Home » Timber Framing 101 – Start Here » Choosing a Timber Species

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 are 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

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 heartwood in the center.

Eastern White Pine

White Pine

Eastern White Pine grows from Minnesota through Newfoundland, and south along the Mississippi basin and the Appalachian Mountains to Georgia and Mississippi. As it is a softwood, 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 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 will 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 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.

Also popular as of late are timber homes built with reclaimed timber. Reclaimed timber is basically used timber taken from unoccupied homes, unused barns, and other old structures. Because reclaimed timber is weathered and shows usage wear, it is favored by those looking for a rustic-looking home. Even though reclaimed timber is beat-up and used, it is just as strong and durable as fresh timber is.

Using Glulams

If you prefer a modern feel over a rustic look, then using laminated woods in the construction of your timber home might be a good bet. Also known as glulam, this type of wood is extremely strong (the strongest of all perhaps) because it is made from only the best lengths of timber. Basically, glulam is a bunch of the best cuts of wood with all of the bad parts taken out (and other good parts glued in their spots). It is also one of the cheapest options that there is. But there is one downfall. Glulam is a bit shiny and “fake” looking, and it can easily be picked out as artificial.

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 kinds of wood will probably be used in the construction of your home, as different wood characteristics are required for various components of the structure.

124 thoughts on “Choosing a Timber Species”

  1. I know you specialize in timber frame. We have several very large long leaf pines. My husband wants to use them for a post and beam backyard pavilion. Is this advisable? If so, how long would they need to season? If now we are going to mill them rough cut to go in the ceiling. Thanks.

  2. Hi Bruce
    I’m in Michigan and I have Jack pine on my property, what’s your thoughts on using them for timber construction? Any information would be appreciated.
    Thanks James Gamble

  3. Graham Linscott

    I have a large stash of 12-14’ white pine that I want to mill for beams without the pith. But, theyre not big enough to get 8×8’s FOHC. They are nice and straight and any knots in them are small. I could get some really nice 4×12’s out of them. Could I use those for my horizontals and rafters. I have a steady supply of ash that I was going to use for my 8×8 posts.

  4. Looking to build in southeast Alaska and have lots of western red cedar and Sitka spruce. Big trees, so beam size isn’t a concern. Not sure what spans these species can do however. Any thoughts or advice?

    1. The western red cedar is not as strong as the spruce. It will really depend on the other loads and rafter spacing for the size of the beams. What are you planning on building?

  5. I currently have a lot of yellow poplar and sweet gum logs at my mill. Would either of these species work for timber frame construction?

  6. Brice, my hope is to be able to build a 24×40 foot home. What is in my head is something with a greatroom /living room at the front that would be a 16 x 24 space. Behind that be two stories with first floor ceiling of 9-10 feet and walls in the upstairs of six feet to the start of the roofline. Your 24×36 Barn Home Plan looks to be similar, but without the greatroom.

  7. Okay, so now I’m confused about how to best mill timbers out of a log. In other things that I read, boxed heart timbers seem to be preferred and considered most desirable. However, in this post everyone is stressing FOHC. I’m sort of getting the idea that either of these methods is good and the main thing is to make sure that the pith is either fully contained in the timber or stay free of it altogether. You don’t want the heart either running along the side of your timber or weaving in and out along the length. Does that sound right?

    My issue with trying to cut FOHC timbers is the size of the log you would need to begin with. For example, to cut an 8×8 FOHC post you would probably need what, a 30″ diameter log? Whereas you could get an 8×8 boxed heart out of maybe a 12″ tree if it was straight enough?

    Am I all wet?

    1. It takes a big tree to get FOHC timbers. In the US Doug fir it about the only for all sizes of timbers. Boxed Heart will work great and most timber frame are made with these types of timbers. The reason that FOHC may be a bit better is that a Boxed Heart timber has the youngest part of the tree in it. When a tree is young environmental factors come into play and can cause the most damage to it and cause bows and twists in the timber that a more mature tree will not have, outside of the heart.

  8. Hello, and thank you for your time posting content like this. Very helpful for a novice like me.

    I was wondering if you have had experience timber framing with red pine? I’m having trouble sourcing white pine in my area (Duluth, MN), however, red pine is available in abundance.

    I’ve read mixed reviews so far. According to a couple forums it looked like some people in my area (great lakes area) had better luck with red pine than folks out on the east/west coasts.

    Also, if red pine is not a good option for me are there any alternate species I should be looking for?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top