The choice of woods for your woodworking project is the second most important decision in your shop, the most important being the project itself.
We take into account the use and abuse a finished project may experience, the appearance we want to create, the cost, and the ease or difficulty of working with the wood will be.
For instance, wood we might choose for flooring might not be the wood we would choose for window or baseboard trim; the wood we might choose for framing a house would not be the wood we would choose for high-end furniture projects. You get the idea.
Knowing woods is essential in our shops for the projects we want to consider. Yes, knowing how to best use tools and having tool experience is pretty important, too, but the wood we will use those tools on will have the biggest impact on our projects.
Such is the case with yellow pine and douglas fir. We suspect most, if not all, of you, have worked with this pine. We know pine trees, pine cones, and pine tree needles, all of which tell us that pine is a softwood, an evergreen conifer.
How about Douglas fir?
If you are in the construction business, chances are you’ve worked with Douglas fir, too. It is favored in the construction of log cabins, and in the 19th century in the northwest of North America, it was used in both house framing and flooring.
We know the cones of a Douglas fir, and this tells us it is a softwood, also.
How do they compare, though? Janka rating? Most common uses? How are they to work within the shop?
The two most common types of wood in the pine family are white pine and yellow pine. While eastern white pine is the more common of the two, we’ll focus today on yellow pine. White pine will be softer than its yellow cousin and more susceptible to denting and scratching, and will generally be suitable for projects that will not experience wear and tear from use – flooring, tabletops, and such.
Yellow is harder than white, is more dense, although not particularly dense itself, and shares with white pine a somewhat fine texture.
Southern yellow pine is the most common pine product at lumber yards. In the western United States, yellow pine refers to Jeffrey pine or Ponderosa pine. In the southern US, yellow refers to longleaf pine, shortleaf pine, and loblolly pine.
Yellow pine is known as the strongest pine wood, even considered one of the strongest of softwoods available in North America for compressive strength. Its color, stiffness, and resistance to shock make it a popular choice for furniture making and even in cabinet making (frames, for instance).
While it may not be as strong as oak, it is certainly strong enough for chairs and tables.
The advantages of pine include:
- It is lightweight
- It is easy to work with in the shop
- It is durable
- It is readily and steadily available in lumber yards
- It is inexpensive
while its disadvantages include:
- It is easily scratched
- It regularly has defects and flaws to work around, like knots and its tendency to rot
- It requires more regular maintenance and care, especially if it is in a sunny area
Still, even with those disadvantages, it is a good choice among wood types for the projects we’ve mentioned. It has a beautiful grain, takes to staining well, and even the knots can be made beautiful with a bit of epoxy resin to fill any gaps.
When it has been pressure-treated, it is also a good choice for outdoor decking. Pine is not particularly good at insect or decay resistance, but pressure-treating adds water resistance, as well as resistance to fungus, insects, and rot, fire resistance, and greater durability; untreated, though, it’s a lousy choice for outdoor furniture.
Of all wood types, it is the most common one pressure-treated, and the deck I built in my garden is of pressure-treated pine. A softwood, yes, but one of the more versatile species of wood available at your local lumber yard.
Now we turn to Douglas fir, one of the more common woods of the North American northwest. It is one of around 6 wood species in the fir family. We know it as a common Christmas tree in our home during the holidays.
It is a strong wood due to the nature of its straight grain and dimensional stability. The wood is a light brown color that will darken with age. In strength-to-weight ratio, it is the highest-scoring softwood in North America, and its heartwood is particularly rot-resistant.
The fir is not especially easy to work with, as it can easily dull cutting blades; once it has been cut and sized for your project, that straight grain offers great strength parallel to the grain, as well as shear and compressive strength. You’ll want to be very careful if you are planning end grain as it is susceptible to “spelching,” a term that refers to splitting at the edge of end grains and tearing away.
It also can be somewhat elastic in that while it will bend, it will return to its original shape, distinguishing it from hardwoods. That bending strength can make it a compelling choice in some projects.
It is also fairly durable. It is averse to fungal decay in addition to its resistance to rot. With a life expectancy of 35 years, it will serve your project well for a long time. We mentioned its use in the US northwest as a common flooring wood in the 19th century, and many of those floors continue to perform well a century or more later.
