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Choosing a Timber Species

Now that you’ve decided on building your own timber frame home, you have countless decisions to make. One of those decisions is which species of wood your timber framer will use in the construction of your home.

There are a  number of varieties of wood that are suitable for your home, and each has its own strong points and weaknesses. You may also need to consider availability, sustainability, cost and suitability in making this important decision. The most common species of wood used for timber frame homes are white pine, red and white oak, and Douglas fir, cypress and cedar.

Availability

The part of the country in which you plan to build plays a big part in what materials you will use for your home. It will be the most economical for you to use locally available materials, as the cost of transporting posts and beams across the country can be exorbitant and be cost prohibitive.

There are a number of species of trees that grow pretty much throughout the country, and a number of types of wood have similar properties, so finding an appropriate, locally available species should not be a problem in most but not all areas.

Sustainability

You may choose to use timber to build your home from a logging company that practices sustainable forest management. In very simple terms, this means logged areas of forest are replanted with appropriate trees and vegetation, and the ecosystem of the area is not damaged or destroyed.  For more information check out the FSC Certified wood or buy from a local sawyer that practices sustainable practices.

Cost

The cost of the wood for your timber frame home can vary considerably. You may have several choices for the wood species to be used to build your post and beam and the cost will always be a factor.

Strength and Suitability

Not just any wood is right for building a timber frame home. Some woods, like oak, are hard and strong. Unfortunately, this wood  tends to twist, crack, and check. It is most often used to make the pegs that hold your home together.  Other species like Douglas fir is stable and strong while white pine, cypress and cedar do not have the load capacity as Douglas fir or oak.

Another important consideration is whether the timbers will be exposed to the exterior.  If so, your choices of species drops to just a few like Douglas fir, cypress, and white oak.

Wood Species Types

Doug Fir

Douglas Fir is known for its structural strength, so it is a popular species for post and beam construction. It is prevalent in the Pacific Northwest, although it can be found in many other parts of North America. It ranges in color from a yellow or orange-brown shade to a deep, reddish brown. One outstanding characteristic is that it cracks and checks minimally when dried. Large timbers may be designated FOHC, which means that the beam does not have the typical bulls-eye heart wood in the center.

Eastern White Pine

White Pine

Eastern White Pine grows from Minnesota through Newfoundland, and south along the Mississippi basin and Appalachian Mountains to Georgia and Mississippi. As it is a soft wood, it is less costly than oak but has a tendency to check. It has multiple sizes of knots and is a blond wood with occasional red streaking. It cracks and checks as it dries, which gives it a rustic, weathered appearance. It is easy to work with and does not twist or deflect when properly treated. However, it is not as strong as Douglas Fir.

Red Oak

Red Oak

This hardwood grows from the Great Lakes to Nova Scotia and as far south as Georgia. For a hardwood, it is a fast growing species and is very popular as a framing choice. However, it is not resistant to decay or as strong as white oak.

White Oak

White Oak

This species grows from Texas to Quebec and from Minnesota to the Eastern seaboard. White Oak is very decay resistant but is hard and has a high shrinkage rate that makes it more difficult to work with for timber frame construction.

Other woods can be used in timber frame home construction, and each has its own characteristics. Southern yellow pine, spruce and cedar are also good choices for your home, depending on your location and the features you want in your building material.

What Is Checking And Twisting?

When wood dries out, it undergoes physical changes. The grain separates, and this is called checking. The timbers also will twist as they dry, so the timbers that are secured with tenons that allow some movement but hold the structural components securely in place.

Some wood species are more prone to checking and twisting than others are, so this characteristic is taken into consideration when choosing wood for construction. Checking does not generally weaken the wood, and adds character and an aged quality to the appearance of the timbers.

Using a humidifier and keeping the temperature down the first winter in your home can help to minimize the amount of checking your wood will develop.

What Is The Difference Between Fresh Sawn And Reclaimed Wood?

Fresh sawn timbers are produced from living trees. These newly harvested trees are taken to mills for processing. They can be used green, air-dried or kiln dried.

