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Material World – Lumber 101

At some point in your DIY project journey, you’ll need to choose lumber. Whether it’s simply a raised bed garden or something more ambitious like a full home renovation, wood will come into play. There are so many types of lumber available, and choosing the correct type for your specific project is an important step! 

Hardwood vs Softwood

Wood structure of hard and soft woods.

Most lumber is divided into two high level categories–hardwood and softwood. And, no surprises here–hardwood is wood that is hard and softwood is wood that is soft(er). Generally speaking, hardwood will not dent easily if you press it with your fingernail while softwood will.

Janka Hardness Test

Named after Gabriel Janka, a USDA employee, the Janka test is designed to measure the resistance of wood to denting/wear–the more pressure the species can take, the higher its Janka rating. It’s now a recognized and standardized scale used around the world to rate wood hardness.

Lumber Grades

Hardwood and softwood have separate lumber grading systems; however, each one is rating the look and strength of the lumber. Retailers and manufacturers use this system to set prices while contractors and DIYers use it to determine its viability for specific projects. As expected, the strongest, most “blemish free” lumber will have a higher grade (and thus a higher price).

Types of Lumber


We all know it, we all use it. Plywood is a manufactured lumber; thin sheets of “plys”  are glued together and then cured under heat and pressure. May often have a veneer of a nicer looking hardwood on the top.


Medium-Density Fiberboard. Denser than plywood. It is made of resin and wood fibers compacted together. Looks better than plywood painted.


Oriented Strand Board: It is a mix of small hard and soft wood pieces pressed together that are visible to the eye.


Oak, mahogany, maple, walnut, cherry


Cedar, pine, spruce, fir

Framing/Structural Lumber

Hard-wearing and ultra durable, framing and structural lumber is used to build out homes and other major projects. There are seven standardized categories of structural lumber, each with its own measurement specifications.

Appearance Lumber

Meant to be used as a finishing wood for aesthetic purposes or to create smaller, non-load bearing projects, appearance lumber is selected for its look rather than its strength. Both hardwood and softwood can be appearance lumber, but it’s less often you’ll find structural softwood options. This would include moldings and trim.

Common Defects


Warping along the face of the board from one end to the other


Really only an issue if the knot looks “loose” or has a dark, dead-looking ring around its outer edge, as it runs the risk of falling out and leaving a hole.


A crack that goes all the way through a board


A crack that goes against the grain


A missing chunk or section from the edge of the lumber board

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