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Sizing Up Solid Wood for Furniture and Construction

By HHI Staff

Solid wood is often preferable to man-made wood products from an aesthetic as well as a health standpoint. After all, solid wood has an innate beauty that is pleasing to look at and to touch. And being solid, it’s not constructed with formaldehyde glues, or any other type of glue for that matter. (Of course, sometimes individual narrow boards are glued together to create a wide panel, but this is often done with a less-toxic carpenter’s glue.)


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However, there are certain drawbacks to solid wood you should keep in mind. First, as compared to man-made wood products, solid wood can be relatively expensive. Although you can purchase construction-grade wood (which is a more economical grade of solid wood), the boards in this category often have large knots, actual knotholes or other deformities. Also, you should know that most solid wood is somewhat susceptible to warping, and this often creates problems of wasted, unusable lumber.

Of course, another drawback to solid wood is that it’s sold as individual boards — not in large 4' x 8' sheets. Therefore, solid-wood boards can’t be used to cover large areas quickly. As a result, using solid wood can mean an increase in both material and labor costs. Also, solid wood can significantly expand or shrink due to changing temperature and humidity conditions. So, people who plan on using solid wood must account for this in their project’s design and construction.
Selecting Softwoods or Hardwoods
If you choose to use solid wood, it’s wise to become familiar with the two basic categories: softwoods and hardwoods. Softwoods are conifers, or cone-bearing trees, having needles or scale-like leaves. Hardwoods are defined as broad-leafed trees. Confusingly, the terms hardwood and softwood don’t always describe the firmness or density of a particular wood. As it turns out, certain hardwoods may actually be softer than many softwoods. For example, balsa wood is botanically classified as a hardwood. However, as a general rule, most softwoods are softer than most hardwoods.

Softwood Situations

Redwood: A Friendly Softwood?


One softwood that’s often well-tolerated by sensitive individuals in particular is redwood. Although redwood is a softwood, it emits fewer irritating odors than other softwood species. This may be because redwood’s terpenes are water-soluble, so within a relatively short time after it has been cut or sanded, its odor diminishes greatly. One well known plus for redwood is that it resists termite damage and rot. If you use it outdoors, for patio furniture for example, it’ll weather naturally so no protective finish is required, although you might choose to use one anyway if you don’t like the weathered, dull-gray color.

In fact, from a health standpoint, redwood is a superior choice for any outdoor project when compared to the more popular salt-treated softwood lumber. Few people realize that this benign-sounding descriptive phrase — “salt treated” — doesn’t mean table salt (sodium chloride) but, instead, it refers a toxic copper-chromium-arsenic salt. During its manufacture, salt-treated lumber has had these noxious salts driven deeply into it under pressure. Therefore, this type of wood is also known as pressure-treated lumber.

Obviously, redwood is a far safer material for you and your family to be around. Yet, for some projects indoors, you probably won’t want to use redwood. This is because it’s fairly soft, making it susceptible to dings, scratches and nicks. In addition, there are some environmental concerns related to cutting down redwood trees. However, redwood is still commonly used indoors in saunas.

Common softwood lumber (pine or fir boards) is generally cheaper, comes in more standardized sizes and is more readily available than hardwood lumber. Therefore, virtually all major construction projects use softwood lumber. Unfortunately, pine and fircan emit strong, and sometimes irritating, natural terpene odors when newly cut or sanded. These odors can be very bothersome to certain sensitive individuals. Interestingly, some people have reported that, when choosing between pine and fir lumber, fir seemed to be better tolerated. Unfortunately, finding out whether the softwood lumber you’re about to purchase is actually pine or fir can be difficult. In reality, in most cases anyway, the differences are relatively minor.

Generally, if a softwood — whether pine, spruce, hemlock or fir, etc. — is used for framing a house, its odors may not pose a problem because the wood is enclosed inside wall cavities. If foil-backed drywall is used to cover the framing and the house is tightly constructed, the odors will be prevented from entering the living space. However, you shouldn’t automatically specify foil-backed drywall for your next room addition. That’s because, in some climates (such as in Florida) doing so could result in hidden condensation problems and mold growth or rot.

If you’re bothered by terpene odors, any softwood lumber that you use within the living space (such as in cabinets, furniture and tongue-and-groove paneling, etc.) will be of more concern. Fortunately, in time, any emissions from the wood will naturally diminish. But if you want to reduce the terpene odors immediately, you can always apply a sealant finish over any exposed softwood surfaces. Bear in mind that sealants won’t give you 100% protection, and they are often very odorous in their own right.
When Hardwood Makes Sense
If you’re bothered by softwood terpene odors, it’s often best to use hardwoods for those projects that will be kept indoors. Although hardwood lumber costs more than softwood lumber, it’s generally far more attractive and durable. So, in the end, you’ll have made a good investment in both appearance and quality, as well as your own better health. Hardwood lumber is ideal for use in flooring, furniture, wall treatments, cabinets, etc.

Benefits of Tulip Poplar

Tulip poplar is one hardwood with which you might especially want to become familiar. The lumber from this species presents an interesting variegated pattern of tones that’s rather similar to pine. Although it’s somewhat greenish when newly cut, the wood changes to an attractive tan as it ages, giving it a butternut-look. Tulip poplar is also quite affordable, often fairly easy to find (this will vary in different parts of the country, of course), and it’s very easy to work with. Therefore, it can be an excellent wood for many projects. However, it is one of the softer hardwood species.

Be aware that certain hardwood species are naturally less odorous than others. Some of these low-odor hardwood species include apple, aspen, basswood, beech, birch, elm, gum, maple, pecan, sycamore and tulip poplar, among others. Though not always easy to find, these woods are often suggested for some sensitive persons to use instead of the more popular red oak, white oak and walnut, which have much stronger natural odors. Of course, the emissions from all woods will decrease in time, and you can always coat them with a sealant as was described with softwoods earlier.

Important note: It’s always a good idea to test a wood species for personal tolerance before you use it for a home project, especially if you’re a sensitive person.


From Creating a Healthy Household: The Ultimate Guide For Healthier, Safer, Less-Toxic Living. © 2000 by Lynn Marie Bower.



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Sizing Up Solid Wood for Furniture and Construction:  Created on February 6th, 2007.  Last Modified on February 28th, 2011


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