After reaching an all-time peak in May 2021, timber prices ever since have seen a period of persistent fluctuation. With production costs driven up by record high electricity and heating costs, SMEs in the timber industry are naturally feeling the knock-on impacts of the market volatility. In trying times, softwood offers a reliable and cost effective alternative to more expensive timber.
Sourced from coniferous trees, softwood comes from across the globe and possesses remarkable versatility and strength. Common examples include pine, fir, and cedar trees. In contrast to hardwood, it naturally grows in colder regions and does so much more quickly, typically taking between 20 to 30 years before being ready for harvest, resulting in faster timber production. This is compounded by a shorter market life which makes softwood timber much more time-efficient than hardwood.
The pliability and lightness of softwood make it a popular choice for various applications. It's commonly used in interior moldings, window production, construction framing, and creating sheet materials like fibreboard and plywood. Whether it’s Eastern white pine for furniture or European spruce, most often used in construction for panelling and cladding, softwood is renowned for its useful properties.
Amidst supply chain uncertainty and rising inflation, the higher costs and slow growth rate of hardwood mean softwood is an increasingly appealing option. While softwoods currently account for approximately 80% of the timber used in construction, this can be expected to continue to rise. Rising post-pandemic costs had already driven the popularity of softwood by 2021, when larger amounts of the material were reported as being exported from an increasingly diverse range of countries.
The question of durability
Often dismissed as a less durable timber in comparison to hardwood, certain softwoods are in fact just as - if not more - reliable than typical hardwood options. One such example is western red cedar wood which produces highly durable timber with considerable stability properties. The label hardwood versus softwood does not necessarily signify its long-term durability - depending on the properties you are seeking, certain hardwoods may indeed be less reliable than cheaper softwood.
Douglas fir offers distinct strength while the stability of yellow pine often places it above hardwood timber options, particularly for architects seeking strong lumber for residential and commercial construction. Timber from some yellow pine even possesses strength properties equivalent to the renowned Red Oak hardwood, while in other categories such as compression strength parallel to the grain, pine is in fact stronger. Similarly, timber from yew trees is both a relatively hard softwood with high density, ideal for quality construction of furniture or even music instruments.
Cross-laminated timber panels
Popularly referred to as ‘super plywood’ or ‘Mass timber’, cross-laminated timber is an engineered wood product commonly used as an alternative to concrete. Produced typically from a variety of softwoods, it is a great example of the valuable uses of softwood. To construct CLT, kiln-dried spruce or pine boards are laid on top of one another, coated with adhesive, and subjected to immense hydraulic pressure to create large, stiff, and dimensionally stable panels. Depending on specification, they can measure up to 20 metres in length and 3.5 metres in width.
Thanks to CLT being virtually 100% softwood, it exudes natural resin aroma with a great softness that absorbs sound, making it a relatively quiet material to construct with. This makes it both ideal for building in urban areas and a great wood for a building’s interior acoustics, contributing to its natural ambience.
Most CLT is currently produced in Europe, where Austria, Germany, and Switzerland account for 70 percent of global output and there is sufficient softwood being harvested without any risk to virgin forests. Young softwood trees in fact absorb more Co2 than mature ones, meaning that the continuous growing and harvesting is actively improving Co2 absorption.
Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL)
LVL typically consists of multiple softwood veneers, most often spruce and pine, which are evenly glued together for maximum strength, making it one of the most stable wood-based materials. While CLT is an impressively strong timber - a wood equivalent of a bodybuilder on steroids - the reliability of LVL timber is more like a tightly-trained athlete: strong and with muscles precisely where needed to provide the right support. In other words, CLT is great for high-rise apartment buildings, but for something on a smaller-scale, LVL provides just the right amount of softwood’s best characteristics. For any structural framing requiring high strength and stiffness, LVL offers what you need.
Rather than solid plates, LVL softwood beams can provide strong structural support, literally forming a skeleton of wood, while the space between the beams of the skeleton are then used for insulation. One key benefit? Less wood is needed, making LVL both practical and more environmentally-friendly than other alternatives.
