Did You Know this About Softwood? What Is the Strongest Softwood?

Did you know this about softwood? Or rather, what Is softwood? To understand different types of softwoods, we must first fully understand why wood is classified as soft or hard.

Stay with me as I walk you through thing long yet important classification of wood. Arborists and botanists broadly categorize trees into hardwood and softwood.

If you’re curious about their classification basis and some distinctive timber features, you’re at the right place. The principal focus of this article is softwoods, but I’ll also touch on hardwoods to highlight their differences. So, what is softwood?

Softwood is timber from gymnosperms (naked-seeded) trees, like conifers and cycads.

Cedars, spruces, and pines are examples under the conifer category, while cycads include the Madagascar cycad, West African cycad/bread palm, and South American cycus.

At a microscopic level, softwoods contain pores that transport nutrients and water throughout the plant; it’s one of its standout features.

The article has detailed information on the following:

  • The types of softwood
  • Uses of softwood
  • Pros and cons of softwood
  • The distinction between hardwoods and softwoods
  • The strongest softwood

Please read it intently as we uncover some previously unknown truths about softwoods and dispel the misconceptions surrounding them.

I’ve made the details as clear and concise as possible to make the interaction entertaining; even a single paragraph is quite informative.

Moreover, the write-up is all-encompassing regarding the audience, i.e., amateurs, professionals, students, etc.

Let’s cut to the chase by starting with softwood types.

Types of Softwood

Did you know that softwood isn’t just a single wood species? It is an umbrella term for several tree and shrub species.

In that respect, follow my lead as I show you the various types of softwood.

Softwoods come from four plant groups, i.e., conifers, cycads, gnetophytes, and Ginkgo.

The predominantly used ones in building and construction come from the conifer category; cycads come a distant second, while the Ginkgo and gnetophytes are mainly grown for medical use, owing to their therapeutic values.

There are so many individual plant species in the above class; I can’t cover all of them in a single review. However, I’ll look at the main ones to set you off on this phenomenal group of plants.

Coniferous Softwoods

Coniferous softwoods are so-named because they bear their seeds in cones. The cones are typically located around the leaves and are woody & ovoid.

They are more visible on the female parts; the male cones produce pollen and are less conspicuous. Most members of this group of softwoods are trees, and a few are shrubs.

Arborists and woodworking contractors prefer coniferous softwoods due to their ubiquity and fast growth rate; they can therefore keep up with high demands.

Here is a listing of the said softwoods, their features, and uses:

Cedar

Did You Know This About Softwood?
Image of a Cedar Cone

Cedars are native to the Mediterranean region and the western Himalayas mountains, growing at altitudes of 1000 to 2200 meters in the former and 1500 to 3200 meters in the latter.

The trees have 8-60 mm long, needle-shaped, evergreen leaves coated with a waxy layer to prevent excess water loss.

Upon maturity, their cones produce winged seeds to facilitate wind dispersal.

Cedars are closely related to firs, another type of coniferous softwood. So much so that they were initially classified as the same species but different varieties.

However, later studies at molecular levels revealed that they differ at the family level.

Common varieties include Atlas, Cypriot, Deodar, Lebanon, and Western red cedar.

The standard lifespan of true cedar is 300 years; some varieties, like the Lebanon cedar, live for a thousand years.

Characteristics
  • These trees grow to an average height of 30-40m (sometimes beyond 55m).
  • Cedars have square-cracked and thick-ridged barks.
  • They produce resins with a spicy scent.
  • The resins, though scented, have an unpleasant taste. It’s a defense mechanism to prevent predation from rodents like squirrels.
  • Cedars are monoecious, i.e., the male and female parts/strobili are usually present on the same tree.
  • The trees have a modest to fast growth rate depending on growing conditions and variety. The standard rate is 12 to 24 inches annually.
  • Some cedar varieties are good enough for harvesting for building and construction after 30 to 40 years.
Uses

There are over 15 species subsumed into the cedar family. As much as they closely resemble, they vary in hardness, rot resistance, and color properties; this is the basis of their different uses.

I’ll start with the general uses and then proceed to variety-based uses. These are the points:

The general uses are as follows:

Claddings

Cladding refers to the coverage of one material with another for weather resistance, thermal insulation, protection against physical damage, and to keep away pests/rodents.

It’s also used for cosmetic reasons, improving the aesthetics of the underlying material.

