The Trades

Research, insights and advice from craftsmen and industry experts

Hardwood vs. Softwood: What’s the Difference?

There are two primary categories of wood: hardwood and softwood. Both are used in different types of construction. But the difference between the two doesn’t have to do with their actual hardness or density, it’s in how the trees reproduce.

To explain it most simply, a wood is classified as a hardwood if the seeds that the tree produces have a coating in the form of a fruit or a shell. Softwoods produce seeds that don’t have a coating, which are dropped to the ground. These biological differences do impact the characteristics of the wood, which in turn impacts their uses. Read on for a complete guide to hardwoods and softwoods.

What is hardwood?

Hardwoods are angiosperm trees, or plants that produce seeds with a covering. They usually form flowers to reproduce. They’re fertilized by birds and insects that carry the pollen to other trees, and when they’re fertilized, the trees form fruits, nuts, or seeds. These types of hardwood trees include walnut,...

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All About Wood Construction: Advantages & Disadvantages

Wood is one of the oldest building materials used by mankind.  It was used to build everything from Neolithic longhouses to the first Temple of Jerusalem, built with the cedars of Lebanon. Today, wood frame structures dominate residential construction in the United States. More than 90 percent of American homes are built with wood frames. 

However, a number of tragic urban fires—in the United States, the most significant was Chicago’s Great Fire in 1871—led builders to consider other options for taller, higher density buildings. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, concrete and steel came to dominate the construction of taller buildings. Wood became reserved for interior details, occasionally (when treated) exterior cladding. At most, wood played a supporting role in projects where concrete and steel did the heavy lifting. 

That is changing, however, thanks to engineering advances, new protective treatments for lumber, a desire to construct...

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All About Timber Framing: History, Characteristics, Joinery

While the materials used to construct buildings are remarkably varied—bricks, thatch, stone, and more—one construction material stands out above all others in popularity: wood.  

“Early humans lived under trees. As those trees fell down, they took shelter underneath the fallen trees,” professional builder and craftsman Jordan Smith explains. “ And then it wasn't long before they figured out: You know what? We can stack these to make walls or we can lean them against each other.”

From those humble beginnings, a type of construction known as timber framing came to dominate wood construction. The Horyuji Temple in Nara, Japan, built around 600 C.E., is the world’s oldest existing wooden building, and it was constructed using the timber framing method.  

“So for everybody who has durability concerns about wood. we've got buildings that are still standing today that are 1400 years old.”—Jordan Smith 


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Drywall vs. Sheetrock: What’s the Difference?

construction basics Jul 17, 2020

You may notice that home builders sometimes use “drywall” and “Sheetrock” interchangeably, or even as verbs—as in, “I’m going to Sheetrock this room”. In fact, Sheetrock® is a brand of drywall that is a registered trademark of the U.S. Gypsum Company, but there are no functional differences between drywall and Sheetrock®. 

Since its invention over a hundred years ago, drywall has eased the process of building a house and embarking on home improvement projects. Before the advent of drywall, builders had to apply plaster in layers on supporting wooden strips called laths. Each coat necessitated ample drying time, and the plaster needed time to harden at the end of the process. Needless to say, lath and plaster was inefficient.

The prototype for drywall—a layer of plaster between four layers of wool felt—was first made in the late 19th century and was called Sackett Board, for its inventor, Augustine Sackett. The...

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5 Common Electrical Symbols All Builders Need to Know

blueprints Jul 17, 2020

Heating and air-conditioning systems, plumbing, electrical outlets and wiring (including lighting), and other mechanical systems are typically detailed in MEP (mechanical, electric, plumbing) plans, and installed by specialists in their field. While builders don’t need to understand everything in the MEP plans, builders should be aware of how these systems will operate and where the wires and pipes will be placed. 

Architects also include information about outlets and switches in their power and data plans—which are part of the blueprints package—though these are generally not as comprehensive as MEP plans. Some elements of these plans will have more direct implications for builders as recessed lighting, ceiling fans, and features that have to be blocked (surrounded by a small frame) for support. 

