Types of Wood for Building Projects

Wood was one of the first materials ever used and it is certainly one of the longest standing. There’s evidence that homes built more than 10,000 years ago used wood as their primary construction material. But for such a well-known umbrella term, it has hundreds of varieties, classifications, and grades that make some woods better than others for certain projects. 

Understanding the types of wood, their properties, and their applications is crucial for builders. And once you understand the main types of woods, learning how they are graded will help you select the right one for your project (and fight overwhelm at the lumberyard).

Finally, understanding the components of wood strength, such as hardness, density, compression strength, bending strength (or Modulus of Rupture), and specific gravity will help you choose among the many options you might encounter for a project.

What are the three main types of wood?

Builders refer to hardwood, softwood, and engineered wood for construction projects. Of course, only two of these—hardwood and softwood—are natural, or “solid,” woods. Engineered wood is a manufactured material that contains wood product, as well as additives such as adhesives or resin. Here is a rundown of these three types of wood:

Hardwood

Hardwoods are angiosperm trees, or plants that produce seeds with a covering. 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.

In general, hardwood trees are deciduous, which means that they lose their leaves annually. They tend to grow more slowly than softwoods, so they are usually denser. In construction, we use hardwoods for projects that might be exposed to the elements or that need to last. Think: decks, flooring, beams, paneling, and high-quality furniture.

Common characteristics of hardwoods

Hardwood species 

Some of the most common species of hardwoods in North America include:

Learn all about the properties of wood and how wood is used in construction in the MT Copeland course on Wood Materials. Taught by professional builder Jordan Smith, the course covers topics that range from I-joists to shear strength.

Softwood

Softwood trees are gymnosperm trees, which reproduce by forming cones whose pollen is spread by the wind to other trees. Pollinated trees form what are known as “naked seeds,” which drop to the ground or are spread by the wind and grow elsewhere. 

These trees usually have needles and cones, so you’ll recognize them as conifers such as spruce or pine trees.  Other examples of softwood trees include cedar, Douglas fir, juniper, redwood, cypress, and larch. 

Because they grow more quickly than most hardwoods, most softwoods have a lower density than most hardwoods—and are therefore easier to cut. They’re also generally less expensive to harvest. Because softwoods can be soft and light and take a nail easily without splitting, they can be great for general construction.

Still, softwoods don’t take their name from the quality of softness. It is true that some varieties of hardwood are extremely hard, but in fact, the three softest woods recorded are also technically hardwoods. When we talk about softwood, we’re making the distinction about its mode of reproduction only—and within the category, allowing for generalizations.

Common characteristics of softwoods

Softwood species 

Some of the most common species of softwoods in North America include:

Engineered wood

When most people discuss the two main types of wood—hardwood and softwood—they’re talking about the two main types of natural wood, also referred to as “solid wood.” Engineered wood, or wood that is manufactured, is considered a third type of wood. 

Engineered boards are often made from the waste wood of sawmills, and are treated through chemical or heat processes to produce wood that meets size requirements that are hard to find in nature. In other words, they’re generally made from the same hardwoods and softwoods used to manufacture lumber, but mixed with additives like adhesives.

They’re used in a variety of applications, from home construction to commercial buildings to industrial products.

Types of engineered wood 

Here are some popular examples of engineered woods and their applications:

 

MT Copeland offers video-based online classes that give you a foundation in construction fundamentals with real-world applications. Classes include professionally produced videos taught by practicing craftspeople, and supplementary downloads like quizzes, blueprints, and other materials to help you master the skills.

 

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