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A Guide to Lumber Types & Applications

A Guide to Lumber Types & Applications

When it comes to construction, carpentry, and woodworking projects, one of the most crucial materials to consider is lumber. Lumber is the term used for processed wood that is ready for use in various applications. It's a versatile material with a wide range of properties, making it suitable for everything from simple DIY projects to complex architectural designs. 


Each type of lumber has unique characteristics and applications. Ultimately, the type you choose depends on what you’re building.

Lumber Characteristics

Before selecting lumber for your project, you should have an understanding of some common characteristics of wood. These all play a role in its performance and quality, and can help you narrow down your choices.


  1. Grain Pattern. Grain pattern refers to the alignment of wood fibers and represents each tree’s unique growth pattern. This is why no two boards are identical. The grain pattern may be straight, interlocked, spiral, or wavy. The grain pattern adds visual appeal to finished products.

  2. Color. Lumber comes in a wide range of colors, from light tones to darker hues, depending on the type of tree from which the wood was sourced. Color can add style and flair to your finished product, but if the wood won’t be visible, it’s less important.

  3. Texture. Texture refers to the feel of the wood’s surface. It can range from coarse to fine, depending on the tree and how it is processed. The texture of the lumber can impact the feel, appearance, and stability of finished products.

  4. Density. Lumber density, often measured in pounds per cubic foot, is a measurement of a wood's strength and weight. Hardwoods generally have higher density than softwoods, resulting in increased strength and durability.

  5. Strength and Hardness. The strength and hardness of lumber determine its load-bearing capacity and resistance to wear and dents — crucial considerations when selecting lumber for structural or high-traffic applications.

Wood Categories

Wood is classified into two categories, softwood and hardwood. The Janka Rating System is a standard method used to measure and rank the relative hardness of wood and its resistance to wear. This test helps determine the suitability of different wood types for various applications. 

Softwood comes from coniferous trees, which have needle-like leaves and produce cones. It is the most commonly used type of lumber and is known for its fast growth, availability, and affordability. Some popular varieties of softwood include:


  1. Pine. Pine is a favorite among woodworkers due to its low cost, easy workability, and attractive grain patterns. It is often used for interior projects, such as furniture, paneling, and molding.

  2. Cedar. Cedar is highly resistant to decay and insect infestation, making it ideal for outdoor applications like decking, fencing, and siding. Its natural fragrance and rich colors add to its appeal.

  3. Fir. Known for its strength and stability, fir is used in construction for framing and structural elements. It is also suitable for doors, windows, and other load-bearing applications.

  4. Spruce. Spruce is often used for building projects where strength and affordability are essential, such as roof trusses and wall framing.


Hardwood comes from deciduous trees, which have broad leaves and usually produce seeds enclosed in fruits or nuts. Hardwood lumber is generally denser and more durable than softwood. Some common varieties of hardwood include:


  1. Oak. Oak is renowned for its strength and distinctive grain patterns. It's used in a wide range of applications, including furniture, cabinets, flooring, and wine barrels.

  2. Maple. Maple is prized for its light color and smooth texture. It's a popular choice for kitchen cabinets, cutting boards, and musical instruments.

  3. Mahogany. Mahogany is a luxurious hardwood with a rich reddish-brown color. It's often used in high-end furniture, boat building, and interior trim.

  4. Cherry. Cherry boasts a warm, reddish-brown hue that darkens beautifully over time. It's a favorite for crafting elegant furniture and cabinetry.

Engineered Lumber Products

Engineered lumber products, also known as manufactured or composite lumber, are wood-based materials created by combining various wood components or fibers with adhesives. These products offer certain advantages over traditional solid lumber, such as increased strength and dimensional stability, and they tend to have a lower impact on the environment. 


Plywood is the most common engineered lumber product. It’s created by gluing thin layers of wood veneers together with their grain alternating at right angles to one another. This cross-grain construction gives plywood excellent strength, stability, and resistance to warping. Plywood is widely used for sheathing, subflooring, roofing, and DIY craft projects.


