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Hardwood vs. Softwood: Which Wood is Best for Which Uses


Whether you are a large-scale furniture manufacturer, a home building contractor, or a DIY woodworker, your choice of wood is essential to making the most out of your work. With the right choice of wood, you can achieve the look, feel, longevity, and durability requirements of each particular project. However, you also need to consider the cost of the wood you select. When considering price, you may ask yourself if using a pricey hardwood is worth it for a part of your project that will not show.  Or is it worth it to increase the strength and durability even if it comes with a heftier price tag?  Let’s explore a few different wood types and their uses so that you can make the best decision for both your project and your wallet. 

Hardwoods vs. Softwoods: What Makes Them Different?

Hardwoods vs. Softwoods: What Makes Them Different?

The classification of woods between hardwoods and softwoods has more to do with the types of trees they came than it does their actual hardness. While attributes such as hardness and density are more in common in varieties of hardwood, there are some exceptions. 

Hardwoods vs. Softwoods: What Makes Them Different?

Oak Tree and Lumber

What is Hardwood?

Hardwoods usually come from trees classified as “angiosperms.” These trees are also known as blooming trees and have seeds that are found in flowers or fruit. They typically have broad leaves such as those from maple and oak found domestically or cumaru and ipe found in the tropics. Hardwood trees can also be classified as deciduous, meaning their leaves change color in the fall. They also take longer to grow than softwood trees.

Density and Durability

A cubic foot of oak weighs approximately 40 pounds, which is much heavier than a cubic foot of pine which weighs around 25 pounds. When it comes to woodworking, density usually correlates to a type of wood being more durable, hard, and strong. It is important to note that in hardwoods, density does not mean that a wood species lacks pores. Hardwoods use vessel elements to transport water throughout the wood, which appear as pores when seen under the microscope. These pores give the hardwood its more prominent grain compared to softwoods. However, the material between pores in hardwoods is more solid than in softwoods, giving hardwoods more material per any given volume than softwoods.

Examples of Hardwoods and Their Uses

Hardwoods are more suitable for exterior uses than softwoods. Being harder and more durable, hardwoods tend to have overall better weatherability and carry more weight. Because of their resistance to dents, scratches, and divots, hardwoods are more suitable for woodworking projects that must withstand abuse, such as flooring, decking, and outdoor furniture. Some hardwoods are resistant to insects because of the natural oil they secrete, while their hardness and density make them more fire-resistant than their softer counterparts. They have fewer air pockets inside their wood fibers, making them ideal materials for siding for your home. 

White Oak

Beautiful, robust, and easy to work with, white oak is widely used in furniture making, cabinetry, flooring, and decking applications. White oak has outstanding water resistance making it a preferred material for house sidings and boatmaking. It is widely available in North America and is an economical choice.

Red Oak

Red Oak is even more widely available than white oak. Hence it is one of the most popular hardwood choices in the United States. Red oak is moderately priced, strong, and beautiful. It is an outstanding choice for flooring, cabinetry, and indoor furniture.

Hard Maple

Also known as sugar maple, its tree is the source of maple syrup. Hard maple is more robust, stiffer, harder, and denser than most hardwoods. Its resistance to dents makes it an ideal butcher block and cutting board material. It is a preferred flooring material for bowling alleys and basketball hardwood courts.

Hickory

Hickory is one of the stiffest and densest hardwoods available in the United States. Because of its density, hickory is tough to work with. However, if you are looking for hardwood for applications requiring shock resistance and superior strength, then hickory is excellent. It is a traditionally preferred material for cart spokes, flooring, tool and golf club handles, and walking sticks.

Ipe

Dark, tough, and extremely dense, it is almost indistinguishable from the exotic hardwood, cumaru. Like hickory, it is an excellent material for uses that require shock resistance, such as tool handles, flooring, and outdoor furniture. It has fantastic weather and dent resistance, and it is used as the decking material on the Coney Island Boardwalk.

Hardwoods Softwoods What Makes Them Different

What is Softwood?

Softwoods trees are called “gymnosperms.” Instead of having flowers to produce seeds, these trees are coniferous and have bare seeds or cones, such as those typically found in pine trees (which are a prime example of a softwood). Another characteristic of coniferous softwood trees is that they usually have needles instead of leaves. They are abundant in North America and are typically fast-growing trees. Hence most of the timber produced in North America is softwood.

Density and Durability

Softwoods use medullary rays and tracheids to transport water throughout the wood. When viewed under the microscope, softwoods appear to have no pores visible. However, softwoods have more air pockets than hardwoods, making softwoods generally less dense. Lacking visible pores also provides a lighter gain appearance for softwoods than hardwoods. Because softwoods are less dense, they tend to be softer and less tough compared to hardwoods. 

Examples and Their Uses

Softwoods have easier workability than most hardwoods because of their lower density and composition. Their softer and more flexible surface is easier to plane, drill, and turn. Softwoods are also easier to cut and hold nails and fasteners well. Softwoods can also take staining and painting easier than most hardwoods. Many softwood species such as pine and Douglas fir are tough and can take on indoor applications that hardwoods are known for, making them economical choices for a variety of wood applications.

Tennessee Red Cedar

Though technically a softwood, the Tenessee red cedar is quite strong and sturdy. It has visible knots and is usually available as character grade in flooring applications, which is excellent if you want a rustic appearance for your flooring. Because its tree grows slowly, the aromatic red cedar is more expensive than most wood species, including domestic hardwoods. In addition to making a great flooring material, its beauty and character make it a preferred lining for cedar chests and closets. 

Vertical Douglas Fir

Vertical-cut Douglas fir is very stiff and tough for its weight, making it the hardest and densest softwood available on the market today. Douglas fir is widely available all year round, and its tree yields a large amount of usable lumber and veneer material for plywood. Aside from being an excellent source of veneer and plywood material, vertical Douglas fir is also a widely sought-after commercial timber for construction purposes. Vertical Douglas fir can also take on some hardwood uses, such as flooring.

Sugar Pine

Sugar pine has excellent dimensional stability and workability and is used in applications where strength is essential. Though weaker than most other pine species, it can be a preferred material for packing, crates, door frames, interior millwork, and musical instruments, particularly piano keys and organ pipes.

Basswood

Basswood is a preferred material for hand carving. Being very soft and light, basswood is very easy to work with. It receives staining and paints very well but has poor nail holding characteristics. Basswood, being easily shaped, is traditionally a preferred material for electric guitar bodies and carvings. It is seeing wide distribution in plywood, veneer, and wood pulp.

Takeaways: 

Hardwoods will always be the first choice for almost all woodworking needs because of their density, durability, fire resistance, and beauty. However, woodworkers, home building contractors, and furniture makers will need to balance costs against the required attributes of the wood to make the most out of their wood choices. Softwoods are more abundant, thereby making them cheaper. Some softwoods can even take on a few of the uses that hardwoods are known for. Moreover, because they are less dense than hardwoods, softwoods are easier to work with, which gives them the versatility to take on a wide variety of tasks such as packaging material, ornamental wood objects, and construction lumber. By knowing the differences and attributes of both hardwoods and softwoods, you can choose the perfect wood to complete a project that can be beautiful, durable, and practical. For more information about the availability of the perfect wood for your next project, you can call us at (323) 263-9361 or contact us. You can also visit us in person to hand-select the perfect piece from a broad range of hardwood and softwood species in our lumber yard.