Carpentry Guides Tools and Equipment

Choosing and Buying Softwood

choosing and buying softwood

Choosing to use softwood for your DIY projects makes very good sense for several reasons. Firstly it is easier to work than hardwood and so the finished results have a better chance of being good. Softwood is also cheaper than hardwood which means it makes great sense to use it for the bulk of a project, even if you want the visible surface to be of hardwood. Softwood also usually comes from sustainable sources and so does not contribute to the rapidly depleting stocks of rarer woods.

Softwood of many types can be bought from any large DIY store or builders or timber merchant. Timber merchants should be cheaper than the DIY Stores and will probably have larger stocks and a wider range of cut sizes and types. For small amounts of wood, you local DIY shed will probably be more convenient.

Softwood Sizes

buying softwoodSoftwood is available in two different finishes: Planed and sawn. The finish of the wood will effect the actual size, so whilst a sawn piece of wood that is labelled as 50mm x 50mm will be that size, a planed piece labelled the same will actually be 3-6mm smaller (i.e. 47mm x 47mm). The dimensions given for timber refers the to the sawn size when it leaves the saw mill. This is important to remember and it is always best to use the measured size of the wood, rather that relying on what the label said at the suppliers.

Common pre-cut sizes for softwood range from 25 to 225mm for widths and 12 to 50mm for thickness. You might find that timber is referred to by its old imperial measurements. For example 2 x 1in is equivalent to 25 x 50mm. Softwood is most often sold in lengths that are multiples of 300mm, and you will probably find that the most common available lengths are 1.8m 2.4m and 3m. Structural timbers, for floor joists etc, are available in longer lengths

Softwood Faults

The most common fault in softwood is warping, where the wood is either twisted or bent along its length. This can often be disguised or hard to notice if the timber is sold in a bundle, as it is in many DIY stores. Most timber merchants or DIY stores will be happy to undo a bundle if you wish to check if the wood is warped. Warped timber is almost useless for most projects, so it is always worth checking before you buy. To easily see if wood is badly warped, hold it at eye level and look along its length. You should quickly be able to see if it is not straight.

Other common faults include split ends (sometimes called shakes) and lots of knots. If the knots are not dead (i.e. where the middle of the knot has fallen out) they can be treated with knotting to stop them drying out too much and should not cause too many problems. Any lengths with dead knots or split ends should be rejected.

Labels on Timber

When you are planning any DIY which involves using timber, it is important that you understand where that timber has come from and how the source was managed and maintained. Wood harvested from sustainable sources is widely available in the UK, so there is no real reason to buy anything else.

Why are Timber Labels Important?

Timber labels let you see at a glance whether the wood you are about to buy is from a sustainable source. There are several different timber labelling schemes to show you which of the timber available in DIY stores and builders merchants is harvested from sustainable sources. Here are a couple of the more common ones to look out for.

fscThe Forest Stewardship Council

This label indicates that the wood in question (either raw lengths of timber or in a product) has come from a forest which is well managed according to strict environmental, social and economic standards. This forest will have been independantly inspected by the FSC and approved as being well managed.

The majority of FSC certified products will carry a full FSC Label. This will be an FSC100% label, a Mix
label, or a Recycled label applied by an FSC certified  company. You can read more at

pefcThe Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes

This label tells you that the wood or paper products in question come from forests managed in such a way that they are sustainable and offer the least possible environmental damage.

There are several different versions of the PEFC timber label, so the one you see may not look exactly the same as the one shown here. Some PEFC certified timber products will also have information about any recycled elements. You can read more at

sfiSustainable Forestry Initiative

This symbol on a wood or paper product shows you that the materials are at least 70% recycled or that they come from certified sustainable forests. You can read more at

Timber from Non-Sustainable Sources

If timber is taken from non-sustainable sources it can lead to all sorts of problems for both the human and animal inhabitants of that area. Taking timber from non-sustainable forests can lead to massive deforestation and the destruction of natural habitats.

Sadly, not all timber labelled as sustainable is what it seems. However, by only buying timber that displays the labels shown here, you will greatly reduce your chances of buying timber from non-sustainable forest sources.