Medium-Density Fiberboard, or MDF, is another popular engineered lumber product. It’s made from wood fibers, wax, and resin that are compressed together under high pressure and temperature. MDF is denser than plywood but doesn’t offer the same moisture resistance. It’s a versatile and widely used material in various industries, including furniture making, cabinetry, interior trim, and construction.

Lumber Grades 

Lumber grades are a standardized system used to categorize and classify the quality and characteristics of lumber based on specific criteria. These grades help builders, carpenters, and consumers choose the right lumber for their projects, ensuring that the wood meets the desired standards for appearance, strength, and suitability for its intended use. 


The National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA) grading system is used for hardwood lumber. It primarily focuses on appearance and is widely used in the United States. NHLA grades include:


  • FAS (Firsts and Seconds): The highest grade, FAS lumber, is characterized by its clear, mostly defect-free appearance. It is suitable for high-quality furniture, cabinetry, and millwork.

  • Select: Select grade lumber includes pieces with slightly more defects than FAS but still offers good appearance and is used in fine woodworking projects.

  • Common: Common grades have more defects and variations in appearance. They are used for general woodworking and construction where appearance is less critical.


Software lumber is typically graded using the National Grading Rule for Dimension Lumber, which focuses on strength and appearance. These grades include:


  • No. 1 Common: This grade contains knots and is suitable for general construction and framing applications where appearance is not a primary concern.

  • No. 2 Common: This grade contains larger knots than No. 1 Common. It is used for structural applications such as framing and sheathing.

  • No. 3 Common: This grade allows even more knots and other imperfections. It is used for rough construction where strength is the primary consideration, such as shelving, paneling, pallets, and fences.

  • Stud Grade: Stud grade lumber is typically used for vertical structural members, such as wall studs. It may have defects but is suitable for its intended purpose.

  • C Select: This grade has little or no defects and is ideal for cabinets and trim.

  • D Select: This grade has a few more defects than C Select. It’s primarily used for projects that will be painted.

Lumber Applications

Lumber can be classified based on its intended use or application. For example, there are specific types of lumber for framing, sheathing, decking, flooring, siding, trim, and more. Each type of lumber is chosen based on its suitability for the particular demands of that application.


Structural lumber, also known as framing lumber, is the most widely used lumber type. It refers to wood products specifically designed and graded for use in load-bearing applications and structural construction. It is used to create the framework and support systems of buildings, providing strength, stability, and load-bearing capacity. Structural lumber is broken down into seven categories:


  1. Light framing. Lumber that is 2 to 4 inches thick and 4 inches wide.

  2. Structural light framing. Lumber that is 2 to 4 inches thick and 2 to 4 inches wide.

  3. Dimensional lumber and studs. Lumber that is 2 to 4 inches thick and 2 to 4 inches wide.

  4. Structural joists and planks. Lumber that is 2 to 4 inches thick and 6 inches wide.

  5. Beams and stringers. Lumber that is at least 5 inches wide and 2 inches thick.

  6. Posts and timbers. Lumber that measures 5 inches by 5 inches.

  7. Appearance framing. Lumber that is 1 inch thick and 2 inches wide.


Decking and fencing lumber is specifically designed for outdoor use, primarily in building decks and fences. It is chosen for its durability, weather resistance, and ability to withstand exposure to the elements. Railings, floor boards, posts, and balusters are all included. Decking and fencing lumber might consist of:


  • Pressure-Treated Lumber: Pressure-treated wood is infused with preservatives to enhance its resistance to decay, insects, and moisture. It is a cost-effective option for decking and offers excellent durability. It may be painted or stained and is particularly useful for projects that come into contact with cement.

  • Untreated Lumber: Untreated lumber is lightweight, inexpensive, and easy to cut. Certain species, such as cypress and redwood, are resistant to decay. It’s ideal for use in applications involving animals, children, and plants.

  • Composite Decking: Composite decking is made from a blend of wood and plastic. It offers excellent durability, low maintenance, and resistance to fading, warping, and cracking. It’s generally inexpensive and available in a variety of colors.




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