Wood is wood. right?

Wood is wood. right?

It’s not even close to being right. 

Other than its color (assuming you don’t paint it) we might think of all wood as being pretty much the same. The truth is there are three different types of wood with the most common being either softwoods (pine, cedar, fir, spruce, and redwood) or hardwoods (oak, maple, cherry, mahogany, and walnut) and the lesser-known being engineered woods (plywood, fiberboard, and composite board).  The differences are more than just their hardness, because some softwoods can be harder than hardwoods. Confused yet? Let’s simplify it a bit. 

Most softwoods are strong and commonly used in many different applications. Softwoods generally come from conifer trees with needles and cones.  They don’t drop their leaves in winter, but rather deal with the cold and snow of winter with highly resilient bark and needles.  They also grow much faster than their hardwood cousins and are the preferred choice for forestry management practices.  The most common is the Douglas fir (Christmas tree), which grows about 24 inches a year. In most backyards, they can grow to 60 feet, while those on the coasts of the Pacific can reach heights of 300 feet. That would be quite the Christmas tree! Softwoods take nails much easier than hardwoods and also have a natural resistance to decay, disease, rot, and insects, making them the favored wood for outdoor use. When viewed under a microscope, softwoods have no visible pores. 

Hardwoods are not necessarily “harder” than softwoods, but they do differ from softwoods in a couple of ways. First, they come from broad-leaved trees with flowers that produce seeds such as nuts and fruit. They grow slower and are denser. But the hardness isn’t because of their slow growth it’s because of the way they use and move water. Hardwoods have vessel elements that transport water throughout the wood; under a microscope, these elements appear as pores. The pores in hardwoods are a lot of what gives hardwood its prominent grain, which is quite different from softwood's light grain. 

Lastly, we have the engineered woods, which are generally made with wood that is manipulated to have certain qualities or features. Also known as composite wood, these products are often made from the waste wood of sawmills. However, recent developments in cross-laminated techniques are creating what’s called “mass timber,” which will allow buildings up to 18 stories high to be made of wood. These new building codes will go into effect in 2021. 


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