In 399 BCE in Athens, Greece, Socrates was charged with impiety and the corruption of the youth he taught. After his conviction, he was forced to drink hemlock, a deadly poison for which there is no antidote, and died. His method of teaching, today called the Socratic Method, is used in law schools and other schools of higher learning.
Socrates has nothing to do with woodworking, or at least that we know of, but hemlock does. Hemlock, a coniferous tree, has small white flowers. Although there are many poems written about oak, maple, and sycamore trees, it was the hemlock tree that Robert Frost chose to include in his poetry.
Hemlock Tree Uses
When tree logs hit the sawmills, the bark is stripped, and the wood is harvested and sawn into lumber for construction projects as well as for the home woodworker. However, in past centuries the bark of the hemlock tree had more value than the lumber milled from it.
Hemlock bark is high in tannic acid, and the bark was harvested, trees were stripped, and the logs were ignored. The leather tanners and fur trappers used the bark to create a tannic acid solution to treat the hides and skins to make them softer and stronger and thus more valuable.
When wood construction took over the house-building industry in the 1940s in the United States, hemlock wood became more valuable than its bark, and trees were harvested for it.
- Eastern hemlock (tsuga canadensis) can be found growing from Canada in the north down the east coast as far south as Georgia; you’ll also find it growing west as far as the Great Lakes and Minnesota. The Japanese word “tsuga” translates as “yew-leaved” in reference to the tree’s short and flat needles.
Eastern hemlock trees can live as long as 250 years and will grow to around 80 feet in height and 36’ in diameter.
- In the western part of the United States, the western hemlock (tsuga heterophylla) grows well in the moist coastal climate from Alaska to northern California. It is also referred to as Pacific hemlock.
Western hemlock will grow to around 150 feet in height and 24” in diameter at 100 years old.
These are the most common species in North America, although there are also species native to eastern Asia. The colors of all hemlock species are fairly similar to each other and with little variation.
The hemlock’s bark, once more valuable than the wood, is red to brown in both species, Eastern and Western, and with deep ridges. Brown cones that hold the hemlock seeds grow at the end of their branches.
There is little distinction between hemlock heartwood and sapwood, presenting a fairly uniform color, making a more efficient log to break down at the sawmill. Western hemlock will tend to be stronger, harder, more straight-grained, and resin free.
That latter characteristic makes it a better choice for any type of finish – painting, staining, clear coating – than the Eastern hemlock, which is higher in its resin content. Neither species of hemlock should be used for outdoor projects without sealing and preventative treatments.
As for specific uses for hemlock, and you will find Western hemlock preferable for most of these uses, the list includes:
- Home and wood building construction, including framing and flooring;
- Frame and panel doors
- Molding and trim millwork
- Paper (Eastern hemlock)
- Ladders (due to their strength and durability)
- Stairs (also due to the strength and durability of the wood)
It is an easy wood to work with, although expect some tear-outs when crosscutting. Additional uses include furniture making, cabinetry, and even saunas. It resists warping and twisting and so is suitable for these purposes as well as those listed above.
Hemlock Wood Positives
Looks. Its attractive reddish-brown light color makes it desirable for use where it will be seen – furniture, window frames, doors and door frames, and such.
Ease of Use. It works well and easily, and as mentioned above, it takes to a variety of finishes quite well – staining, painting, and clear coating.
Price. Hemlock is easy to source and plentiful ( Western hemlock), and the yield from a 150-foot hemlock is high, straight, and uniform in color between sapwood and heartwood. This makes it less expensive than many other woods that are used for similar purposes.
Hemlock Wood Negatives
Rot. Hemlock is not resistant to rot or insect infestation. As a consequence, it’s not a good wood for outdoor use unless you give it a tight sealing and preservative treatment on a regular basis. It is better, though, to limit your use of hemlock wood to interior uses.
Durability. While hemlock is suitable for framing in wood construction, it’s not as durable a wood as oak, maple, or walnut. While it is used for flooring (Western hemlock), it requires regular maintenance because it is susceptible to denting and scratching.
Hemlock As A Softwood
We’ve given you enough hints and information to know now that hemlock is a softwood. The cones should have been enough to identify it as a softwood for you.
We know this refers to the tree the wood comes from rather than its degree of hardness. However, hemlock is not an especially hard wood. It is moderately stiff and hard and nowhere near as strong as the hardwoods we mentioned earlier – oak, maple, walnut – that are also used in furniture-making, cabinetry, and flooring.
But, as we said, this does not make it a useless wood, as the use list shows. For interior use projects, it will serve you well and give a very lovely finish to them.
Hemlock’s Janka Scale score of 500 (Eastern hemlock) will tell you how it compares to hardwoods used for the same purposes as hemlock. The Janka Scale test measures the hardness of a wood by pressing a steel ball of about a half-inch in diameter halfway into the wood.
By comparison, Western hemlock has a Janka score of 540, showing it to be a harder softwood than its Eastern hemlock cousin. A third variety of hemlock, mountain hemlock that grows on the slopes of mountains in Idaho and Wyoming, checks in with a Janka score of 680.
If you are working with hemlock in your shop, you are more likely to be using Western hemlock for its greater strength and durability than those of Eastern hemlock.
When we consider that walnut (a hardwood) has a Janka score of 1010 and red oak a score of 1290, though, we see how much softer hemlock is. However, with white pine, a softwood, and its Janka score of 420, we can see it is a harder softwood, and we know we use white pine for other interior projects in our woodworking shop. Since that is the case, why not consider hemlock for those projects, too.
Softwoods grow faster than hardwoods, as we have mentioned in a number of articles on them, and this, too, adds to its lower cost. Price does play a part in our decisions on what woods to work with, and this makes hemlock an attractive choice, soft on our budget (joke intended).
Be aware, though, that it does suffer some tear-out when cross-cut. Expect that when working with hemlock and plan accordingly. However, it is also strong enough to take glue and screws well when assembling a project piece, whether furniture, cabinets, trim (molding) around windows and doors, etc.
In post and beam construction, hemlock was often chosen for timber framing. For many years, it was chosen for master beams in residential homes.
If you are interested in other woods, softwood, and hardwood, and their Janka score, you can find sycamore, ash, black walnut, alder, and many other woods we’ve written about before. Just use the search feature on the site to find other woods you might be considering using for a project in your shop.
Hemlock Logs Being Broken Down
The video we chose for you today is as much about the saw as it is the hemlock log. We love watching a log be broken down into lumber, and this video shows a pretty cool saw in all of its talents as it breaks down a hemlock log.
Notice how straight the log is, a characteristic of hemlock trees; notice, also, the barely negligible distinction in color between the sapwood (just inside the bark) and the heartwood (as the name implies, the heart of the log). We mentioned this, and point it out again to demonstrate the high yield from a hemlock log.
Cheaper, easy to work with in most instances, suitable for indoor projects, takes to staining and finishing very well. What’s not to like about hemlock? Give it a thought for your next project.