the other hand, douglas-fir springs out quickly after cutting down; hence it is easier to source their wood.
They also have a tight-grained appearance, but redwoods beat them when it comes to color.
Douglas-fir vs Pine
Grain and Appearance: Douglas-fir lumber is usually more beautiful than pine wood because of its grain appearance.
It has a tight and uniform grain structure that produces great flooring and furniture with a natural wood finish.
The grain and color uniformity of the fir also allows you to put all kinds of finishes on it.
On the other hand, pine has a loose grain structure, making it softer than fir.
It also has several knots that make its appearance look less inviting.
Knots aside, pine wood has a beautiful color ranging from a pretty golden hue to a deep amber that is perfect for rustic aesthetics.
Therefore, it is mainly used to make exposed ceiling beams, chairs, tables, and other elements with a cottage aesthetic.
Cost: Douglas-fir wood costs more than pine wood because it is more durable and has a better appearance.
It is also harder to source than pine, which grows fast and is readily available. Pine is also cheaper because its knots make it harder to cut and shape.
Stability: The stability of wood is mainly determined by how it reacts to moisture.
The Douglas-fir, like any wood, will expand or contract when it gains or loses moisture.
However, it returns to its standard shape and dimensions after it dries out, ensuring the stability of all your structures.
On the other hand, pine will permanently expand or shrink when it gains or loses moisture.
The changes in dimension cause the wood to warp; the only way to prevent that is by coating it with a wood sealer to keep moisture out.
Douglas-fir vs Cedar
Appearance: Cedarwood colors range from red to golden brown, depending on the sub-species you purchase.
It is a big difference from the Douglas-fir, which has a paler brown color when put alongside all three cedar species.
Cedarwood often comes rough sawn, which gives it a rugged, rustic look that is perfect for making outdoor furniture and decking.
On the other hand, douglas-fir lumber is S4S, meaning it comes smoothed on all four sides. As a result, it has a cleaner, more uniform look.
Strength: Douglas-fir lumber has better structural strength than cedar wood; hence it is popular for making frames and structural joists for buildings and other structures.
Cedar lacks the structural strength of the fir; hence it can get dented easily during active use. However, it wins when it comes to longevity.
Its natural ability to fend off decay and bugs makes it last outdoors for years without tiring maintenance.
Cost: Cedar, particularly Red Cedar, is more expensive than Douglas-fir because of its unique aromatic scent and feverish red hue.
These two features make it more visually appealing than the fir, which comes in neutral cream and brown colors.
Softwood vs Hardwood
Sometimes it is easier to think hardwood and softwood are self-descriptive terms, but they are not. Generally, hardwoods are indeed denser and harder than softwoods.
However, there are a few exemptions that make this rule somewhat obsolete.
I’ve compared all the vital softwood vs. hardwood features to help you understand their difference better and select the best one for your project.
Hardwood vs Softwood: Strength
Hardwoods are always stronger and harder-wearing than softwoods because of their slower growth and condensed structure.
These factors make hardwoods have greater density; as a general rule, higher density equals better strength and durability.
On the other hand, softwoods grow super fast and have a less complex structure, resulting in their softness and lower density.
Therefore softwoods have lesser strength and durability compared to hardwoods.
However, there are a few notable exemptions to these basic rules, which can make you question everything about softwoods and hardwoods unless you understand them.
For instance, Yew is a softwood with a significantly higher density than the American cherry, which is classified as hardwood.
There is also Balsa wood which is hardwood but has a significantly low density than some softwoods.
Hardwood vs Softwood: Durability
Hardwoods usually perform better than softwoods due to their complex and condensed structure. They naturally fend off harmful elements and have superior fire resistance too.
Softwoods, however, require chemical treatment to boost their performance, especially when used outdoors.
That said, softwoods like Cedar can naturally fend off insects and resist decay, making them durable.
You can use them untreated for outdoor projects, and you won’t have to go back every time to maintain them.
Hardwood vs Softwood: Cost
Generally, softwoods are cheaper than hardwoods because they grow fast and are easier to source; thus, you can find them in abundance.
However, the cost of any piece of wood depends entirely on the species you choose and, of course, the volume you need to complete a project.
For instance, softwoods like the Western Red Cedar are in high demand because of their beauty and durability. As a result, they may cost way more than some hardwoods.
Hardwood vs Softwood: Workability
The workability of softwoods is excellent, which is why you can make just about anything from them.
They take all kinds of finishes readily, allowing you to customize your products as you wish.
On the other hand, the greater density of hardwoods makes them complicated to manipulate.
You need to use machines to cut and shape them because hand tools will take too much time and may not even get the job done right.
Moreover, hardwoods do not accept finishes as readily as softwoods; hence they are better to make items where you want the wood grain to show.
Selecting wood for a project is the most crucial first step to any successful project; therefore, you must be exact about what you want.
You must understand how appearances matter, how wood density comes into play, and the best uses for all kinds of wood to choose the best species for your project.
The two main kinds of wood are softwood and hardwood, and this article mainly focused on answering the question
What Is Softwood?
Softwood makes up the largest percentage of all wood used for projects.
Some species are great for heavy and permanent construction projects like building decks and roofing, while others are good for lighter projects like making indoor furniture.
To select the best wood for your particular project, you must first know all the softwood species and learn how to differentiate them by use, appearance, durability, and cost.
I hope this article helped you understand all things softwood and if you have any queries or more information to share, please feel free to reach out in the comments section.