Cedar is used for both interior and exterior cladding due to the following properties:

  • It has natural oils that resist water and moisture penetration.
  • Some cedar varieties are brightly colored, so they upgrade the appearance of other construction materials.
  • Cedar produces fire-resistant chemicals to prevent the breakout or spread of fire.
  • It secretes bitter-tasting and toxic resins; this wards off vermin and pests from eating or destroying furniture, decks, and fences.

Roofing

The most common cedar usage as roofing material is in the making of roof shingles. They are roof coverings comprising individual/separate overlapping elements.

The elements are ordinarily flat, rectangular, and laid from the bottom roof edge upward, with successive courses overlapping the underlying joints. Cedars are also used on ceilings.

The best cedar for the above use is the western red cedar! The eastern white cedar is also a good alternative. The properties of cedar that make it ideal for roofing are:

  • Decay-resistant heartwood: the tree’s heartwood doesn’t yield to rot-promoting factors like water/moisture, fungi, and wood-eating organisms.
  • Cedar has excellent thermal stability making it a good insulating agent on roofs. Similarly, it prevents cold, wintry weather from penetrating the house. Your house won’t heat up in sunny conditions or freeze in cold conditions.
  • It doesn’t fade or change color on exposure to sunlight. It preserves the aesthetics and curb appeal of your house.
  • The wood has an excellent durability profile. Even after 20 years, it will look as good as new, provided you use the proper cedar variety and install it properly.

Interior and Exterior Furniture and Flooring

Cedar is used for indoor furniture like sofas, dining tables, kitchen cabinets, closets, and beds due to its naturally ornamental characteristics and pleasant smell.

Cedar is also used on outdoor projects like making garden furniture, chairs, and benches. It is strong, durable, and tolerant of weather fluctuations.

Cedar is also an ideal flooring material, both inside and outside (decking). It’s so used for these reasons:

  • It doesn’t scratch easily.
  • Cedar is easy to paint and clean.
  • The softwood is resistant to molds & mildew and keeps off destructive insects like clothes moths.
  • Its surface isn’t distressed, knotty, or stained. In short, it has a uniform, straight grain. Therefore, it’s easy to work with.

Beehives

Beekeepers are fond of using cedar to make hives; it’s down to the wood’s longevity, sturdiness, and ability to keep off insects or pests harmful to the bees.

The wood is also naturally scented; this is a convenient environment for bees. Plus, it doesn’t contaminate the honey! You’ll harvest the product in its pure and perfect form.

Cedar Wood Oil

We derive cedarwood oil from the foliage, roots, wood, and bark of cedar trees. It’s extracted using various techniques, including cold pressing, steam distillation, and carbon dioxide distillation.

We use the oil as an ingredient in colognes, deodorants, shampoos, and insect repellents. It’s also used as an ingredient in the medical field to make anti-inflammatory products, antiseptics, and agents that prevent hair loss.

Here are the commonly used cedar varieties:

The Atlas cedar: is used for making joinery, furniture, carvings, boatbuilding, siding, and veneer. It also produces cedarwood oil, which is used to formulate fragrances and medicines.

Lebanon cedar: is used for cabinetry, building construction, wardrobes, and veneers.

Cyprian cedar: for building construction, ceilings, veneer sheets, claddings, cedar oil, musical instruments, and furniture

Deodar cedar: for construction materials (for bridges, railway cars, houseboats, canals & barracks), cedar oil for aromatherapy, astringents

The Western Red cedar: is used for decking, claddings, furniture, roof shingles, crates, boatbuilding, and musical instruments.

Northern White cedar: for making railroads, roof shingles, fences, canoes, piles, and wood pulp (for paper making)

Incense cedar: Used to make fence posts, pencils, window sashes, greenhouse benches, sheathing under stucco, and mudsills. It’s also used for exterior and interior siding.

Spanish cedar: is utilized for boatbuilding (the best for light racing boats), cabinetry, veneers, musical instruments (like guitars and flamenco), clothing sets, plywood, and dugout canoes.

Cypress

Cypress is an umbrella term for several coniferous shrubs and trees of northern temperate regions. Most of them are trees with needle-like, evergreen leaves and oaknut-like cones.

Cypresses are scattered in the mainly warm regions of the Northern Hemisphere. They include northwest Africa, Central America, western North America, southern China, the Himalayas, northern Vietnam, and the Middle East.

Cultivar cypress varieties vary in size, color, and form; they are usually grown in gardens and parks worldwide.

