McIlvain Lumber is perhaps best known as a hardwood lumber supplier; however, as a full-service wholesale lumber dealer, we also provide custom millwork, plywood, and softwood products. Understanding the difference between hardwoods and softwoods can help you determine the best products for your constructions projects.
The basic distinction between hardwoods and softwoods is not strictly based on the hardness or softness of the lumber, as their names imply. As a general rule, the titles are not far off; however, notable exceptions do occur. One such example is balsa wood, which is considered a hardwood even though it is very soft. The distinction between hardwoods and softwoods is actually based on botanical classifications.
Hardwoods are produced by deciduous trees, those which lose their leaves each year. Because hardwoods grow more slowly, they tend to produce denser lumber; however, this tendency is not invariably the case. By contrast, softwoods come from conifers, or gymnosperms. These types of trees reproduce by forming pollen-emitting cones which are spread by the wind. Included species are also largely evergreens, such as hemlocks, cedars, firs, redwoods, and pines. Some non-evergreen conifers are larch, bald cypress, and tamarack trees.
While Russia is the current leading exporter of both hardwoods and softwoods, many other countries both produce and export a sizeable amount of softwood lumber, and the U.S. is one of them.
Softwood lumber can be classified according to various criteria: use, dimensions, and finish. Classification by use includes assessment for strength and ability to bear stress. The latter two vary according to locale.
An interesting anomaly is aspen, which is a hardwood that’s typically graded with softwoods. Lumber grading systems are helpful in evaluating individual pieces of lumber according to appearance and strength, in a way that is fairly well standardized. Various grades of wood are useful for various applications; for instance, long pieces of clear wood are needed for long molding runs, while shorter pieces suffice for cabinetry or furniture projects. Applications that will be finished with painting can handle more defects in appearance, as well.
Knowing the grade of lumber can help determine its usefulness for various purposes and the amount of clear wood that it includes. “Clear wood” is defined as wood that’s free from defects, such as stains, knots, and splits—all of which lessen the value of wood due to lessened structural integrity, compromised appearance, or both. Softwood lumber grades also take qualities into consideration, such as the wood’s parallel-to-grain tension, compression, horizontal sheer, and ability to bend. US grading systems for hardwoods are issued by the National Hardwood Lumber Association, and those for softwoods are established by the US Department of Commerce. While the consistency of softwoods markings is more consistent than those of hardwoods, grades of both are usually visible on the lumber itself.
No matter which type of timber your applications require, McIlvain Lumber is the wholesale lumber dealer that can be your source for any and all of them. J. Gibson McIlvain Company ships by the truckload or partial truckload both domestic and exotic lumber throughout the United States.