Reclaimed wood was cut many years ago and has dried and stabilized over time. This wood will have minimum checking or twisting if it is used in new construction.

When selecting the wood for your timber frame home, you should research which woods are available locally and select a species that is harvested in a sustainably responsible manner. This not only saves you money, but it is an ecologically sound choice as well. Several different woods will probably be used in the construction of your home, as different wood characteristics are required for various components of the structure.

77 thoughts on “Choosing a Timber Species”

  1. Hello. I’m new to timber framing. Thanks for your great web page. Very helpful. Just a couple questions. Wouldn’t cedar be a good lumber to be exposed to the elements? And is it better to let your logs dry before building or is green fine? Thanks for your time.

  2. maglardi camacaro

    Which one can be use for all fases of the construction that will repels the most termites and will be more resistant and durable in florida ?

  3. I was wondering if anyone has used hard(sugar)maple for timber framing and if there are any pros and cons as to its use. I understand that it’s not very decay resistant but would it be OK if not exposed to the elements?
    Thanks

    1. Sugar Maple also tends to have a very pronounced spiral grain, and twisting can be catastrophic in larger timbers. It is also extremely difficult to work, more so than most other hardwoods.
      That being said, I have used it for accents such as bracing where the members are not particularly big or long and can be sawn free of heart.
      It’s possible to use it, but one must understand its limitations to avoid disappointment.

  4. Austin Kirkland

    I am about to start a 24X36 barn with apartment over it and have a lot of yellow pine avlible to use and large trees at that would it be a wood to consider. I know it is strong but it dose twist and check with 2 by material but is it okay with those larger timbers like 8X8 and up.

  5. What are your thoughts on using Shagbark Hickory for timbers? It is readily available here in Indiana. It also has a very high modulus of elasticity, but I have heard that it may be targeted by powder post beetle.

    1. Hickory is a really beautiful wood but it is extremely hard and therefore difficult to work with except with power tools. So when using hand tools to fine-tune your joinery it will be hard going. I used a couple of pieces of hickory in my frames and speak from experience. Good luck with your project.

  6. I have 18 acres of a 40 year old red pine plantation and have been told that this is not a good species for framing. Do you have any experience with using red pine or any recommendations on how/if to use it. Thanks for your website and information. It is really good.

    1. While I have never used red pine personally I have heard it being used before from other framers. I would think that it would behave like yellow pine, twisting and checking lot but that is OK. Will ask around and see if I can gather more info for you.

      1. I was thinking of using fresh sawn alder timbers to build a frame for a barn to keep wood in. Good or bad idea?

  7. Hi,
    I am looking at harvesting Ash trees from my property to saw into timbers for our upcoming build. Do you have any tips when it comes to making timber frames from Ash?

    1. Matt I just used white ash to make a timber frame addition and it has worked very well. One advantage is that it grows tall and straight with few knots. I also got some curly grain ash, it worked well and looks great.

  8. Thank you for sharing all the information on Woods. Greatly appreciated. Does redwood 4 X 4 posts work well to support open ceiling beam? Looking for wood that is termite resistant..

  9. Ralph Balltrip II

    Hello
    I didn’t see anybody ask about sycamore trees and their value to timber framing. Their are plenty of large sycamore trees located on our property running along the river. How would this tree do?

    1. Sycamores grain structure is a little different than others in that the fiber cross over each other making it incredibly hard and difficult to work. Also since it usually grows next to water it has a high moisture content so it shrinks and checks a lot as it dries. I would stay clear of it for a timber frame.

  10. linee perroncel

    I am building in southern Vermont. Many beech, birch and maple and some oak. I will be using a chain saw mill to cut posts. None will be exposed. I read above that beech, birch, and maple may not be as rot resistant, however, if any of that variety were to be enclosed, will that be a significant concern? I am also considering staining to seal.
    Any guidance?

    1. You heard right that those species are not rot resistant at all and should be avoided on exterior timber frames with the exception of white oak. However it those timbers are on the interior and are completely protected from the elements then they will work well and look great. I have a couple of maple timbers in my home.