Characteristics
  • They grow to heights of 16 to 130 feet (5-40 m)
  • The trees grow at a rate of 24″ to 37″ annually
  • Several species are resistant to wildfires
  • Cypress lumber is water and rot-resistant. It makes them more durable and free from fungal colonization.
  • Some species produce strong trunks and are therefore grown for timber
  • They are aromatic; producing a fresh, spicy, herbaceous scent that is slightly woody
Uses

There are many cypress tree species. Their uses vary depending on their characteristics.

However, some uses overlap among the varieties due to their closely-resembling features. Here are some of the variety-based uses:

Bald Cypress

Bald cypresses are deciduous conifers native to the Florida marshlands. They shed their leaves in the winter; no wonder they are called “bald” cypress.

They have an upright growth posture, reaching heights of 50 to 70 feet. Its uses include:

  • Making fence posts
  • For cabinetry
  • Flooring and decking
  • Boats
  • Making caskets

However, the above uses have reduced due to their slow growth rate; they can’t meet the ever-increasing demands.

MacNab Cypress

The above are native to the Northern California foothills. They are also called Shasta cypress, and their barks are red-brown with a purplish patina.

MacNab cypress grow to a maximum height of 40 feet; however, they are more of shrubs than trees. Nowadays, they are scarce in the wild; most are present in cultivated tracts.

This cypress variety fares well in clay/sand soils, growing ably in zones 6-10.

Some of its uses are:

  • Making roof shingles
  • Joinery
  • Exterior furniture
  • The leaves, offshoots, and small branches are burned as fuel
  • Paneling
  • Molding
  • Ornamental use in gardens and public parks

Arizona Cypress

From the name, the above cypress variety is primarily grown in Arizona, but some are cultivated in western Texas and southern California.

However, it’s native to northern Mexico and the southern USA. The tree needs at least six hours of sunlight daily and well-drained, loamy soil with moderate moisture content.

The tree has a growth rate of 12 to 25″ per year and reaches an average height of 40 to 50 feet at maturity. These are some of its uses:

  • Making hobby and craft materials
  • Construction of livestock corrals
  • Landscaping, thanks to their alluring growth patterns
  • They are grown for Christmas trees
  • The live trees are used to control soil erosion; they are excellent windbreakers and hold soil particles together.

Mendocino Cypress

Mendocino cypress is also known as Pygmy cypress, and it’s native to the mountain ranges and coastal terraces of Mendocino and Sonoma counties of northwest California.

These trees can grow to a maximum height of 145 feet. They don’t have much commercial value; most of them are used ornamentally to beautify gardens and parks.

Leyland Cypress

The Leyland cypress is a hybrid of the Nootka and Monterey cypress. It has a growth rate of 18 inches per year and usually grows to 22 feet at maturity.

However, it can reach 70 feet without pruning. The tree grows well in zones 6-10. It has the following uses:

  • Making musical instruments, mainly flamenco guitars
  • Boatbuilding
  • Transmission poles
  • Roof shingles
  • Fuel source, i.e., firewood
  • For making turned objects
  • Various household furniture

Monterey Cypress

Monterey cypress is commonly known as lemon cypress. Its notable features include upward-growing branches and scaly bark, which flakes upon maturity.

This softwood grows fast at rates above 10 inches yearly; this makes it reach heights of 10 to 16 inches in less than ten years. The peak height is between 30 and 40 feet.

The lemon cypress needs sunlight for the better part of the year and grows perfectly in zones 7-11. Its uses are as follows:

  • Making furniture like tables, chairs, desks, and kitchen implements
  • For musical instruments
  • Fence posts
  • Utility poles
  • Moldings and trims
  • It’s also used ornamentally for landscaping

Chinese Weeping Cypress

The above is also referred to as the mourning cypress; it’s so-called due to its weeping appearance.

This softwood grows optimally in zones 7 to 10, reaching heights of 20 to 30 feet.

It needs daily sunlight for at least 6 hours throughout its growth. The cypress is used for:

  • General construction, e.g., in roofing, trim, and moldings
  • Making agricultural implements
  • Used medically in aromatherapy, stemming excessive menstrual bleeding, and treating coughs

Mediterranean Cypress

The Mediterranean cypress is also called the Italian cypress. It’s usually tall, skinny, and with feathery, evergreen foliage.

