Hardwood vs Softwood – Reliance Timber’s Guide
From a beautiful, handcrafted dining room table to the walls of your new storage shed, choosing the right kind of wood can affect the outcome of your project. While both types of wood are versatile, durable, and pleasing to the eye, each have their specific use cases. It is helpful to understand the basics of hardwood vs softwood to help you make informed choices when selecting the materials for your project.
With so much in common, you might be wondering what makes these two types of wood different from one another. On the surface, it may seem obvious: softwood is soft, and hardwood is hard. This is (mostly) true! However, it’s a little more complex than just the density of the timber. Below we compare hardwood vs softwood, explain the differences between these two categories, and when and where to use each type.
Essential Differences of Hardwood vs Softwood: Origin
The main difference between hardwood vs softwood lumber is the type of tree from which they originate.
Hardwood comes from angiosperm tress. These trees are primarily deciduous and are found in temperate and tropical forests all over the world. They reproduce with a flowering plant and feature broad, veined leaves that famously turn colors every autumn and fall to the ground. There’s some great trivia for you to remember next time you are raking the leaves in the fall!
Hardwood trees grow very slowly, resulting in wood with complex and dense cellular structure. Because they can take as many as 150 years to reach a mature harvesting age, the timber from these kinds of trees is heavier in weight and very durable. Generally, hardwoods are also more expensive vs. their softwood counterparts.
Examples of hardwood trees include:
By contrast, softwood comes from gymnosperm trees, or conifers. These trees are evergreen, meaning they maintain a mane of green needles year-round. Unlike hardwood trees, which flower every spring, these softwood conifer trees reproduce using seeds. In fact, Gymnosperm is Latin for “naked seed” and, as the name suggests, these seeds grow in the form of cones out on the tree’s branches leaving them exposed to the elements. Gymnosperms use a very efficient method of dispersing their seeds, leaving mother nature to do all of the heavy lifting by spreading the seeds across the land through wind, squirrels, birds, and so on.
Because of their more efficient reproductive method, softwood trees are much more widespread. They also grow much more quickly, taking as little as 40 years to reach a good age for harvest. Due to this faster growth rate softwood is, in general, more readily available and less expensive than hardwood.
Examples of softwood trees include:
The Density of Hardwood vs Softwood
To better understand the key differences between hardwood and softwood, you have to look under the hood a little bit. By examining the cellular structure of each type, you begin to understand why they are so different.
Hardwood cells have what are known as pores, or vessels. These complex structures within the wood give it a denser, heavier quality. The presence of these visible pores also contribute to the woods overall appearance. Hardwood has much more pronounced and distinctive grain patterns than softwoods.
Softwoods lack these visible pores and have a much simpler cellular structure. Making the grain less pronounced and the coloration much lighter.
Because hardwood has a heavier weight, it’s more resistant to dents and scratches. This durability makes hardwood a more suitable choice for construction projects that may sustain damage. For example, cedar is a common choice for floors, chairs, or dining room tables.
Wood coming from a softwood tree produces fine products but may quickly succumb to minor wear and tear. Pine is the softwood most often used for buildings, especially framing a new home.
Softwood trees produce less dense materials, allowing air pockets to form inside. Unfortunately, this makes them more susceptible to burning. The density of hardwood trees has a substance that is less likely to burn; however, if it does ignite, it will burn hotter and longer than softwood.
4 Ways to Identify Hardwood vs Softwood
The easiest way to distinguish hardwood from softwood is to identify the kind of tree the wood came from. However, in the event that the origin of the wood in question is unknown, here are a few things you can look for to determine whether you are looking at hardwood vs softwood:
1. Inspect the Grain
Softwoods do not contain vessels, giving them a softer, less pronounced grain. Hardwoods, on the other hand, are known for their heavy, distinctive grain.
2. Observe the Color
Hardwoods are typically on the darker side compared to softwoods. The cedar we work with comes in pink, brown, and white shades. Other softwood materials range from pink and yellow to white.
3. Test the Hardness
It’s right there in the name, hardwoods are harder than softwoods! In fact, you can even use a thumbnail to make a tiny indentation in the surface of many softwoods. Can’t leave a mark? It might be a hardwood!
4. Feel the Weight
Because of the dense cellular structure, hardwoods are much denser and heaver than softwoods. Pick up the wood you are trying to identify. Does it feel heavier than it should be? It’s probably a hardwood.
Uses of Hardwood vs Softwood
What is hardwood used for?
Solid, durable wood is necessary for structural integrity when building habitable places or creating other projects to last for decades, like heirloom furniture. Hardwoods are more expensive because they are a more complex building material.
- Constructing timber-framed buildings
- Outdoor decks
- High-end furniture
What is softwood used for?
Softwood trees are more versatile to work with, and researchers estimate that about 80% of projects include softwood materials. However, these projects tend to be low-impact. Not only are softwoods easier to work with, but the wood readily accepts paint and stain, too.
- Window frames
- Building fixtures and fittings
- Roof and wall structures
- Props and trusses
- Furniture and cabinet making
Check Out Our Work
You can find Reliance Timber products featured in many notable places throughout the United States. For example, we used a combination of fir and cedar posts and beams on a beautiful lake house for Alan Jackson.
Reliance Timber products also appeared on the History Channel series Mountain Men. Our mill provides tongue and groove, shiplap, and smooth four sides for Eustace Conway and many of his specialized projects, and our experts occasionally appraise his wood furniture.
Contact Reliance Timber if you have questions about hardwoods, softwoods, and which wood is most suitable for your project!