What is a hardwood?

Hardwood Information: Recognizing Hardwood Tree Characteristics

What are hardwood trees? If you’ve ever bumped your head on a tree, you’ll argue that all trees have hard wood. But hardwood is a term biologists use to group together trees with certain similar characteristics. If you want information about hardwood tree characteristics, as well as a hardwood vs. softwood discussion, read on.

What are Hardwood Trees?

The term “hardwood tree” is a botanical grouping of trees with similar characteristics. Hardwood tree characteristics apply to many of the tree species in this country. The trees have broad leaves rather than needle-like leaves. They produce a fruit or nut, and often go dormant in the winter.

America’s forests contain hundreds of different hardwood tree species. In fact, about 40 percent of American trees are in the hardwood category. A few well-known hardwood species are oak, maple and cherry, but many more trees share hardwood tree characteristics. Other types of hardwood trees in American forests include:

  • Birch
  • Aspen
  • Alder
  • Sycamore

Biologists contract hardwood trees with softwood trees. So what is a softwood tree? Softwoods are conifers, trees with needle-like leaves that bear their seeds in cones. Softwood lumber is often used in building. In the U.S., you’ll find that common softwoods include:

  • Cedar
  • Fir
  • Hemlock
  • Pine
  • Redwood
  • Spruce
  • Cypress

Hardwood vs. Softwood

A few simple tests help you differentiate hardwood from softwood trees.

Hardwood information specifies that hardwood trees are deciduous. This means that the leaves fall off in autumn and the tree remains leafless through springtime. On the other hand, softwood conifers do not pass the winter with bare branches. Although sometimes old needles fall off, the softwood tree branches are always covered with needles.

According to hardwood information, almost all hardwoods are flowering trees and shrubs. The wood of these trees contains cells that conduct water, as well as tightly packed, thick fiber cells. Softwood trees only have water-conducting cells. They do not have the dense wood fiber cells.

Wood

by Chris Woodford. Last updated: December 11, 2019.

There’s plenty of it, it’s relatively cheap (or even free), it’s environmentally friendly, it looks great, it’s warm and cozy, it’s super-strong, it lasts hundreds or even thousands of years, and you can use it for everything from building bridges to making paper or heating your home. It’s wood—and it’s quite possibly the most useful and versatile material on the planet, with many thousands of different uses. So what is it that makes wood so good? Let’s take a closer look!

Photo: Wood really does grow on—or rather in—trees. Who’d have thought you could make a lovely coffee table or a fruit bowl from a gnarled old specimen like this? The outer part of a tree trunk might look dead, but it’s very much alive: tree trunks grow outward (getting wider) as well as upward (getting higher).

What is wood?

You often hear people grumbling about money and all kinds of other things that “don’t grow on trees”; the great thing about wood is that it does grow on trees—or, more specifically, in their trunks and branches.

Structure of wood

Photo: This fence pole was once a tree—and you can still clearly see the annual growth rings if you look down on it from above.

Take a tree and peel off the outer “skin” or bark and what you’ll find is two kinds of wood. Closest to the edge there’s a moist, light, living layer called sapwood packed with tubes called xylem that help a tree pipe water and nutrients up from its roots to its leaves; inside the sapwood there’s a much darker, harder, part of the tree called the heartwood, which is dead, where the xylem tubes have blocked up with resins or gums and stopped working. Around the outer edge of the sapwood (and the trunk) is a thin active layer called the cambium where the tree is actually growing outward by a little bit each year, forming those famous annual rings that tell us how old a tree is. Slice horizontally through a tree, running the saw parallel to the ground (perpendicular to the trunk), and you’ll see the annual rings (one new one added each year) making up the cross-section. Cut vertically through a tree trunk and you’ll see lines inside running parallel to the trunk formed by the xylem tubes, forming the inner structure of the wood known as its grain. You’ll also see occasional wonky ovals interrupting the grain called knots, which are the places where the branches grew out from the trunk of a tree. Knots can make wood look attractive, but they can also weaken its structure.

Hardwoods and softwoods

Wood is divided into two distinct kinds called hardwood and softwood, though confusingly the names don’t always refer to its actual hardness or softness:

  • Hardwoods typically come from broad-leaved (deciduous) trees (those that drop their leaves each fall, also known as angiosperms because their seeds are encased in fruits or pods). Examples include ash, beech, birch, mahogany, maple, oak, teak, and walnut.
  • Softwoods typically come from evergeen (coniferous) trees (those that have needles and cones and retain them year-round, also called gymnosperms. Examples include cedar, cypress, fir, pine, spruce, and redwood.