The trees grow perfectly in zones 7 to 9 with plenty of sunlight. Although it is a drought-tolerant tree, it requires well-drained soil.

The above softwood grows to heights of 65-100 feet. Here are some of its uses:

  • Making utility/transmission poles
  • Fence posts
  • Indoor and outdoor furniture
  • For boat and shipbuilding
  • Musical instruments
  • Making turned objects

Nootka Cypress

The above cypress variety is also known as the Yellow or Alaskan cypress. It is indigenous to the North American west coast, ranging from Northern California to Alaska.

The softwood grows best in zone 9 and does well in zone 5. It grows to optimal heights of 30-45 feet. The uses include:

  • Exterior sidings
  • Roof shingles
  • Glue-laminated beams
  • Millwork
  • Flooring
  • Cabinetry
  • Decking
  • Paneling
  • Making battery containers (due to their acid resistance)
  • Traditionally, for making bows, paddles, dishes, and masks

Gowen Cypress

The Gowen cypress is native to the Monterey peninsula in California. Its optimal growth height varies greatly, i.e., from 35 to 165 feet.

The trees grow slowly and are scarcely populated. They are not typically used for timber, but closely-related varieties are used in:

  • Making turned objects
  • Musical instruments
  • Household furniture
  • Fence posts
  • Transmission poles

Lawson Cypress

Lawson cypresses are tall coniferous softwoods that grow to heights of 200 feet. It thrives in zones 5 to 8 in loamy soil and plenty of sunlight. Its applications include:

  • Decking
  • Paneling
  • Boat building
  • Exterior cladding
  • For roof shingles
  • Making weatherboards

Pine

Image of Pine Cone In What Is Softwood
Image of Pine Cone

Pine is the most prominent family of coniferous softwoods.

They are typically present in the Northern Hemisphere, and their lumber is among the most extensively used in building and construction.

The American Conifer Society (ACS) recognizes 121 pine species.

Most pines are resinous trees; it’s pretty rare to encounter pine shrubs. Their growth height ranges from 10 to 260 feet, most clustered between 50 and 150 feet.

They have a lifespan of 100 to 1000 years, with a few stretching beyond 2000 years.

Most pine barks are thick and scaly, but some have thin, flaky ones. The trees are monoecious, with female and male cones on the same plant.

Characteristics

Pine wood has the following features:

  • It has a low shrinkage of 6.7% at a humidity of 30% to 70%, making it stable.
  • The lumber has an average density of 505 kg/m3
  • Pine timber is highly durable, lasting over 20 years following vacuum autoclave treatment.
  • The tree can grow in various environments of the Northern Hemisphere, i.e., semi-arid deserts, rainforests, hot and cold habitats.
  • Bare pine wood has poor decay- and insect-resistant properties, so you must treat it before use.
  • Pines are often inclined to inter-species breeding. It’s due to their long lifespan, large population, weak reproductive isolation, overlapping generations, and wind pollination.
  • The turpentines extracted from all pine trees are used to make diuretics, antiseptics, and rubefacients.
Uses

Like the preceding coniferous softwoods, pines have various uses depending on the variety or species. Here are the most common types and their applications:

Eastern White Pine

As its name suggests, the above pine species grows in the Eastern United States. It produces small amounts of resins, and the timber usually is fine-textured.

The above coniferous softwoods reach heights of 65-100 feet, with trunk thickness ranging from two to four feet.

Its uses include:

  • Wood carvings
  • Building Construction
  • Making boats
  • Millwork
  • Paneling
  • Furniture
  • Trims
  • Sidings
  • Moldings

Loblolly Pine

The Loblolly pine mainly grows in the southeastern United States.

Its optimal height ranges between 100 and 116 feet, with a trunk diameter of 1.5-5 feet; this renders it one of the skinnier pine varieties.

One of its unique features is the absence of the characteristic pine scent typical of other species.

Uses

  • Heavy construction tasks (like trusses, roof beams, piles, stringers, and joists)
  • For making household furniture
  • Loblolly pine is ideal for making composite boards, plywood, pallets, and wooden boxes.
  • It’s suitable for sheathing and subflooring.
  • You can also grow the tree for ornamental purposes and to provide shade; it also provides suitable habitat for some nesting birds.

Lodgepole Pine

The above softwood species is native to the western regions of North America. It derives its name from its traditional application, i.e., the Native Americans used it to construct lodges and tipis.

It stands at around 100 feet at maturity, and the trunk diameter is one to two feet.

