Hardwood vs. Softwood: What Are The Differences?


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In the world of woodworking, there are two main types of wood hardwood and softwood. Sometimes, knowing the difference between the two can be confusing. Still, in this post, we attempt to clarify any misconceptions you might have regarding the difference between these two types of wood.

You may wonder what the different types of wood could be in these two separate categories. To settle your mind, we provide you with some good examples of softwood as well as hardwood. What are the various uses of each group of wood? We also briefly touch upon the applications of each type of wood. Let’s start with a brief look at the two different types of wood in our discussion of hardwood vs. softwood.

Hardwood Vs. Softwood

Hardwood table
Hardwood table (Image: Indo Gemstone IndoGemstone)

When we think about hardwood, we think of hard and dense material. Similarly, we expect softwood to be soft and light. There are some hard softwoods as well as soft hardwoods. Depending on the type of your project, you may need either or both of the different kinds of wood.

So, what is it that distinguishes between the two different types of wood? We can best describe the distinguishing characteristics between the two types of wood by their botanical reproduction rather than by their end-use.

Hardwood originates from deciduous trees that shed leaves during winter. On the other hand, softwood comes from coniferous trees, which we call evergreens. These trees will not shed their leaves during winter, and they bear cones or uncovered seeds that fall to the ground and germinate. Hardwood trees take a longer time to grow than softwood trees.

Botanical Difference Between Hardwood and Softwood

Gymnosperms and Angiosperms
Gymnosperms and Angiosperms (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Coming to the reproductive description in botanical terms, softwood trees are gymnosperms, whereas hardwood trees are angiosperms. The seeds of hardwood trees will have a shell or a fruit.

The flowers of hardwood trees need insects and birds to pollinate them for them to be fertilized so that they can bear fruit. The naked seeds drop to the ground or get carried by the wind to germinate at different locations. Hence, we see that the pollination process in hardwood trees is more complicated than that of the softwood variety.

In general terms, the names hardwood and softwood do make sense to some extent. Evergreen trees yield softwood, which is easier to cut and work with, whereas deciduous hardwood trees are denser, sturdier, and relatively more difficult to work with. Hardwoods also attend to split when you drive in a nail, which is not the case with softwoods.

For a better understanding of the difference between hardwood and softwood, you can refer to the table below:

S.No Hardwood Softwood
1 Comes from deciduous trees Comes from evergreen trees
2 It is an angiosperm It is a gymnosperm
3 Rough texture Smooth to the touch
4 Contains wood fibers Does not contain wood fibers
5 Structure contains vessels Structure does not contain vessels
6 Vessels make hardwood porous It is non-porous because vessels are absent
7 Tracheid content is less Tracheid content is more
8 Complex anatomical structure Simple anatomical structure
9 Some hardwoods are unsuitable for furniture All softwoods are suitable for furniture
10 Hard, dense and heavy Soft and light

 

By now, it should be clear to you about the difference between hardwood and softwood. Next, we take a look at some examples of each of these two types of wood:

Types of Softwood

Cedar

Cedar wood
Cedar wood (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The reason why we have included this wood in our list of softwoods is that people tend to consider cedar as hardwood, but no, it is a softwood. This wood has a soft red-brown coloration with a fine, straight grain and a smattering of knots. This wood has a fair degree of resistance to rot and gives off a pleasant natural aroma. We use this wood for construction and outdoor structures, as well as making boats. Cedar also serves quite well for making furniture.

Pinewood

Pinewood
Pinewood (Image: decar66)

Pinewood is one of the better-known varieties of softwood. You can cut it and shape it easily. The pale-yellow color of pinewood is pleasing to the eye, and it emits a pleasant aroma. This wood is one of the cheaper varieties, and it is readily available all over the United States and indeed across the world. We use pinewood for making furniture, shelves, and outdoor wooden structures and a variety of wooden items. If left on its own, this wood looks good, but it also takes stain and varnish very well.

Douglas Fir

Douglas Fir wood
Douglas Fir wood (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Douglas fir Is another softwood that plays a vital role in making furniture and several other wooden items. You may not find this wood as readily as pinewood as it mostly comes only from the West Coast or Eastern Asia. You can buy this wood at various places across the US. It is hard and durable and plays a prominent role in construction material.

