Bending Strengths of North American Softwoods
Characteristics of the Strongest Softwoods
The strongest softwoods aren’t just a one trick pony. They share a few other characteristics that further separate them from the pack. First of all, they tend to be much less elastic. In terms of actual stiffness ratings, the least elastic softwoods are yellow pine, Douglas fir, Hemlock, Cypress, & Spruce. As you may have already noticed in the chart, those woods also have the top five bending strength thresholds in almost the same order. Next, the strongest softwoods also tend to have high compressive strength ratings. This the measurement of a wood species’ strength to withstand force pushed inward from end grain to end grain. To visualize, an example of this would be a table or desk leg being compressed between the ground and the top surface. Again, the same five species mentioned above also have excellent compressive strengths.
Grouping Softwoods by Bending Strength
Tier 1: The Heavy Lifters
Grown throughout the southeastern U.S., yellow pine is by far the strongest softwood on our list. It has the highest bending strength & compression strength of any softwood seen throughout North America. And it’s high strength-to-weight ratio makes it popular for building trusses and joists. When shopping for yellow pine, be mindful that the Longleaf species is endangered while the Slash, Shortleaf, and Loblolly pines are abundant.
As the second strongest softwood on out chart, Douglas fir is often found in structural framing. It’s more immune to abrasive wear & tear than other softwoods, and it offers some resistance to decay. As a result, this is a common material found in large buildings and bridge trestles. Combining those qualities with an extremely clean appearance, plywood sheets and veneers are often available in Douglas fir.
Hemlock offers a decent amount of strength for its density and hardness. However, it’s quite prone to decaying and is known for being difficult to work. Consequently, this nearly threatened species is best left for rough products like pallets and plywood. However, there are other alternatives for those two wood products as well. If you’re considering Hemlock for your project, we’d recommend you explore other options.
Tier 2: The Runners-Up
Also known as bald cypress, this softwood shares the same resistance to decaying as many cedar species do. However, it differs in that it boasts a much higher bending strength than cedar species. Thus, cypress is often used in applications that require both resistance to decaying & extreme strength. Examples include sub-flooring in houses, outdoor pavilions, & boat decking.
As one of the less cooperative softwoods, Sitka Spruce is known for not taking well to stains (not a good quality to be known for). Also, the presence of knots in the wood dulls saw blades more quickly. As a result, not every lumber yard chooses to carry it. Nonetheless, it’s wide abundance and excellent strength make it appealing for some construction projects.
Abundant throughout Western North America, Ponderosa Pine is used for wood trim, doors, panels, & even cabinets. In addition to it’s decent bending strength, it works well with both hand tools and power tools. Though it’s fairly inexpensive, the heartwood offers a clean appearance that finishes well. Lastly, Knotty Ponderosa Pine is available too for wall paneling and decorative applications.
Tier 3: The Middle of the Pack
Aromatic Red Cedar
Despite having the highest hardest rating of any species on this list, aromatic cedar is far from the strongest. Its elasticity causes the wood fiber to pull apart when a force is applied. Nonetheless, aromatic cedar still has lots of uses due to its rot resistance and tendency to repels bugs like moths & termites. This makes it a good candidate for lining closets & constructing decks.
Though this is one of the least dense wood species on our list, it packs a decent strength to weight ratio. Also, white pine handles well with both hand tools & power tools. If you’re shopping for pine on the East Coast, this is likely the species you’re buying. Though it’s quite abundant, it’s minimal rot resistance makes it best suited for indoor projects.
Found throughout the Pacific Northwest, this giant species of pine is known for its dimensional stability. That is, the wood maintains its size when exposed to different temperatures and humility levels. Thus, Sugar Pine is frequently found in millwork, wood stencils, and templates. IF you’re shopping for pine out west, you’re likely buying sugar pine or its relative, the western white pine.
Tier 4: Not So Strong, But Rot Resistant
As the largest conifer in the wold, Redwood stands as another rot-resistant softwood. However, it’s bending strength lies closer to the lower end of the spectrum. Combining that with it’s quickly decreasing natural supply, we recommend reserving this species for outdoor furniture, fencing, & decking. In terms of identifying Redwood lumber, the wood’s appearance is characterized by a curly grain with old-growth having a deeper red color.
Western Red Cedar
Native to the Pacific Northwest, Western Cedar is a staple for home exteriors. Though it’s not the strongest softwood, Western Cedar’s resistance to decay makes it a good candidate for roof shingles and siding. While being easy to work, Western Red Cedar requires a delicate touch as it’s prone to scratches and dents. Thus, we don’t recommend this species for surfaces that receive a lot of wear & tear from physical contact.
As the weakest wood species on our chart, white cedar is also one of the least dense woods. This makes it easy to transport in both its raw and finished forms. And given that white cedar is resistant to rotting, it’s an ideal candidate for fence posts, outdoor benches, and roofing materials. Since this softwood is native to the Northeast, it’s easier to find for North Americans living in Great Lakes region, New England, Northern Appalachia, Southeastern Canada, & the adjacent areas.
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