Is Cottonwood a Hardwood? Is it the Lightest Wood?

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In the world of woodworking, cottonwood is often misunderstood when it comes to its classification and application. Many woodworkers are uncertain about whether it’s a hardwood or softwood and how it performs in various projects. 

In this guide, I’ll clarify the classification of cottonwood and explore its characteristics, shedding light on its suitability for woodworking applications.

How Hard Is Cottonwood?

Cottonwood has a Janka hardness of 430 lbf (1,913N). It is considered a hardwood but it’s relatively softer compared to other wood species in this classification, which makes it easier to cut and shape.

Unlike other hardwoods, you can work easily with this wood using a few hand or power tools. 

However, as a soft hardwood, cottonwood does not offer good shock resistance, so avoid using this wood for woodworking requiring good flexibility, including bending and compression.

cotton wood log

For a complete comparison of cottonwood with other wood species, particularly with other hardwood lumber, here is our list of their hardness value.

Wood Species

Janka Hardness value

American Beech

1,300 lbf (5,800 N)

Ash (White)

1,320 lbf (5,900 N)

Aspen

350 lbf (1,557 N)

Basswood

410 lbf (1,823 N)

Black Cherry, Imbuia

950 lbf (4,200 N)

Black Walnut, North American Walnut

1,010 lbf (4,500 N)

Black Spruce

520 lbf (2,313 N)

Brazilian Cherry, Jatoba

2,350 lbf (10,500 N)

Brazilian Walnut

3,684 lbf (16,390 N)

Cherry

995 lbf (4,430 N)

Cottonwood

430 lbf (1,913 N)

Cypress

510 lbf (2,269 N)

Douglas Fir

710 lbf (3,158 N)

Engelmann Spruce

390 lbf (1,735 N)

Golden Teak

2,330 lbf (10,400 N)

Hard Maple, Sugar Maple

1,450 lbf (6,400 N)

Hemlock

540 lbf (2,402 N)

Hickory, Pecan, Satinwood

1,820 lbf (8,100 N)

Red Mahogany, Turpentine

2,697 lbf (12,000 N)

Red Maple

950 lbf (4,200 N)

Red Oak (Northern)

1,290 lbf (5,700 N)

Redwood

420 lbf (1,868 N)

Silver Maple

700 lbf (3,100 N)

Sugar Pine

380 lbf (1,690 N)

Teak

1,155 lbf (5,140 N)

White Cedar

320 lbf (1,423 N)

White Oak

1,360 lbf (6,000 N)

White Pine

380 lbf (1,690 N)

Yellow Birch / Baltic birch

1,260 lbf (5,600 N)

Cottonwood is not bad for furniture-making and shelving compared with pine, redwood, oak, walnut, and other hardwoods. It is part of the Salicaceae tree family, closely related to poplars, aspen, and willow trees.

It is hard as basswood and aspen but softer than poplar and maple wood, causing it ideal for your firewood due to its heat resistance.

Key Characteristics of Cottonwood

cotton wood slab

Most of the 25 species of cottonwood thrive in the United States, which requires moist, well-drained soil along rivers or any waterways. It grows 5 feet per year for 25 years, so you could expect a 150 feet cottonwood tall for a 125-years tree.

You can recognize it by its thick and deeply gray bark. Its trunk has a diameter of seven to eight feet.

As cottonwood grows, it develops a close-grained heartwood with a light to darker brown color. You can also observe purple or grayish streaks on its interlocking grain pattern while you can see a unique creamy white sapwood.

It resists splitting when nailing and screwing at the end of the wood. Also, the surface of cottonwood ensures a good hold on paints, creating a natural luster look for your outdoor and indoor furniture.

The wood pores of cottonwood are considered diffuse-porous woods, which makes its wood fibers fuzzy. The fuzziness makes cottonwood less desirable for wood projects. Moreover, you will need a sharpened tool to create a piece with a fuzz-free surface.

preparing cotton wood slab

While cottonwood is a viable option for furniture making, it is essential to be mindful of its durability. This wood is considered to have low Janka hardness, indicating relatively low density and hardness compared to other woods commonly used in furniture construction.

If you consider using cottonwood outdoors, hold it for a while because it is prone to harsh elements, including insect attacks and extreme weather conditions. This resulted in the wood cracking and splitting easily, particularly under quick exposure to extreme heat [1].

Therefore, properly finish cottonwood using high-quality stain, paint, or oil-based finishers and a quality seal to restore your wood. You should consider using Tung or Danish oil to protect your wood.

