What is softwood lumber used for?

Softwood lumber is a versatile, easy-to-use material that allows you to do more with your home for less. Softwood species such as pine, redwood, cedar and Douglas fir are used in, on and around the home for structural and design applications like framing, decks and porches, fences, molding, siding and trim.

Turning houses into warm, livable homes is what wood does best. The looks achieved are incredibly versatile and can be customized to your home’s unique design. Use softwood to build a warm and inviting outdoor room, upgrade your curb appeal, or add interest and texture to lackluster walls and ceilings.

What is softwood and how is it different from hardwood?

Softwood is lumber harvested from gymnosperm trees, which tend to have needles and cones. Hardwood is harvested from angiosperm trees, which are generally broad-leaved trees that bear fruit or other covered seeds such as acorns. Contrary to what their names may seem to imply, hardwood is not necessarily harder or denser than softwood.

Structural softwood lumber is used to frame houses and for deck substructure. Softwood species are also used for many interior and exterior design projects because of their easy workability, affordability and natural beauty.

What are the differences between wood and composite decking?

Softwood decking is a real and renewable product that provides a natural beauty that cannot be duplicated. In contrast, composite decking is typically made from a combination of different synthetic materials that are processed to give the appearance of wood. Wood decks already look like wood, which is what all of the composite decking manufacturers try to emulate.

Wood makes for a deck you can enjoy all year round – even in the heat of summer. Wood naturally absorbs the sun’s energy, so in warmer temperatures, wood stays cooler to the touch. Composites can be uncomfortably hot on bare feet.

Wood decking is extremely affordable compared to other options on the market. For example, a deck made with manufactured materials can cost three to five times more than a comparable deck made with real wood. Plus, according to Remodeling Magazine, a wood deck addition returns an average of 81 percent of the original investment – more than what a composite deck delivers.

Beyond cost, there are numerous environmental benefits to selecting a wood over a composite deck.* In a side by side comparison, wood vs. composite decking:

Wood is biodegradable. Composite decking ends up in a landfill.
Wood decks store carbon throughout their lives, making for a much lower carbon footprint. The carbon emissions from a composite deck are more than double that of a wood deck.
Wood is a renewable building material. More trees are planted than harvested every year in the U.S. Composite decking is made from finite fossil fuel sources.


* Western Red Cedar Lumber Association: Go Green – LCA

Southern Forest Products Association: LCA Report: Treated Lumber vs. Composite Decking

California Redwood Association: LCA – When It Comes to Eco-friendly Decking, Get Real

Is a wood deck difficult to maintain? What is the best way to clean and maintain my wood deck?

No. While every material that is exposed to the elements requires some maintenance, simple and regular upkeep will help preserve your outdoor wood products for years to come. You can simply let your deck weather to a soft, silvery grey, only requiring you to occasionally wash it to control potential mold or mildew.

On a yearly basis, inspect the deck boards for damage such as splitting, warping and checking, and check every fastener to be sure they are not coming loose. Every deck should also have an annual cleaning. Assuming they have been maintained regularly, most decks can be revived with just a deck cleaner. As with all products, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for proper use.

Periodically test the effectiveness of your stain or sealant by pouring a cup of water onto the wood. An adequate stain or sealant will repel the water, causing it to bead up on the surface of the deck. If the water sinks in quickly, it’s probably time to reapply a sealant. Depending on the stain or sealant you’re using, you’ll need to do this once every year or two.

Even if your deck is several years old and showing signs of natural weathering, it’s easy to restore the original color and beauty of the wood by applying a cleaning solution, available at any hardware store. Just spray on the cleaning solution or apply it with a brush, and be sure to allow several days for your wood to dry before applying a finish.

Finishing your Deck

Deck finishes fall into two categories: sealers and stains. Both are formulated to seal out the elements. As their name implies, clear sealers are non-pigmented finishes that show off the natural beauty of your wood.

Stains are available with a little pigmentation (referred to on the label as “tone”), semitransparent, and in solid colors. Clear and pigmented stains sink into the wood and won’t show signs of wear in high-traffic areas of your deck.

Paints form a film on top of the wood surface and can crack and peel over time, so they are not recommended for finishing decks. Varnishes and polyurethanes crack and pool when used for exteriors. They are difficult and expensive to apply and deteriorate quickly. Always use finishes recommended for wood exteriors.