  11. I am considering a timber frame structure and have access to a fairly large stand of aspen trees. Would this be a wood species suitable for use?

  12. I have a lot of Poplar trees on my property and I have been cutting some down to use for a timber framed home, is this a good choice, or what is your thoughts?

    1. Popular is a great stable wood to use. It is not very strong with similar values to white pine. Just something to keep in mind and should not sway your decision. It is a beautiful wood!

  13. I live in south Louisiana so we have a lot of cypress available. Is it suitable for timber framing, also what about checking and twisting.

  14. I’ve heard that long leaf pine is much better for building than the shorter leaf ( needle) species. I wonder if that’s true and how do you know it’s long leaf.
    I’m in the FL panhandle.

  15. Bruce, thanks for the information. We are looking at building a timber frame pool house here in Colorado. As you may know, out west we have a problem with the Pine Bark Beetle that is killing may thousands of trees. I have access to a large number of now dead trees and wondered if you knew of any structural issues with using this wood. The wood is not rotten yet, just dead.
    Thanks!

      1. Is this true for California pine species like lodgepole, ponderosa, and sugar? We have lots of these available to us (small and large diameter, fresh and beetle kill)

        Thanks!

  16. allen crockett

    Surptisingly I have alot of perfectly straight uniform osage orange trees on my property. 16-30″. No limbs for 50 feet. I’ve built bows out of it and understand how strong it is. What do you think about using for timber frames?

  17. I live in California near Buellton and have thousands of coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) trees on my property. Would this be a good species for timber framing? Thanks in advance for your advice.

    1. Live oak is the only oak that I know of that is not suitable for timber framing. You can use it, and it is strong but the grain makes it difficult to work with and it twists and checks more than others.

  18. I am planning on building some timber frame buildings on my property, the largest being a 36x 48 2 story barn. I have quite a bit of pine, poplar and oak on the property. I have windfall pine that I am stripping bark off of as an attempt to have it on hand when I’m ready. What length would you recommend cutting the pine to? I know it depends on structure, but is there a max length?

  19. jim makepeace

    Great info. I felled some good sized linden () on my property here in northern Minnesota last year. It appears to hold a lot of water but otherwise to be straight and quite clear. Would it be suitable to use? Thank you!

  20. Hi Brice,
    My current home (not far from you actually (Mountain Rest)) sit’s on black locust post foundation. I know it’s bug and rot-resistant but how is it to frame with? Just curious because I have lots of red and white oak, poplar and white and yellow pine that I could use.
    Do you do consultations?

  21. Hi Brice,

    I live in Maine – have you had any experience using Hemlock – and what are your general thoughts in using it in TF?

    Thanks!

    1. Matthew Stevens

      Hemlock is great! There are a bunch of those frames around. It is prone to twisting and bowing, but so it oak, just keep it in the back f your head and get some extra timbers.

  22. Hi Brice! I’m in south-central Kentucky with 100+ acres of eastern mixed hardwood forest, getting set up to start logging with my team of Suffolk Punch draft horses, will be using a Norwood chainsaw mill to cut timbers and lumber… planning to use your 14×30 shed plans to build an equipment shed. Lots of species to choose from and all your info given here is really very helpful! I had been told white oak was the only one recommended but now I’m thinking about ash and walnut, too (I’m not interested in selling logs, just building with them). My question for you is, can I mix species? For example, white oak for the posts, ash or walnut for the plates, girts and braces? Thank you for all the great info on this site!

    Kay

    1. I have seven species in my home. It looks great to have some contrasting colors in the timbers. A couple of hundred years ago when they cut a frame, a team would show up on a property and use what was available to them. Think about where they are in the frame, the loads on them and have fun with it.