Here are the critical characteristics of cottonwood for your woodworking project:

Pros And Cons Of Cottonwood

measuring cotton wood

What I Like

What i don't Like

Uses of Cottonwood

Cottonwood has many uses but is not limited to making boxes and crates. You can also do small-scale wood projects due to cottonwood’s fairly low density and hardness.

Such wood project is paper or shipping labels and logos due to cottonwood’s capability of holding printing inks better than other woods. Making cottonwood veneer for utility and low-priced furniture also became popular.

But other lumber from cottonwood trees ends up as berry and fruit baskets and boxes. While other uses for cottonwood add up in making perfect children’s toys and games since it is a non-toxic wood.

clamping cotton wood

Furthermore, due to its status as a soft hardwood, cottonwood is highly favored among woodcarvers. It offers an economical alternative to basswood, making it an attractive choice for carving enthusiasts. 

Cottonwood’s versatility extends to various small-scale woodworking projects, including the crafting of cupboards, doors, windows, panels, plywood, flooring, and decking, provided proper finishing techniques are applied.

Strength of Cottonwood

The strength of cottonwood compliments its weight, limiting the use of cottonwood in your woodworking. But a good ratio of strength and weight gives the wood stability.

Combining the 33.854 Mpsi compressive strength and 9,466 Mpsi bending strength of cottonwood, your cottonwood projects can absorb certain shocks and be bent. 

However, because it is a soft hardwood, you cannot use it for residential frames, support, and other construction-type projects. 

Its compressional and bending strengths cannot hold intense shock. You can also observe that the moisture content of this wood is 12%, higher than the average moisture content.

sketching cotton wood

Can You Split Cottonwood Easily?

Different variables can cause the splitting of cottonwood, but overall, cottonwood offers good resistance to splitting easily. This is because of the interlocked grain patterns that you could have seen.

Cottonwood is a hardwood that most woodworkers prefer this wood as firewood as it takes some time to split through heated. When this wood is properly dry, it will not crack or split quickly.

You can also prevent splitting when nailing close to the wood end. If you use it as a cutting board because it’s food safe, limit applying pressure with your knife. Cottonwood cannot stand sharp knives, but you must use sharp woodworking tools when wood carving this wood.

Otherwise, you will also end up splitting cottonwood because this wood differs from pine, oak, redwood, and mahogany regarding strength and durability.

The Hardness of Cottonwood vs Pine

pine wood texture

Cottonwood, as a soft hardwood, has nearly similar to the hardness of softwood such as pine.

Type of Wood

Janka Hardness Value

Yellow Pine

870 lbf

Cottonwood

430 lbf

Sugar/ White Pine

380 lbf

Depending on pine species, you can observe that White and Sugar pine offer 380 lbf, lesser than cottonwood. But Yellow pine has 870 lbf Janka hardness, making it harder than cottonwood.

But the real difference between pine and cottonwood is the wood density. Cottonwood claims to be denser than pine, making the latter lighter and burning more quickly.

Cottonwood can be hardly dented than other varieties of pine, ensuring applying a proper stain or paint. Its wood fibers are less porous than pine, making it more resistant to water and moisture.

You might be interested in: Is Elm Wood Good for Furniture?

Cottonwood vs Redwood's Hardness

hand planning red oak wood

In terms of hardness, cottonwood can be compared to redwood, as both woods exhibit strength and durability suitable for various woodworking projects, in addition to pine.

Type of Wood

Janka Hardness Value

Cottonwood

430 lbf

Redwood

420 lbf

Although redwood is softwood and cottonwood is hardwood, these woods are exceptional for small-scale woodworking projects. These woods have good strength-to-weight- ratios which are essential to identify the proper use of each wood.

But cottonwood is a bit tougher than redwood, making it more versatile.

Read Next: Is Hickory a Hardwood?

Conclusion

Cottonwood is a hardwood that offers excellent workability, making it a versatile choice for woodworking projects. It’s non-toxic and lightweight, providing woodworkers with numerous options and benefits for their projects.

Robert Johnson is a passionate furniture maker & carpenter, sought after for his knowledge on the craft.
You've probably seen his down-to-earth wisdom in USA Today, Bobvila, Family Handyman, and The Spruce, where he has shared commentary and guidance on various woodworking topics.

Robert is the brain behind Sawinery, where he aims to share tips, tricks, and a passion for all things carpentry.
Robert Johnson

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