However, their physical features vary depending on the subspecies; the three main ones range from tall and slender to short and stubby trees.

This coniferous softwood is used to make:

  • Veneers
  • Sheathing and subflooring
  • Cabinetry
  • Utility poles
  • Plywood
  • Construction lumber

Red Pine Tree

The above pine tree (also known as the Norway pine) can grow throughout North America. It stands at optimum heights of 65 to 100 feet, with trunk diameters of 2 to 3 feet.

The softwood has light reddish heartwood and pale yellow to white sapwood. It also has straight and even grain that is medium-textured.

Its uses are as below:

  • Making utility poles
  • For making railroad ties
  • Fuel lumber
  • Manufacturing of pulpwood
  • They make great construction lumbers
  • Used to produce cabin logs

Fir

Firs comprise 45-56 species of coniferous softwoods found in the mountainous regions of Central and North America, North Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The trees are closely related to cedars. The firs are distinguished from other coniferous softwoods by their foliage arrangement. The needle-like leaves attach singly to branches with bases resembling suction cups.

Species recognition is hinged on the size & pattern of leaves and the shape & size of cones. They have erect, cylindrical cones, which is markedly different from other conifers.

Characteristics

Firs also have variable properties that are species and subspecies-specific. Many of the features overlap because the trees belong to the same genus.

However, each subspecies has an idiosyncratic property that differentiates it from the rest. These are the common characteristics:

  • They grow to heights of between 35 and 265 feet, with trunk widths/diameters of 1.8 to 13 inches.
  • The trees have an annual growth rate of 12 to 24 inches
  • This softwood produces essential oils used in aromatherapy to relieve colds, coughs, arthritis, and muscle aches
  • Most firs thrive in full sunlight, but some can stand partial shade
  • The lumber turns, planes, and shapes well, making it easy to carry out woodworking operations like sanding
  • Their timber has excellent mechanical properties that make them ideal for construction projects
  • Some, like the Douglas fir, produce lumber that does not shrink or expand over time. It makes it a good candidate for most woodworking tasks
  • The wood is easy to nail or screw after it dries
Uses

There are many uses of firs. The Douglas fir is the most preferred by builders and contractors for use in industrial, residential, and multi-level structures.

Other species are also used in various applications. Here is a breakdown of the species-specific uses:

Douglas Fir

The Douglas fir is also known as Oregon pine, Douglas spruce, or Columbia pine. It typically grows in the western parts of the United States.

Their maximum growth height is 330 feet, with trunk diameters of 2 feet. There are three varieties of Douglas fir, i.e., coast Douglas fir, mountain Douglas fir, and Mexican Douglas fir.

The trees have an excellent longevity profile, living for as long as 1000 years. The softwood is cream-colored but changes to light and dark brown through aging.

Their lumber is more resistant to decay, wood-eating pests, and fungal growth than other fir species.

The fir mentioned above has the following uses:

  • General millwork
  • Making veneers, plywood, and joinery
  • For ship and boat building
  • Flooring and decking
  • Marine pilings and transmission poles
  • For window framing
  • Indoor and outdoor furniture

Grand Fir

The Grand fir grows mainly in the Northwest Pacific parts of the United States. They are famed for growing tall averaging heights of 200 feet.

Its grain is usually straight, and the lumber texture ranges from medium to coarse. It isn’t as durable as Douglas fir, but it’s super easy to work with. Its uses include:

  • For wood pulp
  • Plywood and veneers
  • Sidings
  • Utility poles and fence posts
  • Wooden boxes and crates
  • For making beams and other building construction wood planks

Nordmann Fir

Nordmann fir, also called the Caucasian fir, is native to Western Asia and Eastern Europe. It’s named after the 19th-century scientist Alexander von Nordmann from Finland.

Mature trees stand high at around 150 feet. The coniferous softwood has light-colored sapwood and pale heartwood.

Despite its high hardness rating, the wood’s durability isn’t matching.

It is mainly grown for ornamental purposes to decorate gardens and parks, and boulevards. It is also suitable for producing Christmas trees and making paper pulp.

California Red Fir

The above is also known as silvertip fir. It mainly grows in southwest Oregon and California’s Sierra Nevada Mountain ranges.

The trees are tall, reaching up to 150 feet, with 5 feet of trunk diameter. The softwood contains either reddish-brown or white heartwood with pale-cream sapwood.

Its timber has straight grains with medium-coarse consistency.

