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Planning a building project presents you with many options and decisions to make. Lumber and materials are just one thing to consider. That said, you may be considering using hemlock wood for your next home project, but should you?
Hemlock is a good building material because it is light and strong. It is widely used for framings and sub-floors, as well as for roofing and sheathing. It can also be used for indoor features like shutters, banisters, and stairs.
Hemlock is a softwood common in North America. It was used primarily for its bark, which was extracted for tannin, but these days its use in construction is becoming more and more widespread. The rest of this article will look at the pros and cons of choosing to build with hemlock and what kind of projects it is best suited for.
Reasons to Use Hemlock
There are many reasons why hemlock could be the right option for you to use in your building project. Here are a few:
The strength of hemlock wood varies greatly depending on the quality of the grain. If it has knots in it, it will splinter and split when it is being machined and may not be the most durable option even after it has been milled.
However, hemlock lumber with the smooth grain is actually quite strong. This strength makes it fairly resistant to wear and tear, and consequently, it is a good option for high-traffic parts of a house or building, where it will hold up to frequent use. It is an excellent material for building projects, particularly for framing.
Hemlock is more resistant to warping or twisting due to weather than pine, so it is a popular choice for trims and moldings. Pine is known as a weak wood, though it has its place. However, hemlock is far superior when it comes to warping and discoloration from temperature fluctuations.
An Alternative to Hardwood
Hemlock is a popular choice as an alternative for more expensive hardwood features, especially within the home. The dense grain means that hemlock can actually be stronger than many hardwoods, and it is often substantially more affordable than oak or cherry.
This makes it an excellent choice for features like stairs, doors, and shutters.
Weathers to a Pleasing Color
Over time, exposure to the elements will change the color of the wood. As it ages, it will dry out, fade in the sun, and be exposed to wind and rain. All of this affects how it will eventually look. If you would prefer not to go to the trouble and expense of staining or painting, or if you are aiming for a more natural look, the color that the wood will become as it weathers is an important consideration.
One feature of eastern hemlock that may influence you to opt for it for your siding is that over time, as it weathers, it becomes a pleasing and distinctive brown-red color. This is different from comparable lumber choices such as spruce or fir, which weather to a dull grey.
Keep this in mind if you are planning an addition or a separate building on your property like a shed: if a cohesive look is important to you, either plan on painting or choose to build with the same kind of wood.
It is not the cheapest or the most expensive option, but hemlock can be an excellent way to save money you otherwise would’ve shelled out depending on your area. With its strength and resilience, hemlock is a worthwhile investment. If you want a budget-friendly solution without spending too much, you’re in luck.
Holds Paint and Other Finishes
If you decide to paint, hemlock will hold paint perfectly well as long as the wood has been thoroughly dried out prior to your project. This can be challenging with freshly cut wood because hemlock is on the wetter end of the spectrum, so if possible, buy your lumber aged if you want to paint it right away or wait until it’s dry before you do.
Something that makes hemlock an attractive choice for certain projects is that all kinds of finishes work well with it, from wax to paint to stain. This is particularly true of western hemlock, which tends to be smoother than eastern hemlock. However, a clear or light stain may be better than a darker stain unless you are looking to emphasize the contrast of the grain, which does come up.
Good for Lamination
Hemlock wood holds glue very well, which makes it very easy and effective to laminate. It has been used to make laminated beams and edges to great effect. Since it’s porous, glue holds onto hemlock much better than non-porous materials.
Cons of Using Hemlock
Keep in mind that hemlock will not be the perfect material for everything you are seeking to achieve. It’s up for you to decide if the pros outweigh the cons. Read on for some qualities that may make you think twice about using it in your project.
Prone to Splinters
One slightly notorious feature of hemlock wood is that it is quite prone to splintering. The splinters themselves are quite hard and small, making them extra painful and annoying if you accidentally catch on them. This means that any feature you will be coming into close regular contact with (such as benches, banisters, porches, and similar items) need to be sanded and finished and should not be left raw.
This also has implications for working with it. Some people prefer to avoid working with hemlock because they have found the splintering too irritating: this is the exception, however, and as long as you take care, it should not be too much of an issue for you.
Should Be Pre-Drilled
Hemlock wood is soft to work with, making it great for woodwork and carving – but not so good for intricate building projects. It can split while you are drilling, so make sure to pre-drill your holes before installing to avoid any irrevocable mistakes. Creating a pilot hole will make a world of difference when working with hemlock.
While hemlock is a strong wood, it does not have any particular durability qualities when it comes to rot and decay. This means it will not last well over time in prolonged damp or fluctuating temperatures, which is one reason it is largely used in subflooring and framing. Keep this in mind when choosing a lumber option for outdoor building projects, and if you do use hemlock outside, make sure to give it preservative treatment.
This is a pro that can flip on its head to become frustrating. The strength of hemlock means that when it dries, it is quite hard. This is great for something you don’t want to change or see a shift – it’s sturdy and resilient – but if you are working with aged and dried wood or looking to modify an existing fixture, nailing and sawing can become a challenge.
For an easier and quicker experience, it’s better to work with hemlock while it’s still green.
Hemlock is most certainly a good building material. It performs well in framings, sidings, sub-floorings, or roofing, or you can use it for sheds and saunas, moldings and trimmings, and floors and stairs.
Whatever wood you choose will influence your building’s life and longevity, so you know you should choose wisely! As long as you take its strengths and weaknesses into account while you’re working with it, hemlock can be an excellent choice for building material.
- Wood Magazine: Hemlock
- Jackson WoodTurners: Hardwood vs Softwood
- Canadian Woodworking: Western Hemlock
- Forestry Forum: Hemlock???
- Forest Products Laboratory: Eastern Hemlock
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Giovanni Valle is an architect, designer, internet entrepreneur, and the managing editor of various digital publications including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place. He is the founder of BuilderSpace LLC.