Wood Type Overview

Needless to say, selecting the right wood for your project is essential. Solid wood is divided into hardwood and softwood. Manufactured wood does not have the same glamour as solid wood but it is cheap and easy to work with. Here is a short wood type overview, explaining the basics.

You have probably heard the terms hardwood and softwood. Contrary to popular belief, the names don’t refer to how hard or soft the wood is. Another popular myth is that evergreens are softwood, but that is not true either. Although it is a good rule of thumb, most evergreens are softwood while most trees which lose their leaves during winter are hardwood. But that are exceptions.

Instead the terms hardwood and softwood refer to how the trees reproduce. Hardwood trees are angiosperms which mean that they produce seeds with some kind of covering, for example an acorn. Softwoods are gymnosperms, their seeds have no covering. The name gymnosperm comes from the Greek and means naked seeds. To be precise, once the seeds are released, they have no covering. This means that cone-bearing trees are classified as softwood.

On microscopic level it is easy to see the differences between hardwood and softwood. Softwood has a much simpler cell structure than hardwood. Softwood is composed mainly of tracheids, cells which conduct the sap up through the trunk and provide support. Hardwood on the other hand has narrower fiber cells for support and vessels for sap conduction.

The difference in cell structure becomes apparent when you apply stain. Softwood absorbs the stain more readily than hardwood. Softwood dominates the global timber production, about 80% of all timber is softwood. Softwood is typically cheaper than hardwood and it is easier to work.

Both hardwood and softwood are graded but different grading systems are used. Hardwood is mainly graded on appearance with one grading system covering all species. Softwood grading is more complex, softwood lumber is graded differently depending on the species. Softwood grading pays attention to both strength and appearance.

Note that the term heartwood refers to inner part of the trunk. It is surrounded by the sapwood, the younger outermost part of the trunk. Over time, the oldest sapwood becomes heartwood. Essentially, heartwood is dead, it simply supports tree. Sapwood is the active part of the tree, through which water, minerals and nutrients flow.

Manufactured wood, such as plywood, does not have the same glamour as the solid wood types. But manufactured woods have a number of advantages, it is cheap, easy to work and available in a wide range of sizes and appearances.

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