The difference between hardwood and softwood is not as obvious as one would think. The implication is that one is hard and, therefore, more durable and desirable than the soft and seemingly breakable option. However, durability looks a little different when deciding which type of wood to use, so it’s important to understand your needs before selecting.
The Difference Between Hardwood and Softwood
Each of these woods come from a different type of tree. Hardwood timber comes from deciduous trees, like beech, blackwood, oak, hickory, mahogany, maple, teak, and walnut. These are trees that lose their leaves and grow more slowly. Their slow growth is what makes hardwood a more expensive option. When cut, you can see the grain is tighter and more uniform, making the trunks especially dense.
The family of tree from which we get softwood is gymnosperm, or conifer. They don’t lose their leaves, which is why they’re dubbed evergreens, and are easier to detect by the average outdoors person. Conifers grow quickly — a plot could be cleared and regenerated within ten years — and are viewed as more sustainable. Pine, redwood, cypress, douglas fit, cedar, and spruce are examples of conifers. They’re easier to cut because the trunks are less dense and their grain is wider, more knotted and inconsistent than a hardwood tree.
Uses For Hardwood And Softwood
The density and grain of each wood determine their best uses. You might think, because hardwood is denser and sturdier, it’s better for framing a building. However, its density is what makes it less than ideal to use in these projects. Driving a nail into a hardwood usually causes it to split, rendering it useless. Instead, you would need to pre-drill a hole to then screw a fasten a piece of hardwood. This takes great time and care and, often, time is not something that can be wasted in a construction process.
Alternatively, softwood is more pliable and forgiving. Its wide grain takes to a nail gun without compromising its integrity. It’s most often used as framing lumber, for studs, joints, and beams. On the exterior of a wall, it’s used for molding and framing windows and doors. But because it is less dense, it’s better used on pieces that are less trafficked — a door, for instance, or as trim or non-weight-bearing furniture. Softwood is also engineered to make medium density fiberboard (MDF), which is often used to supplement hardwood in furniture.
Hardwood’s durability and strength make it a good option for indoor and outdoor projects, like flooring, outdoor paneling, or a deck. It can be harder to work with, but it is also less affected by seasonal changes, so it’s less likely to warp or expand and contract, and is more fire resistant. As a result, hardwood is a better fit for high end furniture, especially dining tables that take considerable wear. The timber’s high-density also takes to stains better than a softwood, whose porousness leads to uneven and blotchy finishes if not primed properly.
Cost is usually the most significant factor in making construction decisions, but upfront cost must be considered in light of the product most likely to endure. Using a softwood for flooring in your home, for example, might make a renovation less expensive at first. But you’ll find the floor needs replacing more often than if you used hardwood. So, when choosing a wood, consider its lifespan and the best uses for it alongside upfront costs.