Regardless of which type of wood you choose for your deck, a few basic guidelines apply when finishing and maintaining the wood:

  • The first time you apply a sealant or stain to a wood deck is important, and it’s best to apply it as soon as the wood surface is dry. Remove any dirt or debris from your deck before applying a finish. Don’t use wire brushes or steel wool as metal particles may become embedded in the wood and can cause stains. Use stiff bristle brushes.
  • Decide whether to use a semi-transparent stain or a water-repellent sealer. A water-repellent sealer will last about one year on exposed surfaces due to its lack of UV protection, but it’s extremely easy to reapply. Because water-repellant sealers are not pigmented, you don’t have to worry about uneven wear; however, they give your deck less protection from the weathering effects of sunlight than pigmented finishes.
  • If you’re unsure whether you’d like to use a semi-transparent stain or use a water-repellent sealer, try applying the water-repellent sealer to the deck first. If you decide you’d rather use a semi-transparent stain in the future, it’s easy to switch when the deck needs to be refinished.
  • If you choose a water-repellant sealer for your wood deck, look for one that contains ultraviolet light blockers to protect against sunlight, as well as mildewcides to help prevent the blackening or graying of the wood from mildew growth.

How to Clean and Refinish Your Deck

American Painting Contractor: Professional Finishing of CCA Pressure-Treated Wood

California Redwood: Exterior Finishes

WRCLA: Finishing Cedar Decking Techniques

How do I remove lacquer from my wood deck? 

Lacquer can be removed with a paste-like paint stripper in spray or brush form. Paint strippers usually work quickly on lacquer.

Start with a small area to test it out first and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Before applying stripper, though, be sure to cover any landscaping or hardscaping that may surround your deck area. Once the stripper has worked, rinse the deck with a power washer on a low setting. This may need to be done in stages, applying solvent to one section at a time. These sections should be along deck boards so you finish with a complete deck, rather than in the middle. Remember, don’t leave the stripper on your deck for too long!

The next step is to clean the deck, which you can learn how to do here. Then, let the deck dry and apply a penetrating deck finish, always according to manufacturer instructions.

For more information on how to finish your deck, visit the How-To section of Wood, Naturally.

How long will my wood deck last?

A wood deck that is properly maintained, with annual safety checks and periodic refinishing, will age better than a deck that is neglected. A well-maintained deck can last twice as long as a neglected deck, with a life expectancy of up to 20 years. Some factors that can affect how long your deck lasts include:

  • Location – The best location for a deck will have moderate, dappled shade throughout most of the day.
  • Quality of lumber – Buying lumber with fewer knots will extend the life of your deck.
  • Type of foundation – The best deck foundation is stable, with a concrete foundation. Pressure-treated lumber is the go-to for decking substructure. Wood should not have any contact with the ground, unless it is graded for ground contact.
  • Coating – A water-repellant coating with an oil or wax base keeps water from penetrating the wood surface. Coating your deck every couple of years will help to extend its life.

A little bit of deck care and an annual cleaning will preserve the natural beauty of your deck for years to come. Read our How-To article on how to clean your deck and maintain your deck.

What is the cost of softwood?

Depending on your project, wood is generally more affordable than other options when it comes to applications like residential framing, decking and deck substructure. The cost of softwood will vary based on a number of factors including the amount of wood you need for your project and the chosen species. Get started estimating the cost of your project by using our project calculators, or contact your local lumber supply store to get quotes for specific projects.

How does softwood impact the environment? Isn’t it bad to cut down trees?

Wood grows naturally and is one of our most renewable resources. In fact, it is the world’s only naturally renewable mainstream building material. More trees are planted than harvested each year in the U.S., and this responsible harvesting and replanting process helps to keep our environment healthy.

Building with wood can help mitigate climate change. As trees grow, they absorb harmful carbon dioxide and store it in wood fibers. When trees are harvested, the carbon they captured continues to be stored in the wood.

Plus, life cycle assessment studies show that wood products are responsible for lower air and water pollution, and have a lighter carbon footprint than other commonly used building materials.

When it comes to manufacturing, wood uses 15 percent less total energy for building houses than comparable houses using steel or concrete. It also requires less energy to harvest, mine, manufacture, and transport it to where it’s used, as compared to other building materials.

What’s more, wood product companies in the U.S. and Canada use nearly 99 percent of the wood they process at sawmills and at wood processors such as furniture and cabinetmakers—resulting in almost no wood waste.

Where does my softwood lumber come from? Is it local?

Softwood lumber that can be found in North America is primarily sourced from the U.S. and Canada. When you purchase softwood lumber, you’re buying from an industry with sustainable forestry practices that supports both rural jobs and healthy forests.

When buying wood, look for what is referred to as an “end tag.” End tags indicate the wood’s manufacturer who you can contact for more information regarding the wood’s origins.