Hardwood and Softwood Differences and Misconceptions

A common misconception surrounding wood types and their pros and cons is
the notion – understandably so – that hardwood is hard, and softwood is soft. Granted, there is room for their more literal usage, but being that these terms, when used for their taxonomic properties, carry a distinct meaning, it may benefit us to know what it is.

Some common questions regarding these two broad categories of wood, are:

Q: What IS the difference between hardwood trees and softwood trees?

A: The primary and most distinctive difference is that hardwoods are deciduous and softwoods are coniferous or evergreen. Deciduous trees have broad leaves, and are the ones that shed their leaves annually, while

Tall Evergreens

Coniferous trees

coniferous trees have cones and needles, and remain green all year round.

Q: What’s “better”, hardwood or softwood?

A: Good question, and the short answer is that both have unique “brownie points”. And here for the longer answer. Hardwood is generally strong, dense, and hard, and therefore more suitable for furniture. It is also more stable and less prone to warping and shrinkage. On the other hand, softwood is often lighter, cheaper, and easier to work, making it the wood of choice for artistic purposes and projects that require workability and minimal weight.

Q: Does hardwood resist moisture and rot better than softwood?

A: Not necessarily. While you might guess the opposite, softwood such as certain pines and cedars are often the wood of choice where prolonged contact with water is expected. For example, redwood – which is also softwood – is naturally insect resistant, and is often used for outdoor decking and fencing for this reason.

Q: Is all hardwood hard, and all softwood soft?

A: No. Contrary to simple logic, this terminology comes more from a botanical standpoint than a literal one. There are both hardwood that are softer than some softwood, and softwood that are harder than some hardwood. Examples include

Beech trees in Slovenia

A deciduous Beech forest

Balsa, which is a hardwood, but is very soft and light in weight, and therefore used in models.

Yew, which is technically a softwood, is extremely strong, springy, and durable, and is the wood used in the renowned English longbow. Longleaf pines and Douglas firs are another two softwoods that are quite a bit harder than many hardwoods. Generally speaking however, most hardwoods are considerably harder than most softwoods, possibly owing in part to the fact that there are roughly 100 times as many hardwoods as softwoods. – Go figure.

Q: Why is hardwood so expensive?

A: Of the two, hardwood grows slower, and is generally more dense – thus harder. Slow growth equals less product on the market – equals more demand and more cost. Hardness is conducive to the making of furniture and other tools that require material stability and surface hardness – equals more demand and more cost.

Not only does hardwood take longer to grow, but they’re more time-consuming and expensive to process and are therefore less popular than softwoods for many purposes. They are often at the source, considerably less abundant than softwoods, and take significantly longer to grow to useful sizes, so can’t be farmed at the same rate as softwood.

In conclusion

In the end, it would be safe to conclude that both hardwood and softwood have their unique and individually useful properties, and it simply remains the

Softwood timber house-frame

user’s decision which one to use, taking into account the various pros and cons. To summarize, I will list the generally accepted, positive characteristics for both types below. Keep in mind that, as I mentioned above, there are exceptions to these generalized distinctions.

Hardwood: overall material hardness and thus strength and durability; dense and heavy, thus suitable for sturdy, stationary applications such as furniture; exotic grain patterns due to the presence of pores or vessels in their cell-structure; chemically stable and less prone to warping and shrinkage, making it suitable for musical instruments, tools, sports equipment, etc.

Softwood: soft and light, thus better workability; grows fast and is more common, thus cheaper, and more economic to use in large amounts such as in timber housing frames; certain types are naturally resistant against water, moisture, and insect-related rot.

(See my article Grain on Wood and its Effects for additional information.)

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