  23. Thanks Matthew, that’s good to know. I’m kind of in the same boat as those last-century builders; I have structures to build, a woodland to utilize, and my forestry approach is to harvest thoughtfully, culling trees with useable wood and leaving good growers to reach maturity for future projects. Being able to mix species would be awesome. I just wondered if there were any potential drawbacks, such as differences in shrinkage affecting joints. Definitely plan to have fun with this…

  24. I have always been fascinated with timber frame construction and I’m interested in building with timber from my own property. I have red oak, black cherry but, not interested in decimating those species from my 14 acres. In abundance there is a lot of soft maple and hard maple that is straight and ideally at 12″-16″ in diameter at the base. I also have an abundance of sassafras, however not as straight as the maple. My last species in question is pin oak, some very large.
    My first choice would be the soft maple, then sassafras and finally the pin oak.
    Also since I don’t have anywhere to dry the timber I’m interested in 1)green building the timber frame or 2) girdling the selected trees to dry standing.
    Your thought’s please?

    1. Great questions. Using green timbers is the norm, check out our article at https://timberframehq.com/green-vs-dried-timbers/. I would not do the dry standing it dries at a year and inch, think it would be better to cut down the timbers, mill it up oversized and the resaw when you use it. Or just cut it the sizes you are going to use and go from there. Sassafras is great to work with, maple is good but neither is as strong as the pin oak. The oak will move and shrink more than the others.

  25. Hi Matthew,
    As you can tell from my questions, I’m a green horn at this timber framing. So if I target the maple and cut it oversized then resaw when ready to construct, is this process allowing the wood to move and shrink some, then resawing allows one better quality/more manageable timber at the point of construction?
    Are the maple sizes I mentioned ok to use for main columns or only for braces?
    Would you recommend using the Pin Oak or Red Oak for columns or over size the maple to compensate using lesser strength wood?

  26. This isn’t exactly a timber framing question but I’m hoping to get some advice. I’m framing an 8×12 shed to be used as a sauna and I want a nice rustic, woodsy look. I’m considering rough hemlock for the roof and rafters (4x4s and 1” boards). Everything will be covered although the ends of the rafters and boards will be exposed under the overhangs. Any concerns with hemlock for this purpose? Thanks in advance.

    1. No, it sounds like a great choice for you. It is not rot-resistant but it sounds like you are thinking about that in your construction details.

  27. I would like to let you all know there are many species of exotic hardwoods available from the Amazon they are FSC sustainably harvested and are both stronger than Doug Fir or Oak and highly rot resistant and the frames we build and ship to the USA are comparable in price to the higher end Doug fir frames, so you can have the best for the same price as the local species, We can even provide you the timbers to cut your own frame if you prefer.
    The most common species we have are Goncalo Alves (tigerwood), Jatoba, Massaranduba, Curatinga Rosewood, Ipe, Purple Heart, Timbauba, Satinwood, Sucupira, Cumaru and there are many more varieties.
    These species of wood are not only stronger but highly stable and come in many beautiful colors so no stain is required as they are to dense to take a stain anyway.
    I love most all wood and if you have your own trees and a mill its the way to save a lot of money, but having a tigerwood frame with purple heart pegs and ipe or massaranduba braces is a whole new level. As an architect it gives me a broad new pallet to design with.

  28. I too want to build with what’s available on my property. So that will be mostly white spruce. Any troubles with it? I know it checks a lot but strength should be decent enough? I also have what I think is poplar. Or maybe it’s aspen. I don’t know the difference. Either way I may have to mix in a few pieces of it. Any comments on that?

    1. Mixed species are great in my opinion. Both species will work well, do some homework on the strengths of each type and put them in the best spots. You will also get an idea about how that will affect your timber spacing and size.

  29. When trees are cut down for agriculture and construction , what do you do with the trees/ wood that can not be used for housing .? Can any timber be used for housing of furniture ?

    Thank you

    1. Matthew Stevens

      Yes, when I was milling timbers for my house we got equal boards to timber as far as board footage is concerned. This was used as trim, paneling and now furniture in our house.

  30. I have very large white pine logs, many 36″ and more across. Do timbers always have to have the bulls eye-heart in the center? Whats the general rule for this. Thanks!

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