If there was a prize for the most pedantic humans on Earth, it would have to go to the scientists who counted all our trees. Turns out there’s roughly 3 trillion of them.
At a population of around 7.6 billion, we humans are quite outnumbered. For now. The same scientists who did the arboreal headcount (a massive international team whose full report on global tree density was published in Nature), estimated we’re cutting down around 15 billion trees every year.
All those trees get put to use making making the obvious:
- And, of course, the most useful tree product of all, oxygen.
And the not so obvious:
- Ice-cream thickener;
- Space-craft heat shields.
If using wood as a heat shield seems counter-intuitive, here’s how it works:
We imagine you’re probably not constructing a spacecraft any time soon (if you are, let us know because we’d love to meet you). But if you are trying to figure out the best wood type to use for your project, read on.
Hardwood vs softwood
Every one of those 3 trillion trees we mentioned can be divided into one of two categories: hardwood and softwood.
While hardwoods do, generally, tend to be more dense than softwoods, there are soft hardwoods (like balsa) and hard softwoods (like juniper). If that’s starting to sound far too confusing, we’ve got a couple of hints that will help you easily classify any tree into its timber type.
Hardwood comes from deciduous trees. They like to get naked in winter but their seeds always come clothed in a shell or fruit.
Commonly used for: high-end furniture, antique reproductions, decks and flooring, beer barrels, structures built to last.
The greater density of hardwoods makes them more fire resistant than their softer counterparts. They also have a slower growth rate and are more expensive.
Softwood comes from evergreens. These trees keep their kit on year round but, in a beautiful example of natural symmetry, their seeds are the ones who like to get naked, so they can spread themselves on the wind.
Commonly used for: Window and door frames, MDF, paper, furniture, Christmas trees.
Cheap and quick growing, softwoods are easier to work with and best used wherever density really isn’t necessary.
Best wood for your job?
This depends entirely on your budget and the look you’re going for. The sturdiness of the shelf is going to lie more in your design and construction than in the wood itself. As cheap furniture manufacturers have proven, you can make decent enough shelves out of MDF if you have enough structural support.
For camp fires, cooking fires and meat smoking, you’re better off with a hardwood as their density makes them burn longer. Oak and cherry are popular options.
Anything that’s going to spend its life exposed to the elements needs to be tough, durable and pest-resistant. Hardwoods tend to be better suited to the task. Teak is at home in the tropics and, due to its high natural oil content, is a favourite for outdoor furniture.