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Types of wood in the USA

Comparing American hardwoods, softwoods and tropical hardwoods

Wood products are known for their natural beauty, but when selecting a type of wood for your next cabinet, floor, furniture or woodworking project, it's important to also consider the level of durability, understanding the difference between wood types. Each type and species of wood has an individual cellular structure that creates unique physical properties that determine its suitability for different uses.

For example, the hardness of woods varies widely, so certain species of wood are not recommended for floors because they are not hard enough to withstand heavy wear and tear.

The following is a brief comparison of often misused American hardwoods, softwoods, and tropical hardwoods and their appropriate applications:

Hardwoods are deciduous trees that have broad leaves, produce a fruit or nut, and usually go dormant in winter. North America's forests grow hundreds of varieties that thrive in temperate climates, including species of oak, ash, cherry, maple, and poplar. Each species can be crafted into durable, long-lasting furniture, cabinetry, flooring and woodworking, and each offers unique markings with variation in grain pattern, texture and color.

Softwoods or conifers, from the Latin word meaning "cone-bearing", have needles instead of leaves. Widely available US softwood trees include cedar, spruce, hemlock, pine, sequoia, and spruce. In a home, softwoods are primarily used as structural lumber, such as 2x4s and 2x6s, with limited decorative applications.

Tropical hardwoods, including mahogany, rosewood, teak and wenge - are not native to North America. They grow in the rainforests of the world and must be imported for home use. While some tropical hardwoods can be used for indoor applications, including flooring, the color, grain pattern, hardness, and luster of many imported hardwoods differs from American hardwoods. For more information on non-native species, see the article “Don't be fooled”.

Janka Classification System

If in doubt about the type of wood to select for your cabinetry, flooring, furniture or joinery project, consult the Janka Classification System, which measures the relative hardness of woods. The commercially hardest hardwood is walnut, and it is five times harder than poplar, one of the “soft” hardwoods. And while this example only lists a few of the most popular hardwood species, there are hundreds of varieties, representing the North American hardwood population. As hardness is an important factor and hardness varies for each species, the Janka Hardness Scale is an excellent tool to help identify appropriate choices.

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