Of the different systems on MEP plans, you’ll want to pay special attention to the electrical elements and their placement. Jordan Smith explains in his ...

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House Framing Basics: Types, Terms, and Components

Light frame construction (known simply as “framing” in residential construction) is the technique of creating a structure based on vertical components, known as studs, which provide a stable frame for interior and exterior wall coverings. Horizontal elements, called joists, run the length of the floor, or between walls or beams. The joists support ceilings and floors.  

Today, platform framing—in which each story is framed on top of the previous one—is the method of choice among most builders. Using one floor as the platform for the construction of the next floor creates a stable work surface. It also allows builders to use widely-available pieces of dimensioned lumber, versus the longer or more natural cuts of wood used in older methods. 

Framing: a quick history lesson

Timber framing

Timber framing, which involves fitting together large posts and beams and connecting them with wooden pegs, was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. In timber...

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How to Read Blueprints: Complete Guide

blueprints Jul 15, 2020

Construction blueprints are technical drawings created by architects, engineers, and designers to put all the construction specifics of a house in one package to which the builder can refer as they construct the house. Although a package of blueprints can be daunting, as many as 50 pages long, the concept of the blueprint is simple: It is a series of two-dimensional representations of a three-dimensional building.

Professional builder and craftsman Jordan Smith explains in his class on reading blueprints

“A blueprint is the fundamental plan for the construction of any structure. The print is what shows the builders, the electricians, the framers -  all of the trades people exactly what needs done on any construction project.”

The main sections of a blueprint are: 

  • Title Sheets and Site Plans
  • Floor Plans
  • Elevations and Sections
  • Details and Schedules
  • Structural Drawings
  • Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing (MEP) Drawings

Each of these sections uses...

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The Builder’s Guide to Architectural Drawings

blueprints Jul 15, 2020

An architectural drawing is the technical rendering of a house or other structure that is both an illustration of what the final home will look like and also a tool used by engineers, contractors, designers, and builders to execute the construction. 

Architects use these drawings to develop their design idea into a proposal and to communicate design concepts. The drawings will reflect the overall appearance—internal and external—of the home, how it is oriented on a building site, and the layout of its living areas. Some of the drawings are more conceptual, to communicate the look and feel of the house, and some are technical, used specifically to direct how the building is constructed.

The architecture plan is the initial set of design schematics on which engineers rely to provide the basis for their mapping of the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems for the house. In a set of blueprints, you will find the architectural drawings first, including...

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How to Identify a Load-Bearing Wall

Uncategorized Jul 06, 2020

A load-bearing wall does exactly as its name implies: it supports the weight of a house and helps keep it standing (in other words, it bears a load). Considering how much weight has to be supported in a structure—the roof, all the building materials between roof and floor, all the contents of the house—the load-bearing walls are crucial to the integrity of the building. All that weight that is transferred is called the load, and the wall functions to transfer the weight from the roof to the foundation.

Every exterior wall of a home is load bearing. A non-load bearing wall is usually used to divide the space inside a house. They’re often known as partition walls or curtain walls. Since they’re not responsible for support and are not part of the structural frame, they are safe to remove to make room for a more open floor plan. You can identify them by looking at the joists and rafters in the attic or basement. If they run parallel to the wall, they are likely...

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Complete Guide to a Career in Construction Engineering

Construction Engineering and Management (CEM) is a field for those who think big, and want to build big too. If you’ve ever wondered about how the country’s biggest buildings, airports, stadiums, highways, bridges, and dams are constructed, the short answer is thanks to those working in CEM.

The field of CEM covers a variety of roles in the construction industry. For some a career in CEM may mean working as a general contractor, overseeing a construction project broadly, while others choose to specialize in a specific area such as mechanical and electrical work. You may choose to work in a project management role for an owner or developer who is remaking the skylines of America’s cities or for companies in energy exploration and development—like oil and gas or renewable energies. 

CEM is not only varied in terms of employers and sectors of the economy, but also in terms of the skills it requires: engineering, design, management, and knowledge of local...

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