The softwood that's not just for framing anymore.
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Thriving in the deep, damp forests of the Pacific Northwest, western hemlock rivals Douglas fir as preferred construction lumber. Yet in its beauty, this tree ranks ahead of all other conifers. Western hemlock is a dignified tree. It grandly stands with pendulous branches and fronds of flat needles that provide it with a deep-green, lace-like coat. Although known in the past primarily as a construction species, western hemlock has developed new admirers. Called a "white" wood in the industry, it resembles pine. But planing and sanding bring out an enhancing luster. That's why it now draws more notice as paneling, doors, flooring, even cabinets and furniture.

Wood identification

(Tsuga heterophylla) has three American relatives. Of them, only eastern hemlock has commercial importance. In North America, the greatest quantity of western hemlock grows in the coastal rain forests of Alaska and British Columbia, followed by Washington and Oregon. But you'll find it nearly to San Francisco on the south and east into Idaho and Montana. Where it grows heaviest, trees may reach 200' heights with diameters of 8'. Mammoths such as these may be nearly 500 years old. With a narrow, pyramid-shaped crown and an almost taperless trunk covered by deeply furrowed, russet-brown bark, western hemlock stands out. Its flat, dark green, and glossy needles dotted by short cones make it easy to identify. Western hemlock's wood ranges from creamy white to yellowish brown. It weighs about 29 pounds per cubic foot air-dry. The wood also is hard, strong, straight-grained, fine-textured, and nonresinous.


Uses in woodworking

Except for the heaviest construction, western hemlock always has been a mainstay for framing lumber because it firmly holds nails and screws. The wood has a reputation for termite resistance, too. If used outdoors untreated or unfinished, it will decay. Western hemlock's attractiveness, good machining and finishing qualities, plus wear-resistance, make it ideal for staircase components, doors, windows, and other millwork. The availability of clear, straight boards has brought it into the shops of cabinetmakers.


Wood-products producers market western hemlock with White fir, Grand fir, Noble fir, and other firs that have identical working, appearance, and performance characteristics and call the lumber HEM-FIR. If you live in the West, your chances of buying pure hemlock substantially increase. You'll want the clearest wood for furniture and cabinets: B & BTR SEL, C SEL, D SEL (Western Wood Products Assoc., USA finish grades) or Canadian grades No. 2 CLR & BTR, No. 3 CLR, and No. 4 CLR. For the lowest moisture content, demand boards dried to 15 percent ("MC 15" in the trade). Your cost should be about $1 or less per board foot. You won't find western hemlock finish- or appearance-grade boards kiln-dried to anything less than about 12 percent. That's typical for western softwoods. That doesn't mean that the wood can't be used for cabinets and furniture, though. But you'll have to acclimate the wood in your home for a week or so to stabilize it. Then, keep the following advice in mind when working your chosen wood.


Machining methods

Western hemlock is considerably harder than its eastern relative, yet you won't have difficulty working it with hand tools.

  • Beware cutting any wood that includes knots, however. They tend to be brittle and break easily. Your best bet: Lay out the work to avoid them, or keep them toward the inside of your cuts.
  • Sometimes, you can't avoid machining stock with knots, so you treat them tenderly. In thicknessing, for instance, use sharp knives and reduce the cut to Î" or less. On the jointer, also minimize the cut, and drastically reduce the feed rate at knots.
  • Western hemlock, unlike Douglas fir, won't easily splinter or tear out when crosscut or otherwise machined across the grain. Still, for the cleanest cuts, keep a backing board in place.
  • Plan on drilling pilot holes for screws in western hemlock. And if you're going to nail near the ends of a board, predrill.
  • Because this wood is for all purposes resinless, you won't have to seal knots with shellac to prevent bleed-through. You should, however, seal or condition flat-sawn wood before staining, That's because western hemlock when flat-sawn displays a growth-ring pattern of hard-then-soft that fights even staining.
  • To preserve hemlock's natural light color, think about using a water-based clear finish. It won't yellow as easily as a traditional lacquer or varnish.

Carving comments

  • There's little difference in actual hardness between western hemlock's earlywood and latewood, resulting in an even texture that takes detail.
  • Use stop cuts or this straight-grained stock may trick you into taking off more than you want to.

Turning tips

On the lathe, western hemlock becomes a turner's dream. It has no resin, no odor, and doesn't impart taste. Use it for anything from chair legs to egg cups!

Shop-Tested Techniques

Any exceptions pertaining to this issue's featured wood species appear under bold-faced headings elsewhere on this page.

  • For stability in use, always work wood with a maximum moisture content of 8 percent.
  • Feed straight-grained wood into planer knives at a 90° angle. To avoid tearing, feed figured or twisted grain at a slight angle (about 15°), and take shallow cuts of about 132 "
  • For clean cuts, rip with a rip-profile blade having 24-32 teeth. Smooth crosscutting requires at least a 40-tooth blade.
  • Avoid using standard twist-drill bits. They tend to wander in the wood and cause breakout. Use brad-point bits and a backing board under the workpiece.
  • Rout with sharp, preferably carbide-tipped, bits and take shallow passes to avoid burning.
  • Carving softwoods generally means fairly steep gouge bevels-20° or more-and usually deeper cuts.