California red fir has a high Janka hardness rating but fails on the durability index due to its high vulnerability to insect attack and decay.

However, the coniferous softwood is easy to work with, whether by hand or machine. It also takes up finishes, stains, and glue readily.

The softwood is used as below:

  • Making plywood and veneers
  • For pulpwood
  • Construction lumber
  • Utility poles and fences

Spruce

Image Showing Spruce Tree
Image Showing Spruce Tree

Spruces comprise 35 species of coniferous softwoods growing in the Earth’s boreal and northern temperate regions.

The leaves of their trees stand out from those of other pine family members; they are needle-shaped with four sides and joined singly to small peg-like structures.

Spruce seedlings are highly vulnerable immediately after germination and remain so until the next spring.

More than half of them die during the first growing season. Mortality rates decrease sharply after that as they become more hardened.

Spruces have an extremely long life cycle! They hold the record for the world’s oldest living tree at 9550 years and counting.

It’s a Norway spruce found in Swedish mountains and reproduces through layering.

Characteristics
  • They are large trees that are 60 to 200 feet tall when mature
  • The softwood has a strong resinous scent
  • Spruce is easily handled through planing, milling, sawing, and other techniques.
  • This softwood readily accepts nails, screws, and glues without splitting
  • The wood has low structural solidity but good mechanical features
  • It takes up paint, stains, and other finishes without any problems
  • Spruce has several round knots on tangential sections
  • They have a uniformly white color with golden hues; the wood retains this natural color over a long time
  • Spruce wood is soft and, therefore, not suitable for flooring in areas with high traffic
Uses

Some of the uses of spruce are:

Timber

Spruce has several aliases in the US; they include the SPF (spruce, pine, fir), North American timber, and whiteboard.

It provides good lumber for building and construction works. Spruces are used as general-purpose construction materials in the form of wood planks, beams, and boards.

One of the famous uses of spruce was in making the fuselage of the first aircraft by the Wright brothers at the turn of the 20th century; they used specially-treated spruce wood for this undertaking.

The downside of spruce wood is that it has poor decay and insect-resistance properties following logging.

Bare wood can last between 12 to 18 months when left outside; the durability is even shorter in harsh weather like extreme sunlight or wet/damp conditions.

Therefore, timber specialists recommend that you use it for indoor projects.

That said, spruce is used in:

  • Making indoor furniture like sofas, tables, and beds
  • Kitchen materials like cabinets, countertops, butcher blocks, and wooden utensils
  • Composite wood materials
  • Trims and moldings
  • Interior drywall framing
  • Ceilings

Pulpwood

Spruce wood is among the most important for making paper. It has long fibers that bind resolutely to produce strong paper.

Paper-making industries like it because the fibers have thin walls that collapse into thin bands, making its processing into paper easier.

Moreover, they can easily get bleached to form plain writing material. The northern spruces are the main raw materials for the Northern Bleached Softwood Kraft (NBSK), which is the quintessential pulp grade.

NBSK is chiefly produced in the Nordic countries, the northwestern United States, Canada, and Russia.

Tonewood

Spruces are conventionally used to make soundboards for several musical instruments, eg, violins, mandolins, cellos, pianos, guitars, and harps.

Spruce and other wood species used for such purposes are called tonewoods. The main spruce subspecies for tonewood are Adirondack, Engelmann, European, and Sitka spruces.

Incidentally, cedar is also used to make musical instruments.

Food and medicine

The fresh shoots of several spruces are used as sources of vitamin C. It was also traditionally used by seafarers to make sugar-based beer to prevent scurvy during sea voyages.

In Finland, spruce buds are used as spices or simmered with sugar to produce spruce bud syrup.

Other uses

In the past, spruce resins were used to make pitch, in turn, used to produce advanced and industrial carbon materials.

The Native Americans of North America use the flexible, thin roots of some spruce varieties to sew together birch bark pieces for canoes. They also use it to weave baskets.

Spruces are also suitable for ornamental purposes to spruce up gardens and parks. It’s because they grow in a typically symmetrical pattern and are evergreen.

In the same regard, some spruce varieties are used as Christmas trees.

Cycad Softwoods

Cycad softwoods have woody, stout trunks with a crown of large, stiff, hard, and evergreen leaves.

Unlike coniferous softwoods, cycads are dioecious, meaning individual plants are either female or male.

