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.)
We do not strictly control Google ad content. If you believe any Google ad is inappropriate, please email us directly here.
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 HardwoodsIf 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 SituationsCommon 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 SenseIf 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.
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.
The Healthy House Institute (HHI), a for-profit educational LLC, provides the information on HealthyHouseInstitute.com as a free service to the public. The intent is to disseminate accurate, verified and science-based information on creating healthy home environments.
While an effort is made to ensure the quality of the content and credibility of sources listed on this site, HHI provides no warranty - expressed or implied - and assumes no legal liability for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information, product or process disclosed on or in conjunction with the site. The views and opinions of the authors or originators expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of HHI: its principals, executives, Board members, advisors or affiliates.