The picture framing industry has long sought to provide its customers good value as well as a range of high quality mouldings. To do so, it has sourced wood harvested from a wide variety of trees. Broadly speaking, however, picture frame mouldings can be gathered under two headings: hardwood frames and softwood frames. But as you are about to find out, it's a little more complicated than that.
Hardwood frames and softwood frames. Hmm, this would seem to speak to the fact that one is made of a harder, more difficult to work wood, and the other is more soft and yielding. Well, um… not quite. In fact, the designations don't always have to do with how hard or dense the wood is. For example, balsa wood – wait for it – is a hard wood, as is basswood, one of the most common woods used in making picture frames.
The one thing that all hardwood trees have in common is that their seeds have a covering, like an apple, acorn or walnut. Softwood trees by comparison drop cover-less seeds, like pine trees. Hardwood trees are typically deciduous trees which means they lose their leaves in the winter time. Softwood trees are more commonly evergreens.
While we can say that not all hardwoods are hard and dense, we can also say that the hardest and densest of woods are indeed hardwoods, and this is where the confusion comes in. In picture framing the terms are often used to refer to the workability of the wood rather than the strict designation. So basswood frames are often referred to as softwood frames, as opposed to oak and maple, which are universally acknowledged to be hardwood due to their density and stability.
To confuse matters further, many commercial frame mouldings are made of basswood or ramin – both soft hardwoods – but have a veneer meant to mimic an even harder wood like cherry, walnut or maple. In purchasing a picture frame you will want to stay alert to words like "finish", as in "walnut finish frames". This probably means a ramin frame with a walnut finish.
Hardwoods are generally tough, hard-wearing woods that resist dents and scratches. One way to tell a hardwood moulding from a softwood moulding is to scratch it with your fingernail. If it doesn't scratch easily, it's likely a hardwood.
Hardwoods are thought to be more attractive than softwoods as they have well-defined grain patterns. But truly dense hardwoods like oak, maple, hickory and teak can be a struggle to saw, sand and nail. Softwoods, on the other hand, are much easier to work but are more prone to warping and can ooze sap.
In recent years most commercial picture frame mouldings have been made from soft hardwoods imported from Southeast Asia, specifically Indonesia, where cheap, easy-to-work ramin and basswood are the lumbers of choice. Even when the mouldings are sourced through China, the Chinese are often getting the moulding from Southeast Asia. This is an issue as the Indonesians do not practice sustainability and deforestation is a growing problem in Indonesia.
Recently the furniture and picture framing industries have begun looking to hybrid poplar, grown in North America, made from black cottonwood and eastern cottonwood, for its better sustainability. But this has not yet ramped up.
The most common soft hardwoods used in picture framing are basswood, ramin, obeche and mahogany. The most common dense hardwoods are oak, walnut, cherry and ash. The most common truly soft softwoods are pine, redwood and cedar.
Whichever moulding you choose, remember that the picture framing industry has always endeavored to provide a low cost, easy to work wood that has the beauty and character to enhance fine works of art. In this they have largely succeeded.