Common Uses of Douglas Fir
We’ve mentioned flooring, for instance, for this versatile wood, but there are many other uses for which it can be a good choice or at least a popular choice.
Trim: Moldings, window sills, baseboards, window casings, door casings
Furniture: Yes, we like to work with oak in furniture making, but fir can also be a good choice. Sturdy, finishes well, and, when handled properly, will be beautiful.
Boats: Yes, boats. Its strength against bending or buckling made it an attractive choice. Some of the US Navy’s boats during the war were made with it – patrol boats and minesweepers, for instance.
Airplanes: Not to be outdone by the navy, it was used in the making of smaller planes during WWI, including biplanes and triplanes. The wood is not affected by changing weather conditions, so it suited planes well.
The Competition Between Pine and Fir
We know these types of woods are both from the softwood family, and we have a sense of their strengths and weaknesses. Let’s go a little deeper.
The Janka scale measures the density and hardness of wood. It does so by measuring the amount of pressure required to embed a half-inch steel ball halfway into the wood. As between the two, fir’s Janka rating is 660, putting it in the middle of softwoods; pine’s Janka rating is 690, putting it in the higher ranking of softwoods.
On the list of woods with the strongest bending strength, yellow pine ranks at the top of the list. Douglas fir is a bit behind in second place.
Their structural integrity is what makes them commonly used in framing on the construction job site. I’ve nailed many 2 x 4s of each when framing out a new house, or at least I did when I was much younger.
One further wood on hardness: by way of comparison, and since we mentioned it earlier, white pine’s Janka rating is a meager 420, making it far softer than its cousin and fir.
Most consider the fir to be more aesthetically pleasing, with its tight and smooth grain that is far less likely to warp or twist as is pine. It is because of its even grain that fir was prized for flooring. It takes stains of all colors well and will offer you a more upscale appearance than will pine.
For a more rustic presentation, pine is the better choice. Its color is rich and warm, and its color can range from a lovely golden to deep amber. If you are looking for a cabin, cottage, or farmhouse chic, pine is the better choice.
Fir is generally going to cost you more for your project. Yellow pine is the more readily available of the two wood types, so supply is strong; demand is influenced by the disadvantages presented by pine (knots, for instance, although fir is not knot-free).
However, fir availability, both as plywood and as regular lumber, is strong, too. You’ll likely find both in your local lumber yard, but the fact is fir will run you more money.
It is the sourcing of high-quality wood types in both wood species that can and does affect the pricing of both. Over-harvesting and demand can push the price of fir higher. Wider growth rings and more knots are the problems with younger fir trees, while the preferred straight-grain wood from more mature trees can be difficult to source from time to time.
The wood industry is subject to the same economic and living conditions we all experience in the world today. More people, more homes being built, more furniture being made, impatience to allow proper time and maturity before harvesting – these will all affect the price of anything, and all of the wood types are as susceptible to economic pressures as anything else.
Of the two, fir will win this contest. Weather conditions may cause some swelling in fir; it tends to return to its original shape after it dries, whereas pine will begin to rot and lose its original shape. When its grain lines swell, they will hold that shape, and the swelling and misshaping will be a permanent condition.
What Else Can You Use Besides Fir and Pine
Just in case you are curious, there are alternatives to Douglas fir and yellow pine. If you can’t decide which is the better choice, or at least the less disadvantageous choice, you have options. Spruce, ash, and poplar can fit your needs, and we happen to have written about each. If you are curious, click on the name and go to that article for more helpful information.
These wood types will all cost you more, but each has its own appeal in many projects. This is not to suggest that either fir or pine are bad choices, and that is not why we are writing this piece. We simply want your choice to be informed. We’ve worked with both and likely will again in the future.
Video Info On Framing Wood Types
We’ve talked about framing in this article, and to offer further thoughts on the uses of both fir and pine in construction, we turn to a framer in this video for his thoughts.
As we said, we’ve worked with both fir and pine and have a sense of their strengths and weaknesses. We’ve offered them for you to consider, although if you are here reading up on them, you probably already have some sense of what they are like from past projects in your shop.
They are both good woods for particular project types, so don’t shy away from them.