What’s the Difference Between Hardwood and Softwood?

When it comes to timber, two terms commonly used are hardwood and softwood. However, despite the misleading names, they do not actually refer to the hardness or softness of the wood. Instead, they primarily describe the botanical classification of the wood from which the trees are derived. Understanding the difference between softwood and hardwood timber is important for selecting the right type of wood for your projects. 

Let’s explore the distinctions between the two, and what option might be the best for your next project. 

Botanical differences

The biggest and most significant difference between hardwood and softwood lies in the botanical classification of the trees they come from. Hardwood is obtained from deciduous, broad-leaved trees, which tend to shed their leaves during specific seasons. Classic examples include oak, maple, mahogany and walnut. Softwood, on the other hand, is derived from evergreen, needle-leaved trees that usually retain their leaves throughout the year. This includes species such as pine, cedar, spruce and fir. 

Physical properties

As we’ve already established, the terms hardwood and softwood do not describe the hardness or softness of the wood. In fact, there are some softwoods that can be harder than certain hardwoods. The physical properties of the wood, hardness, density, and strength are influenced by the tree’s species, growth conditions, and cellular structure. Whilst hardwoods generally tend to be denser and more durable than softwoods, there are a lot of different variations within each category. 

Uses of hardwoods and softwoods

Hardwoods and softwoods have a diverse range of applications because of their distinct characteristics. If you’re planning a project that requires durability, strength and aesthetically appealing results, hardwood is probably the way to go. Hardwood timber is commonly used for furniture, flooring, decking and high-quality joinery. Contacting a hardwood flooring company to help with this is generally a good idea, as this is the type of job best left to the professionals.

On the other hand, softwoods are frequently used in construction and outdoor projects. Popular choices for framing, structural supports, fences, plywood and paper production. It’s important to note that these applications are not exclusive, however, and there can be exceptions based on specific properties of the wood. 

Growth and availability

Softwoods are generally more abundant and grow faster compared to hardwoods. Softwood trees also tend to have a shorter growth cycle, allowing for faster harvesting and quicker regeneration, making them arguably more sustainable. This availability also makes them a more cost-effective option for many different uses. 

Hardwoods often take longer to reach their maturity, with their slower growth contributing to higher costs and limited availability or shortages. Some hardwood species are susceptible to overharvesting, so it’s more important to source hardwood timber that is responsibly sourced with sustainable forestry practices that will ensure their preservation. 

Whatever wood you decide to use for your project, it’s important to understand what makes them different so you pick the wood that’s right for you. 

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