On the surface, woodworking seems simple. Take a piece of wood, apply a few tools and craft something extraordinary. The need for practicing aside, the concept is straightforward — that is, until you start getting into the nitty-gritty of the hobby and exploring all your available options. What do you need to know to choose the right materials for woodworking?
Hardwoods vs. Softwood
The first thing you need to learn is the difference between hardwoods and softwoods. Softwoods generally get harvested from conifer trees like pine — trees that stay green year-round. Pine, cypress and redwood are all examples of softwoods. If you head to a chain hardware store like Lowe’s or Home Depot, most of the lumber you’ll find there is softwood.
Hardwoods, on the other hand, come from deciduous trees, the ones that lose their leaves every winter. Oak, maple and cherry are all examples of hardwood.
Each type of wood has a different application. You’ll find softwoods in housing frames, and hardwoods in antique furniture.
Learning Lumber Grades
Just like beef, lumber receives a grade that determines its quality. If you’re looking for higher-quality wood for your next woodworking project, it’s essential to understand these grades. There are three classifications of softwood lumber: yard, structural, and shop and factory.
Yard lumber has two categories — common and select. Most of what you’ll find at big-box hardware stores is common yard lumber. This wood gets numbered based on quality. No. 1 is the best, with very few knots, while No. 3 has lots of knots or damage. Select yard lumber is the highest quality of this category, with two classifications — C, with almost no defects or knots, and D, with very few knots.
If you’ve ever bought a bunch of 2″ x 4″s at the hardware store, you’re familiar with structural lumber. It usually receives a grade based on the amount of stress each board can withstand. Shop and factory lumber is what’s left when there’s still a decent amount of high-quality wood in a piece of timber, but it’s not enough to meet either of the other two categories. Manufacturers use this lumber to make things like doors, pencils and crown molding.
Hardwood isn’t nearly as complicated to classify. It gets broken down into four grades depending on appearance and the amount of clear surface area. The higher the grade, the fewer defects, and the more usable surface area.
Don’t Forget Fasteners
Once you’ve chosen your lumber, the last major decision you’ll need to make is about your fasteners. The lumber you choose will determine the kind of fasteners you need and how you connect your pieces. With softwoods, you can use nails or screws to connect your pieces without worrying about splitting or cracking. That’s part of why they’re so popular for construction — all you need is a nail gun to secure pieces quickly and easily.
Hardwoods, on the other hand, have a very dense grain and are prone to split if you’re not careful. Screws are your best option, but even then, you’re going to need to drill some pilot holes to keep the lumber from splitting.
It’s All About the Material
Choosing the right material can make or break your woodworking project. Take time to research the different options available and make the best decision for the kind of project you’re trying to build.