Hardwood vs Softwood

Hardwood White Oak next to Softwood Pine

Hardwood vs Softwood

Many mistakenly think that “hardwood” means the wood is hard and durable, while “softwood” means the wood is soft and pliable. That kind of categorization makes sense and seems simple enough, but it is not that easy. While you can think in those terms and be right MOST of the time, you will run into instances when a hardwood is soft and a softwood is hard. For example, the Yew tree is technically categorized as a softwood, but it can be harder than many hardwoods. Similarly, Balsa is technically a hardwood, but those who build model airplanes know Balsa wood is very soft and pliable. So what is the real difference? It all comes down to science:

 

The term “hardwood” is applied to trees that are angiosperms and not monocots. This is the fancy way of saying plants that produce fruit (including incased seeds) and that are not grasses. Most angiosperms also have broad leaves that are shed during colder months. A few examples include Oak, Maple, and Walnut. In contrast, “softwood” trees are gymnosperms, meaning they do not produce flowers or fruit. The seeds are usually formed in cones, and the trees are generally evergreen conifers with needles instead of leaves. A few examples of a softwood include Pine and Spruce.

 As mentioned before, hardwood is usually harder than softwood. When we talk about the “hardness” of a tree, we are actually talking about the density of the fibers in the tree and how well a plank of wood can withstand pressure. There is a test in the world of timber that tells us how hard a piece of wood is. This test is called the “Janka Hardness Test.” It measures the amount of force needed to embed a steel ball halfway into a piece of wood, called pounds-force.[1] 

 

There is a wide range of “hardness,” starting with the softest wood ever measured, Balsa, at 22 pounds of force to the hardest wood ever measured, Australian Buloke, at 5,060 pounds of force. Most hardwood and softwood species are somewhere in between. Below we’ve listed some common types of wood used for flooring with their Janka measurements so you can see how they compare:

Janka Hardness Test
By Nasa-verve at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0
Species Type Janka Rating (pounds-force)
Ipe
Hardwood
3,684
Brazilian Cherry
Hardwood
2,350
Hickory
Hardwood
1,820
Yew
Softwood
1,600
Hard Maple
Hardwood
1,450
White Oak
Hardwood
1,360
Ash
Hardwood
1,320
Red Oak
Hardwood
1,290
Heart Pine
Softwood
1,225
Southern Yellow Pine
Softwood
870
Mahogany
Hardwood
800
Chestnut
Hardwood
540

As you can see from this table, a categorization of hardwood or softwood does not necessarily indicate how durable it might be.

So now we know the technical difference between the two – what about the difference in use?

For centuries people have used both types of wood for different applications. However, almost 80% of the available lumber at any given moment around the world is going to consist of softwood. Why is that? Because softwood trees grow faster, they are often more abundant and generally less expensive. They can also be easier to work with, being more easily manipulated. Because of this, softwood is often preferred for things like interior moldings, window frames, and making plywood.

However, there are some applications and purposes that truly warrant hardwood over softwood. A good example is boat building. Most of the timber used to build boats is hardwood because of the durability of the wood. That is not to say people cannot use Pine, but often they choose Oak or an even harder wood like Brazilian Teak. Because of its durability, hardwood is also typically preferred for high-quality furniture, decks, and flooring. Hardwood is also generally more fire-resistant than softwood.

Interested in learning more about the difference in structure and uses? Check out this short video:

What about for flooring?

Whether you choose hardwood or softwood for your flooring is a choice that depends on your aesthetic tastes and your lifestyle. For instance, hardwood species generally have more pronounced grain patterns than softwood. With that, you get the beautifully textured look of a floor and eye-catching contrasting lines. Although softwood can also have contrast, especially when using a cut that utilizes the darker heartwood and lighter sapwood. You can see this in Longleaf Heart Pine.

Longleaf Heart Pine with Natural White Stain
Longleaf Heart Pine

If you have a home with high traffic, kids, or pets – you might want to consider a harder wood like White Oak or Hickory. With the appropriate finishing techniques, the wood can be better suited to resist scratches and dents.

Truthfully, there are benefits to having either type of wood for your flooring. Again, it comes down to your preferences and needs. If you aren’t sure what kind of wood might work best in your home or business, give us a call or fill out the form below, and we would be happy to discuss your options with you.

  [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janka_hardness_test

 

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