The cycads normally live long and grow very slowly; their sizes vary from a few inches of trunk height to several feet tall.

Cycads superficially resemble ferns or palms, so it’s easy to mistake them. However, they are not related to either plant.

These softwoods have specialized pollinators, that is, a specific beetle species. Both female and male cycads bear cones, similar to the conifer group of plants.

Characteristics of Cycad Softwoods

  • Most of them grow to heights of 4 to 10 feet, and very few reach 50 feet
  • They have a slow growth rate of 1.6 to 4 inches per year
  • The softwood is tolerant to harsh weather conditions and doesn’t yield easily to physical stressors
  • Cycads are water-resistant and less susceptible to fungal growths

Uses

Most cycads are shrubs; they don’t form trunks, so their use as softwood in construction is limited. Their use is also curtailed by their extremely slow growth rate and short stature at maturity.

However, a few species, like Cycas pectinata, and Hope’s cycad, come in handy in the woodworking industry. That said, their uses include

  • They are used as ornamental plants grown in homesteads, gardens, and parks
  • It’s used as a food source by the indigenous tribes of northeastern India
  • They are used in the medical field to treat high blood pressure, gastrointestinal distress, muscle problems, and coughs.

Cycad population is in sharp decline worldwide, so they are protected. They don’t meet the physical threshold needed for woodworking.

Even if they did, using them would still be difficult due to sourcing problems; they are insufficient to meet market demands.

What Is the Difference Between Hardwoods and Softwoods?

Different construction and woodworking projects need different lumber types.

The broadest and most common wood classification is hardwood vs softwood. But what is the difference between hardwoods and softwoods?

They differ in structure, strength, availability/distribution, durability, density, taxonomy, growth rate, appearance, and cost. Here is a detailed analysis of the above points:

Structure

The principal structural difference between the two is that most softwoods have resin canals and lack pores, while hardwoods have pores or vessel elements and lack resin canals.

Second, hardwood has high cellulose and lignin content, while softwood has higher hemicellulose and extractives composition.

Therefore, hardwoods are denser than softwoods. However, a few softwood species are denser and stronger than some hardwoods but are nowhere near the top-ranking hardwoods.

Taxonomic Differences

Hardwoods are angiosperms (flowering plants), specifically dicot trees. They are broad-leaved and grow in tropical and temperate regions.

The trees are usually deciduous (shed leaves annually) in boreal and temperate latitudes. However, they are normally evergreen in the tropics and subtropics.

On the other hand, softwoods are gymnosperms (non-flowering and naked-seeded trees). Most of them have narrow/needle-shaped leaves and are evergreen.

They mostly inhabit the Baltic region, Eurasia, and North America. Softwoods contribute to around 80% of the world’s timber.

Strength

Hardwoods are stronger than softwoods, it’s because their grains are more closely packed/compact, and they have low sap content.

As a result, most hardwoods can bear heavier loads than softwoods.

Hardwoods are also more scratch-resistant, stiffer, and tougher than their softwood counterparts. Therefore they resist penetration, can handle more impact, and don’t shrink or expand compared to softwoods.

Nonetheless, some softwoods are harder, tougher, and stiffer than some hardwoods.

Cost

Hardwoods cost more than softwoods because they are stronger, more durable, and less available. The limited availability is due to their slow growth rate.

The hardwoods are also richly-colored, more resistant to insect damage (like woodworms), and have uniformly-layered grains. It further drives up their cost.

Softwoods are more abundant, less durable, and contain higher sap content. They also grow faster than hardwoods. It makes them more affordable.

As usual, there are outliers among the softwoods! Such kinds cost more than some hardwoods and are more durable and stronger.

Growth Rate

Softwoods grow at a much faster rate than hardwoods. Subsequently, they reach maturity and harvesting age earlier than their counterparts.

The fast-growing softwoods take around 25 years to mature and harvest for timber, while the fast-growing hardwoods take around 35 years to mature in readiness for timber use.

The slow-growing softwoods take almost a century (100 years) to fully mature, while the slow-growing hardwoods take 150 years and above.

However, you can harvest some slow-growing species before they attain full maturity; for instance, if a softwood takes 100 years to mature, you can harvest it after 70 or 80 years.

The trunks and branches are normally good enough to produce viable timber at such a point. It’s the same case for the slow-growing hardwoods.

Uses

Hardwood timber is used to make high-end furniture, decking, floors, and buildings. In such cases, the final product’s longevity, appearance, and strength are the leading factors for its use.

