Most woodworkers love working with hardwoods because of the wide range of textures, vibrant grain patterns, and colors. But the downside is the expense of these woods, especially some of the more exotic hardwoods. Enter the equally strong and useful softwoods. While colors tend to be limited to cream, yellow or reddish, the coniferous trees produce straight, less expensive materials.
The structural difference between hardwoods and softwoods is the density of the wood and the way both receive water and nutrients. Hardwoods have pores or vessels that transport water throughout each tree, while softwoods are fed through open cells. This also makes softwoods more prone to develop sap.
Quite a few species of softwoods are sustainable, as they’re grown on environmentally-friendly tree farms to ensure a continuous supply of woods without contributing to worldwide deforestation. Coniferous trees produce the bulk of wood used throughout the world; plus, they offer the widest range of uses.
Making the Choice
Choosing which type of softwood to use naturally depends on your project. Certain pieces require a combination of softwoods and hardwoods, such as building a new workbench, a sturdy Cedar chest or a musical instrument. Certain types of violins are created by using a combination of Spruce and Maple. Here are a few of the more popular softwoods:
Cedar: In addition to its great aroma, Western Red Cedar is one of the more durable softwoods, although its surface is easily marred. The oils that deter insect damage give this wood its aroma. Indoor applications are usually cabinets or linen chests.
Fir: This stronger type of softwood features a long, even, but bland-looking grain. Its texture makes it easy to work, although it will quickly dull tools. This inexpensive softwood is primarily used in furniture.
Pine: This blonde softwood features a soft, yet distinctive grain, which takes stains very well. It’s one of the best softwoods for wood carving, although it’s also used for making indoor furniture.
Redwood: With its soft composure and straight grain, it’s not going to break the bank when you purchase a large amount of redwood. Good for outdoor projects because it’s water resistant.
Spruce: A true softwood, this is a creamy-colored wood with small, hard knots scattered throughout. This species is one of the less durable types, but it’s a good choice for cabinetry and some furniture pieces.
Yew: This wood varies in color from yellow to a reddish tan. This heavy softwood has a firm, tight grain and is suitable for making smaller pieces and turned articles.
When to Use Softwoods
No matter which type of softwood you choose to use in a project, most are used in construction, not always for furniture making or other uses. These woods must become fully acclimated to your shop environment before starting any type of woodworking project. Acclimating the wood reduces some remaining moisture and the chance of movement after the project is finished.
Softwoods are typically wet, with only a short amount of drying time when shipped. Most will require considerably more drying time to reduce moisture content, but even then, they can still contain plenty of sap or pitch. This can make using bits and blades extremely difficult, as the pitch will stick to the tools. If allowed to build up, the pitch can overheat your tool, which can burn both the wood and the bit.
Many woodworkers choose to use both softwoods and hardwoods for numerous, yet similar purposes, especially when a project requires putting more emphasis on wood types and densities. Most softwoods are a less expensive product than nearly all hardwood species and easier to use. But you won’t know what you can do with a nice chunk or length of softwood until you give it a try.