When we think of wood, many of us have a picture of a light coloured, soft wood in our heads, like pine. We might also think of a hardwood such as oak. But what exactly is the difference between hardwoods and softwoods?
All timbers are classified as softwoods or hardwoods, and this distinction is important in the trading and usage of timber.
The hardness and softness, of the wood, is not necessarily what distinguishes these two types. If you work with both softwood and hardwood, you'll note that the differences in hardness between the two are typically not very noticeable.
When handling softwoods, you'll also notice that they're not extremely soft-certainly not as soft as butter, wool, or other materials we might typically associate with softness.
This categorisation, of wood into two groups, is based less on wood's hardness and more on the type of tree it came from, as explained.
Softwoods are conifers (cone-bearing trees) like pine, spruce, and larches, which have leaves primarily resembling needles, are the source of softwoods.
Hardwoods are made of trees having fruits or seeds that are not in a cone, such as oak, ash, beech, and the majority of tropical timbers; these trees frequently have broad leaves.
Often hardwood trees grow much slower in comparison with softwood trees, for example hardwood trees can take up to 150 years to grow before harvesting whereas softwoods only take around 40 years.
As softwood trees grow fast they are more commercially grown and account for around 75-85% of all the timbers used in the wood working industry.
Softwood trees are evergreen, meaning their foliage remains green all year round and are functional in more than one growing season. Common softwoods include Cedar and Douglas fir.
Softwood forests often look lush and green and have trees of various sizes, as shown in the following image.
Most of the world has hardwood forests, but these are also categories into types or subsets. Using following distinctions:
Tropical hardwoods, which are primarily found in West and Central Africa, South-east Asia, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, and South America, including Brazil and Bolivia.
Temperate hardwoods, which are primarily found in Europe, including the UK, and North America.
Hardwoods are commonly flowering plants with the main aim to help the tree grow. Once the growing season has ended the flowers or leaves, slowly die and fall from the true, resulting in beautiful colours mainly associated with the autumn season, as shown in the following image.
One of the most common uses for timber in the modern home is flooring. Both types of timber are extremely suitable for wooden flooring but hardwood usually offers more design possibilities due to the prominence an appearance of the grain.
One of the downsides of using softwoods for timber flooring is the durability issues and can be prone to scratching, but this itself adds character and ultimately makes your wooden flooring even more unique.
Softwood timber can require more care and attention to ensure it maintains its natural looking finish, they can be prone to insect and fungal diseases so need to be treated well.
From a woodworking perspective hardwoods can be known to split if you are not careful when using nails, unlike softwoods.
With hardwoods its common to require pre-drilling if you wish to use screws, this can be time consuming and require a level of accuracy, hence the reason hardwoods are used less in the construction industry.
In the UK hardwoods are widely available but the most popularly used hardwoods fall into a small group of around 15 timbers, depending on the application the popularity of the timber changes, for example, oak is the most popular timber for flooring and cedar is most commonly used in general joinery.
We would suggest the three most popular hardwoods in the UK are:
|Ash (American White)||Beech (European)||Oak - Prime S/E (Euro)|
The most commonly used softwoods, from our experience, are Scandinavian redwood often referred to as, Red Pine, Red Deal, Baltic Redwood, Scots Fir, Norway Fir, Yellow Deal. Plus Southern Yellow Pine, Douglas Fir (used for flooring, furniture and beams) and Cedar (used for cladding, fencing and wooden greenhouses)..
We would suggest the three most popular softwoods in the UK are:
|Southern Yellow Pine||Douglas Fir||Cedar|
If you would like to read more about softwoods available then please visit the softwood database on Wooduchoose.
Generally it is not that easy to tell the difference between hardwood and softwood, there are a few signs you can look for but the easiest way to distinguish them is to see them when they are growing.
As hardwoods are far more complex in structure it means the density is much higher, thus making the timber heavier, in general, than softwoods.
Looking at the colour of the timber can give some indication, softwoods are often lighter than dark hardwoods. Although there are lots of exceptions - Maple is a creamy white hardwood for example.
As mentioned above, softwoods grow much quicker than hardwoods and are more commonly commercially farmed, this means in general softwoods are cheaper that hardwoods.
With all wood working projects the overall cost of the timber is irrelevant, it all depends on what type of timber you need for the project you are working on and of course the amount of timber you require.
Wood is a natural product and can be used many times before its purposes is extinguished, then it can be left to compose or be burnt.
Both types of wood are 100% sustainable and renewable as they extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
You could argue that softwood has a higher environmental benefit as it is fast growing and forests can be restocked quicker, but with all well managed forests there is little environmental difference.
Hopefully we have highlighted the main differences between hard and soft wood but with all woodworking projects the type of timber you choose must be suitable for the end result therefore we recommend you take the time to research the qualities and characteristics of timbers before starting your woodworking journey.
If you would like to read more about wood species including all hardwoods and softwoods please visit the Wooduchoose wood database.