Hardwood vs. Softwood Differences and Uses

Difference between Hardwood vs Softwood
Hardwood and softwood are terms often bandied about, but what do they mean? What is the difference between these two types of wood, and what are their applications?

What is Hardwood?

Hardwood trees are angiosperms or flowering trees. Their seeds are found in the flowers, which require pollination to procreate. These are broadleaved trees, generally found in tropical rainforests or subarctic forests. Those wood species found in the tropics are generally evergreen. In contrast, those found in the colder climates are deciduous, shedding their leaves in winter.

As the name suggests, hardwood timber is, well, hard. In most cases, at least – there are exceptions to this rule. This heavier wood is generally used to produce furniture and other durable, high-quality, and aesthetically pleasing structures. Hardwood trees grow very slowly, which explains why they are so expensive.

Hardwood Trees Examples

Examples of hardwood trees include balsa wood, beech, alder, hickory, mahogany, oak, maple, teak, and walnut.

What is Softwood?

Softwood trees are gymnosperms, meaning that they have “naked” seeds or cones instead of flowers and bulbs. They also generally have needles instead of leaves. These are usually evergreen, quick-growing trees that are easy to cut and machine.

As the name suggests, softwood is softer than hardwood and is often used in construction. Softwood trees grow exceptionally fast, which accounts for their low cost.

Examples of Softwood Trees

The most common examples of softwood trees include cedar, juniper, pine tree, Douglas fir, redwood, yew, and spruce.

Difference Between Hardwood & Softwood

The differences between hardwood and softwood are legion and well categorized. Technically, the difference between the two rests in biology, specifically in reproduction. Practically, however, the differences are tremendous and far-reaching. Here are some of the main differences.

Hardwood vs Softwood Differences

Difference in Reproduction

Hardwood trees are angiosperms. Here, their seeds are housed in fruits or nuts, and that these must mature before the trees can reproduce. Hardwood seeds don’t spread easily, resulting in these trees often growing in clusters.

In contrast, softwood trees have “naked” seeds not contained in any form of housing. These seeds spread quickly and are even released into the wind in the case of conifers. In this manner, softwood seeds spread far and wide, hence the abundance of these trees in certain areas.

Difference in Cell Structure

The difference in cell structure between hardwood and softwood is apparent in the trees’ nature. In hardwood, water and other nutrients are transported throughout the tree in vessel elements. Microscopically, these look like pores. These pores are what lends hardwood its characteristic prominent grain.

On the other hand, softwood uses medullary rays and tracheids to transport water throughout the plant and produce sap. Medullary rays are sheets of “pores” that run perpendicular to the tree’s growth rings, meant to transport nutrients from the tree’s center to the outer regions. Tracheids are specialized cells meant to transport water. They differ from other vessel elements in that they don’t have perforation plates.

When viewed under a microscope, softwood doesn’t have pores and has a much lighter grain than hardwood.

Difference in Characteristics

Hardwood is generally far more durable than softwood since it is physically harder and far denser. Hardwood also has better fire resistance than softwood. As a rule of thumb, increased density gives increased durability. This holds true for resistance to decay as well – hardwood is more suited to outdoor use than softwood since it is more resistant to decay.

Difference in Machining

Hardwood is generally more difficult and time-consuming to machine than softwood. You need tougher tools to cut and drill it.
For instance, you need a special chainsaw chain to cut hardwood tree, and it is better to use a HSS blade HSS or carbide tipped blade when cutting the hard lumber to create wood joints.

Difference in Uses

Hardwood is more expensive and more challenging to work with than softwood. For this reason, it is generally used to produce items that must last be durable and long-lasting. In contrast, softwood is often used to produce temporary structures. Prime examples include props and trusses on a construction site. Time is of the essence here, and items must be produced quickly and inexpensively.

While hardwood is far more common in nature than softwood, its cost and difficulty in machining are prohibitive. Softwood is used in many applications, including paper manufacture, furniture, Christmas trees, wood pellets, firewood, fencing, DIY crafts such as picture frames, and building components, to name a few. Of all softwood types, pine is the most commonly used.

Since solid hardwood lumber is durable and expensive, it is often used to manufacture high-end furniture, flooring, decks, and durable construction. Often, softwood furniture incorporates a hardwood veneer. Here, the furniture looks more expensive than it is, and is also lighter and thus easier to move around.

Softwood vs. Hardwood Floors

While wood flooring applications generally call for softwood, these often have a hardwood veneer on top to create a more durable surface that also looks expensive.

Hardwood floors will last longer and withstand more traffic than softwood flooring. In contrast, softwood floors are more likely to show signs of wear over time than hardwood would. If you have planned to install a wood floor at your home, my recommendation is to go for a hardwood flooring option such as mahogany or oak.

Is softwood harder than hardwood?

Now we get to the exceptions. Generally, softwood is softer than hardwood, except in the case of yew trees and balsa trees. Yew is a softwood tree with relatively hard timber of high density. In contrast, balsa trees are hardwood that is relatively soft and of lower density.

How do you visually identify the difference between softwoods and hardwoods?

The most prominent visual distinction between hardwood and softwood is the grain. Hardwood has a distinct, heavy grain that is clearly seen, while softwood timber has a soft grain that you can hardly see. If you can’t visually distinguish between hardwood and softwood, you might have to get your hands dirty. Hardwood doesn’t dent or chip easily, so if you take a chisel to its surface, you will have difficulty splitting some off. On the other hand, softwood is easily worked, and you will chip chunks off it with minimal effort.

Final Thoughts
Hardwood is beautiful and durable but expensive and difficult to machine. Conversely, softwood is cheaper and easy to work with, and thus far more commonly used than hardwood. While the technical distinction between these two rests on biology, they differ significantly in practical aspects.