Softwood is a type of wood that comes from conifer trees, which include cedars, firs, junipers and pines. These trees are often used for timber, furniture and paper making.
Although the name “softwood” implies that the wood itself is soft, this is not always the case. The names “softwood” and “hardwood” have more to do with how trees expel their seeds, although the wood density sometimes lives up to the name.
Here are 10 tips you should know before you work with a softwood:
1. Softwood is inexpensive, but it is not durable on its own. These woods are best for indoor projects, such as furniture, versus outdoor projects, such as decks, that will receive constant weather exposure because they will soak up water. If you plan to use a softwood for an outdoor project, you will need to apply a wood preservative treatment onto the wood according to manufacturer’s instructions. Softwood is good for “hidden” pieces in furniture when you want to use a more expensive wood face.
2. Know your grades. Each grade of softwood determines its best use. Appearance grades A through D rank softwood. A and B grades have few filled patches and have a clear grain and color. Grades C and D have a lot of patches and may have defects and gaps. Not all grades of wood are sold at your local home improvement store. If you’re working on a project, consult with a wood expert to determine what grade of softwood you’ll need and where you need to get it.
3. Decide how you want to end your project. If you’re planning to paint your item, softwoods are a great wood choice. Firs and pines are economical and look great with paint. However, softwoods take on stain in blotches, so choose a hardwood instead if you’re planning to build a table or another item that requires stain.
4. Get the right length. Softwoods and hardwoods are sold in standard lengths. Pine, which is a very common softwood, usually is sold in boards that are 8 to 16 feet and two to 12 inches thick.
5. Use the right cut. Softwoods with coarse grains are best cut with a pull saw that has few teeth per inch. These saws limit resistance and make the wood easy to slice through.
6. If you want to install a screw into a softwood, you’ll need to do a little preparation first. Use a drill to create a hole, then install the screw. This prevents the wood from splitting.
7. Pick a good finish. If you’re planning to use a softwood that will be exposed, treat it with a clear conditioner like Minwax and then a clear lacquer finish to stop rot and keep the wood looking clean. You will need to seal the surface for most projects, as many softwoods have a high resin content and you will want to avoid sticky patches on your project.
8. Expect shrinkage. Any timber, including softwood, that is used indoors is likely to shrink in the warmth. To avoid this, make sure that you have measured all of your pieces correctly so that your project doesn’t fall apart as it shrinks.
9. Generally speaking, hardwood dust is more dangerous to your health than softwood dust. However, the dust from the western red cedar can be very irritating. It can lead to eye, throat and skin irritation, as well as allergies. Make sure to regularly clear sawdust in your shop when working with this and all woods.
10. Don’t throw out your softwood cuttings! They are great for rosebeds and other plants.
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