With the recent rise of DIY activity, and the amount of misinformation floating around on social media groups (and in particular, DIY groups) as to the best timber to use for making toys, I think it’s time to do a bit of comparative analysis.
As with anything in life, we select and make choices based on what’s available to us. When talking timber, and also living in Australia, the choice of toy making timber is both varied and plentiful. There are any number of commercially available species, spanning across both hard and softwoods, but the bigger question is, which is better – soft or hard timber?
The common misconception when talking hard versus softwoods, is that all hardwoods are hard, and all softwoods are soft. They’re not. Or at least, not always. The terminology of hard and soft is not only simplistic, it is also misleading.
The words hard and soft in this case are used not to reference the durability of a species but rather, to determine plant reproduction. All trees reproduce by seed, however, it is the seed structure that varies, with such variations being the determinate of hard or softwood.
Hardwood trees are angiosperms. They are plants that produce seeds that have some sort of hard covering. Fruit trees are perfect examples of angiosperms. Their stone fruits especially. The seed is encapsulated within a hard outer shell. Acorns from an oak tree are another good example of an angiosperm.
Conversely, softwoods are gymnosperms. Pine trees (and conifers in general) are perfect examples of softwoods. These plants have seeds that fall to the ground, with no covering encapsulating their seed. Pine cones grow seeds within the cone, with the seeds then later being released when the cone falls. The seeds then either germinate at the point of fall and release, or they become airborne and spread on the wind to then germinate in other far reaching places.
Generally, angiosperm trees are deciduous, meaning they lose their foliage throughout autumn and early winter, with new foliage appearing in early spring. Softwoods on the other hand are (for the most) considered evergreens. They retain their foliage year round.
All that said, the hardwood/softwood terminology does make some sense in that evergreens tend to be less dense than deciduous trees, therefore are easier to machine and in some cases (pine, in particular) accept colour more readily. It is also true that hardwoods tend to be more durable where there exists a need to be mindful as to application, usage and long-term wear.
It is important to also mention that whilst the distinction of hardwood and softwood exist, not all hardwoods are harder than all softwoods.
Take balsa wood for example. It is classified as a hardwood, however, is extremely light and is also quite fragile. Thinner pieces are easily broken with fingers, whilst it also easily dents and is also quite fragile on leading edges. Opposing, some species of pine (Radiata and Jack) whilst classified softwood, are extremely sturdy and durable. Both species are comparative in both weight and janka scale to the European hardwood species used for toy making, and indeed, in many cases are not as brittle therefore do not fracture as easily throughout use.
So what’s the bottom line as to which is better for toy making? The answer to that question is within the desired application. They are two very different class of timber, with two very different structural properties.
What it will almost always come down to is application, cost, and what is available in your area. Here in Australia timbers that are commonly known as blonde (clear, white to cream coloured universally throughout: Beech, Birch, European Lime) are considered exotic timbers. They are difficult to source, and often extremely expensive. In comparison, Australia is one of the top 5 nations for sustainably grown FSC certified plantation pine (Radiata). It is easily obtainable, inexpensive, durable, and comparable for suitable application when considered as an alternative to imported timbers. It is also readily available in linear stock lengths that are ready to use straight off the shelf.
For those on a budget or needing to keep costs at a minimum for independent associated industry, then pine is a logical choice. It is fantastic for all sorts of hand carvings, sculptures, turnings, and furniture making. It machines and glues easily, and if adequately prepared, accepts colour without too much fuss or variation in the final presentation. It is also widely used in the building industry as framing timber, which literally makes it as safe as houses!
If deciding upon species to use for toys such as building blocks and items where durability and strength is a primary consideration, then it is hard to go past Australian Eucalyptus. Tasmanian Oak (a blanket market name for 3 near identical species of eucalypt) is readily available at most big box hardware stores and specialist timber yards.