Woodworking With Softwood Lumber

The most common building material for woodworkers is the softwoods; pine, redwood or fir. These are readily available at your local lumberyard or home improvement store. In addition to be readily available the softwoods are also the least expensive so, let’s take a closer look.

Pine is hands down the most common wood for home woodworkers. It’s versatile, works easily, and finishes nicely with paint or stain (and, it has wonderful aroma!) Let’s take a sample project and go pick out some pine. You want to build a simple bookcase for your bedroom. You have your lumber cut list in hand and you’re standing in front of the racks of no.1 common pine. The bookshelf will be 8″ deep, 32″ long, and 28″ tall, and have two shelves.

Step 1: Find the rack that holds 1x 8 pine boards. Remember this is dimensional lumber so the 1 X 8 lumber is actually 3/4 “x 7 1/2”. You have a choice of adapting your project to fit the lumber or adapting the lumber to fit your project. Let’s adapt the project.

Step 2: Select a 1″ x 8″ x 8′ piece. You can get two 34″ pieces for the top and bottom, and one 28″ side piece from this board. To complete the bookshelf you will also need one 6′ piece. Rifle through the stack and look for a piece with fewer knots. Knots are full of sap and are difficult to cover with paint or stain. Make sure any knots are tight and smooth with no rough, open areas.

Step 3: Pull the board out, hold it out in front of you so that you can site all the way down the long edge. Does it have a bend or curve? If so set it aside and pull another piece out. Next turn the board face up, does it cup (curl in from the edges toward the center,) or is it flat? If it is flat and straight put it in the good pile.
Step 4: Look over the boards in your good stack. Are the ends badly checked (cracks running from the end up the board?) If the cracks are more than 2″ long reject it.

Step 5: Is there a lot of sap in the piece? Wet, sticky sap will make the piece difficult to finish. Put it in the reject pile.

Step 6: You’ve plowed all the way through the available pieces and found 2 that will work. (You may have to make a few compromises but be choosy!) Put them in the cart and guard them because you probably took the last two good pine boards in the store!

Tip: Most stores carry a couple of grades of pine; clear and common. Clear pine is clearly the best. It will have no knots and you will find more flat, straight pieces. It is also more expensive, up to twice as much as common pine. Common is what you just picked out.

What about fir? Fir can also be a good choice. It is usually clean and flat. Again, you pay more for that. It has a deeper color which you need to consider when looking at stains. It is also more prone to splintering or cracking because of its straight, open grain.

What about redwood? Save that for your outdoor projects. You’re not likely to find 3/4″ redwood at Home Depot or Lowes.

Tip: If you don’t have a saw at home you can get the store to cut those pieces to length for you. You may have to pay a nominal fee ($ .50 at Home Depot) for more than two cuts. They won’t do fancy cuts, just rips or cross cuts. If you have them cut it, save longer scraps because they come in handy for other projects.

Joinery: Now that you’ve got your pieces picked out, let’s talk about joining them together to make that bookcase. You can use glues, nails, or screws. Any of these will work well with pine. A couple of things to keep in mind:

oGlue alone will not suffice for a butt joint (a right angle,) you will need to reinforce that with screws or nails.

oUsing screws or nails too close to the end of the board can split the ends. Try to place nails or screws an inch or so from the end if possible.

oLook for self-tapping screws with wide threads for better holding power in soft wood.

oIf you can’t find self tapping screws pre-drill your screw or nail holes.

Using common pine for a simple project like this bookcase is an excellent way to try your hand at woodworking. You can use basic hand tools and the lumber is inexpensive so mistakes won’t hurt the wallet too much. Being choosy about your lumber will make a big difference in the final outcome. Painted or stained, pine finishes well and will give you a handsome and useful piece of furniture that will last a good, long time.