In comparison to solid wood, the production of LVL leaves you with far less wasted wood. In addition, LVL is humidity-resistant and provides great wind-resistance, which makes it ideal for building homes located in high-humidity areas or near waterfronts. Traditional solid wood, on the other hand, is more susceptible to expansion and contraction.
Thermally modified wood
Thermally modified softwood boasts great durability to rival hardwood’s best characteristics. By heating it in temperatures above 180 degrees celsius, the wood’s structural and chemical make-up is fundamentally modified and the timber is left with approximately 7 percent moisture content by the end of the process. The result? A much improved timber with greater stability and durability as well as a stronger resistance to rot, termites, and other insects.
The process also produces a highly attractive and aesthetically-pleasing colouration, typically a warm brown, while the timber itself now boasts an extended life-span making it a more sustainable timber product. Because of its durability and resistance to decay, thermally modified softwood makes for great outdoor cladding, decking, or furniture, but has also become increasingly popular for producing high-quality guitars and other musical instruments.
Softwood possesses a great workability, making it easy to use in home working projects. Certain softwood such as pine also absorbs finishes including paint, oils, and varnishes with ease, making it ideal for even DIY beginners. For those in the market seeking timber for furniture construction, DIY or otherwise, there are further advantages.
As well as possessing straight grains which help resist warping, softwood such as Cedar is naturally rot-resistant, insect resistant, and water-resistant. Cedar is also famed for its pleasing scent, making it a great softwood option for constructing home furniture which will stand the test of time. Being naturally antifungal and antibacterial, it produces a trustworthy timber suitable for wardrobes and clothes storage.
Besides this, the style and appearance of softwood makes it an aesthetically pleasing option for some. Softwood such as pine can deliver an attractive rustic look thanks to its knotty appearance. If used for garden furniture, softwood must first be treated to avoid it weathering too quickly, but is often cut in a pleasing chunky and solid appearance - unlike hardwood which is cut thinner - and thanks to its lightweight character, it can be shaped into comfortable edges and curves that make it an attractive timber.
Looking beyond the label
From paper manufacturing to fencing, building, and DIY crafts, softwood has many uses.
Unlike hardwood timber, you don’t need the toughest tools to cut and drill softwood. Its workability has established it as a popular timber option not just in mass construction but among those dabbling in DIY as well. Softwoods such as yellow and western red cedar have proven popular not just for musical instruments but also for sound proofing music rooms. When used in wall panelling, the acoustic properties of cedar can reliably deliver noise reduction.
When it comes to comparing hard and softwood, it is evident that we must look beyond the labels. Among the various types of timber on offer, some are classified as sturdier options than some hardwoods. For those looking for a reliable timber that will offer the strength needed while cutting on higher costs, softwood timber such as Siberian Larch - an ideal wood with a natural durability even for outdoor uses - offer valuable alternatives to hardwood.
“Technological advances have broken the old rules; softwood isn't the underdog anymore. In many cases it stands on an equal footing with hardwood, dispelling fears and upending conventions.”
Recognising that softwood is a lot more than a cheaper alternative to hardwood timber is just the start. For businesses championing sustainability, it offers further advantages given its quick turnaround from harvesting to regrowth. And contrary to popular belief, if well looked after, it can also last decades when put to use. Perhaps most notably, as a species common throughout Europe, both the environmental and financial costs of shipping and production here are much lower than is the case for many hardwoods.
Finding the right softwood that meets your needs doesn’t have to be tricky either. Here at VonWood we know the importance of sourcing the right timber - once you know what you’re looking for, we take your requirements and connect you with the right match for your needs.
Now that we’ve established that softwood can be trusted, you can trust VonWood to look after the rest. Choosing from tens of thousands of timber products, we’ll narrow it down to the very best and allow you to buy your timber within 48 hours while saving you between 15 and 75 percent on costs.
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