Two categories quickly emerge when discussing wood: hardwood vs softwood. These terms go beyond just descriptions of their density. Instead, the terms hardwood and softwood represent distinct botanical categories and represent many distinct qualities and differences between the species. Understanding the distinctions between hardwoods and softwoods allows builders and DIYers to take into account all of the unique qualities of each type to make the best choices for wood for their projects.
What is Hardwood vs. Softwood?
Hardwood and softwood make up the two broad categories of wood types, though the descriptive term is misleading as some softwood is harder than some hardwoods. Yet these terms have been accepted terms in woodworking and construction for many years and relate more than the density of the wood type. Rather, these are shorthand terms that denote the botanical origin of the tree, the growth patterns, and other fundamental characteristics that embody each type.
Differences Between Hardwood vs Softwood
Hardwood and softwood are general classifications used to categorize types of trees regarding their density, growth patterns, and applications.
- Hardwoods: Hardwoods are a tree type that is derived from angiosperm trees. These types of trees bear flowers and have enclosed seeds.
- Softwoods: Softwood varieties come from gymnosperm trees. These trees are cone-bearing rather than flower-bearing.
Density and Hardness
- Hardwoods: Hardwoods are denser and more solid than softwoods. This density is due to their complex cell structure that is made up of pores and vessels. This structure contributes to hardwood’s strength and durability and its greater resistance to moisture.
- Softwoods: In general, softwoods are softer and less dense than hardwoods, though this is not true in every case. Softwoods have a simple cell structure that contains fibers rather than vessels. This makes them lighter and less resistant to wear.
- Hardwoods: Hardwoods have a wider range of colors and grain patterns than softwoods. Many exhibit prominent grain patterns, which contribute to their aesthetic appeal. The colors of hardwoods range from pale yellow to dark, rich browns.
- Softwoods: Softwoods have a light color and uniform appearance. In general, they have a fine and straight grain pattern, although some softwoods like cedar may present more unique grain patterns.
Growth and Availability
- Hardwoods: Hardwoods grow much more slowly than hardwoods which causes them a longer time to reach maturity. Most hardwoods come from deciduous forests in temperate regions, though some exotic hardwood species come from tropical regions.
- Softwoods: Softwoods grow faster, so these species are much quicker to gain maturity. Softwood species are abundant and available in many regions and climate zones.
- Hardwoods: Woodcrafters and builders value hardwoods for their dense structure which gives them strength and durability to resist wear and tear. They use hardwoods for floors, cabinetry, fine furniture, and musical instruments.
- Softwoods: Builders also use softwoods throughout the construction process because of their wide availability and lower price. In fact, pine is the most used wood for home framing. Softwood is also widely used in the production of other manufacturing materials like plywood and particleboard.
Should You Use Hardwood or Softwood?
The choice of hardwood vs softwood depends on your project as both have advantages and disadvantages depending on the application. Ultimately, the type of wood you choose will depend on the application, your budget, the location of the project, and the durability and strength it requires. Here are some advantages of each type which can help you decide between them.
- Strength and Durability – Hardwoods have a definite advantage over softwoods if your project requires significant strength and durability. Most craftsmen prefer using hardwood for fine furniture and cabinetry projects.
- Aesthetic Appeal – Many people like the varied colors and wood grains that hardwoods provide. The look of the wood is most important when your project is not covered with paint but with a clear varnish or other top coat.
- Resilience – The denser structure of hardwood means that it is more resistant to scratching and dents.
- Stability – Hardwoods are also more structurally stable, so they will not crack, warp, or bend, even when exposed to moisture as most softwoods.
- Fire Resistance – The dense structure of hardwood makes them more fire-resistant than softwoods.
- Availability and Cost – Softwoods grow faster, so they are more abundant than most hardwood varieties. This helps to drive down the price for softwoods, so they are generally more available and less expensive than hardwoods.
- Workability – Softwoods are less dense, so they are easier to cut and form than hardwoods. This helps to increase the longevity of your expensive tools like saws and sanders.
- Weight – Softwoods are lighter than most hardwoods because of their porous structure, so if you are transporting the wood and weight is an issue, softwoods have an advantage.