Therefore, hardwoods are popularly used by people of a higher social and financial standing. On the other hand, softwoods are used to make more affordable furniture, decking, floors, and building materials.

Here, what matters is the product’s utility, i.e., if it can serve the intended purpose, the building material is good enough. For the said reasons, softwood usage is more widespread than hardwood usage.

The above doesn’t mean that softwoods have a poor longevity and durability profile; they are used to make some of the strongest structures, like utility poles, bridges, beams, and joists.

You only need to treat them before the above applications.

What Is the Strongest Softwood?

From the preceding texts, we’ve seen that some softwoods are stronger than some hardwoods.

It opens up a new and curious topic for discussion, i.e., what is the strongest softwood?

The strength of a material refers to the extent to which it can bear loads without breaking. By that definition, the yellow pines rank highest.

However, there are several subspecies of yellow pines, they are all strong, but the strongest is the Jeffrey pine, present in the Western United States.

Its bending strength rating is 14500 psi. Yellow pines are closely followed by Douglas fir at 12400 psi, then hemlock at 11300 psi, and cypress at 10600 psi.

The three common attributes of the above softwoods are that they are less elastic, are usually stiff, and have the best compressive strength rankings.

Due to the high strength-to-mass ratio, yellow pines are used to make joists, decks, trusses, mine timbers, bridges, and railroad sleepers.

It takes up stains and paints easily, so you can color it to suit your taste. Pine is also the most accessible/available softwood lumber because it thrives in different weather conditions and habitats.

It makes the wood cheaper and more popular among carpenters, artisans, builders, and other woodworkers. While the Douglas fir comes second in strength, it offers the best resistance to scratching/abrasion and tears.

It is also more immune to decay and fungal growths courtesy of its water-resistant resins. It’s therefore used for transmission poles, general millwork, marine pilings, and building construction. Also, its attractive appearance makes it the perfect material for veneers and plywood sheets.

Hemlock is pretty strong in comparison to its weight. Its biggest drawback is that it is highly susceptible to decay and fungal colonization.

Therefore, it’s not recommended for foundation materials, decking, utility poles, and fences as they are normally in contact with the ground.

You can use hemlock for interior paneling, indoor furniture, moldings, and pulp.

Cypress comes in at number four regarding softwood strength. However, it is highly resistant to rotting/decay and is less likely to shrink, warp, twist, or split.

The combination of the said features makes it a better option than hemlock. It’s used for boat decking, outdoor pavilions, sub-flooring, making posts, water piers, and railroad ties.

Three other closely-related terms to strength are hardness, toughness, and stiffness. I’ve already defined strength.

Hardness is the ability to resist penetration, scratches, and plastic deformation. Toughness is the capacity to withstand impact or shock loading, and stiffness is the resistance to changes in dimensions.

Knowing the above definitions is crucial to avoid confusion when selecting the right softwood for your project. The strongest softwood doesn’t necessarily mean it is the hardest nor the toughest. Be mindful of that.

Conclusion

To conclude, timber is among the most important resources for construction work, like framing, flooring, and decking.

It is also the principal building material for furniture and fence posts. The most common source of lumber is softwoods. But…

Did You Know this About Softwood?

First, softwood is lumber from gymnosperm trees, mainly conifers.

You can also source softwood from cycads, gnetophytes, and Ginkgo, but these are less common, have an extremely slow growth rate, and are mostly shrubs.

Softwood contains pores that conduct water and nutrients throughout the tree at the molecular level. It is one of their key distinguishing properties.

The above content covers the most important details regarding softwood to guide you through the correct purchase and usage for the task at hand.

The subheadings include:

  • Softwood types (species and subspecies)
  • Applications of softwood
  • The advantages and disadvantages of softwood
  • Distinctions between softwoods and hardwoods
  • The strongest of all softwoods

The article is lengthy and quite informative; it shows that softwood is a vast topic requiring extensive coverage. Only then can you uncover and understand this all-important source of timber.

Looking around your house (both inside and outside), almost everything is made of softwood, i.e., the tables, cabinets, patios, roofs/ceilings, window frames, doors, etc.

It’s technically running the world. That’s why it’s vital to have some knowledge on the topic, whether you are a professional, DIY enthusiast, a homeowner, or a student.

I’ll sign off with this: The softwood is simple, but simple things are the most treasured, and only the informed people appreciate them!

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