Spruce

Spruce logs
Spruce logs (Image: aka CJ)

Also known as red fir, spruce was called fir before the botanical classification of this tree came into existence. It is a native to Europe, specifically Germany, but it is readily available across the US today. A light and softwood but very strong, it possesses high elasticity and is quite resistant to shrinkage.

Although it has a low level of natural durability, applying a coating of paint or varnish will enhance its durability. Spruce responds well to hand tools and machines, and you can easily file, plane, drill, and saw it. Spruce plays a prominent role in making furniture, manufacturing composite materials, and building and construction. The Flyer, the first aircraft in the world built by the Wright brothers was made from spruce.

Redwood

Redwood tree
Redwood tree (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Redwood lost its popularity due to overlogging, but now the situation seems to be under control, and it is readily available again. Although this wood is expensive, the color and texture and make it suitable for all types of wooden items and structures. It also has a high degree of climate durability. Because it is so durable in extreme climates, it is much sought-after for outdoor furniture. However, redwood tends to get dented and scratched easily, so you would do well to apply a sealant after sanding it down. Redwood also gives off its red color; hence you need to take adequate precautions if you make furniture with this wood.

Types of Hardwood

Bamboo

Bamboo wood texture
Bamboo wood texture (Image: Ray Villalobos)

You might be wondering why we included bamboo under the category of hardwood. Technically bamboo isn’t hardwood. It isn’t a wood at all – it’s a type of grass. However, we install bamboo in a similar procedure to that of hardwood flooring. When compressed into tiles, it behaves just like hardwood and also is as easy to maintain. In flooring, bamboo is as hard if not harder than even the hardest types of hardwood.

Maple

Maple Wood
Maple Wood (Image: HRYMX)

Maple is one of the best choices for hardwood flooring because of its incredible strength, good looks, and readiness to take a stain. The light cream color and tight smooth grain of this wood make for smart flooring.

We get several types of maple worldwide; however, the most prominent variety is the sugar maple, also known as rock maple or hard maple. We get sugar maple from Vermont, North America, and Canada. Although fashionable in flooring, maple is also the preferred choice for a lot of furniture and other woodwork items.

Cherry

Cherry Wood
Cherry Wood (Image: CG Masters)

Cherry wood is one of the most popular types of wood in the US.  It is a fruitwood that comes from the cherry tree. People favor this wood due to its good looks and high level of durability. It has a wide variety of colors, from red and white to yellow and dark brown. While the heartwood is a deep, reddish-brown, the lighter parts of the wood provide striking contrasting colors.

Cherry wood exhibits a smooth, satiny sheen and responds well to machining, planing, and sanding. It also takes stain and varnish very well. Furniture made from Cherry wood is trendy and is almost like a fashion statement.

Hickory

Hickory
Hickory wood (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Being a lighter wood, hickory is mostly white to cream-colored. However, the heartwood tends to be darker and can have a tan to reddish-brown color. Because of this extreme color difference, you can identify hickory quite easily. It is a hard and shock-resistant wood, but flexible, and has a rough, straight grain. Due to its hardness, you will find that you have to sharpen your tools frequently while working on hickory. With a bit of careful handling, you can get a lustrous finish on this wood.

White Oak

White Oak wood
White Oak wood (Image: Alsatian)

White oak grows mostly throughout the Eastern United States. There are at least eight commercial varieties of white oak. This light-colored wood makes it highly sought-after. It is easy to machine and to drive nails and screws into this wood. It reacts with iron; therefore, you should use galvanized fasteners. White oak is another wood that enjoys wide popularity for making furniture and structural parts of buildings.

Conclusion

By now, you should be aware of the difference between hardwood and softwood and the various uses of each type, from our discussions here. We can conclude that hardwood work is by far the most popular and widely-available wood out of the two types. However, this is not to say that softwood does not have its uses. Softwood finds several uses for the different types of applications that we have discussed.

As a woodworker, you will find that knowing the difference between hardwood and softwood is more of an academic fact than serving any particular purpose. It is useful to know the difference between both types of wood. In the discussion of hardwood vs. softwood, we hope that you have got some helpful information regarding the two types of wood. This knowledge should be of great help to you while procuring wood for your various woodworking projects. Happy woodworking!

 

Featured Image by PKivireki