Photo: Left/above: Hardwood comes from deciduous trees like this oak. Its leaves (inset) drop off in the fall and new ones grow in spring.

Photo: Right/below: Softwood comes from evergreen conifers, like this pine, which has needles that stay on all year and cones (inset).

It’s generally true that hardwoods are harder than softwoods, but not always. Balsa is the best-known example of a hardwood that is actually very soft. Hardwoods have lovely, attractive grains and are used for such things as making fine furniture and decorative woodwork, whereas softwoods often come from very tall, straight trees, and are better suited for construction work (in the form of planks, poles, and so on).

Chemical composition

Look at some freshly cut wood under a microscope and you’ll see it’s made up of cells, like any other plant. The cells are made of three substances called cellulose (about 50 percent), lignin (which makes up a fifth to a quarter of hardwoods but a quarter to a third of softwoods), and hemicellulose (the remainder). Broadly speaking, cellulose is the fibrous bulk of a tree, while lignin is the adhesive that holds the fibers together.

What’s wood like?

The inner structure of a tree makes wood what it is—what it looks like, how it behaves, and what we can use it for. There are actually hundreds of different species of trees, so making generalizations about something called “wood” isn’t always that helpful: balsa wood is different from oak, which isn’t quite the same as hazel, which is different again from walnut. Having said that, different types of wood have more in common with one another than with, say, metals, ceramics, and plastics.

Strength

Physically, wood is strong and stiff but, compared to a material like steel, it’s also light and flexible. It has another interesting property too. Metals, plastics, and ceramics tend to have a fairly uniform inner structure and that makes them isotropic: they behave exactly the same way in all directions. Wood is different due to its annual-ring-and-grain structure. You can usually bend and snap a small, dead, tree branch with your bare hands, but you’ll find it almost impossible to stretch or compress the same branch if you try pulling or pushing it in the opposite direction. The same holds when you’re cutting wood. If you’ve ever chopped wood with an ax, you’ll know it splits really easily if you slice with the blade along the grain, but it’s much harder to chop the opposite way (through the grain). We say wood is anisotropic, which means a lump of wood has different properties in different directions.

Photo: Wood is a traditional building material, as popular today as ever. Because wood is anisotropic, natural wooden beams work better as vertical posts (where they are in compression) than horizontal beams (where they are in tension). That’s not a problem here, because these beams are laminated so they are equally strong in all directions. The diagonal members add further strength to stop the horizontal beams from bending. Photo by Robb Williamson courtesy of US DOE/NREL (Department of Energy/National Renewable Energy Laboratory). Read more about how buildings work.

That’s not just important to someone chopping away in the woodshed: it also matters when you’re using wood in construction. Traditional wooden buildings are supported by huge vertical poles that transmit forces down into the ground along their length, parallel to the grain. That’s a good way to use wood because it generally has high compressive strength (resistance to squeezing) when you load it in the same direction as the grain. Wooden poles are much weaker placed horizontally; they need plenty of support to stop them bending and snapping. That’s because they have lower tensile strength (resistance to bending or pulling forces across the grain). Not all woods are the same, however. Oak has much higher tensile strength than many other woods, which is why it was traditionally used to make the heavy, horizontal beams in old buildings. Other factors such as how well seasoned (dry) a piece of wood is (as discussed below) and how dense it is also affect its strength.

Chart: Wood can be very weak. In tension (for example, stretched horizontally in struts or beams), it’s one of the weakest of all common materials. That’s why it’s more likely to be used in compression (in vertical beams), where it’s very much stronger. (Concrete suffers from the same problem, which it’s why it’s often reinforced with steel.) All woods are different, and vary with atmospheric conditions, but typically they’re 10–30 times stronger in the longitudinal direction than in the radial direction (see the inset picture of a tree trunk for an explanation of these terms).

Durability

One of the best things about wood is how long it lasts. Browsing through the daily news, you’ll often read that archeologists have unearthed the buried remains of some ancient wooden article—a wooden tool, perhaps, or a simple rowboat or the remnants of a huge building—that are hundreds or even thousands of years old. Providing a wooden object is properly preserved (something else we discuss later), it will easily outlast the person who made it. But just like that person, a wooden object was once a living thing—and it’s a natural material. Like other natural materials, it’s subject to the natural forces of decay through a process known as rotting, in which organisms such as fungi and insects such as termites and beetles gradually nibble away the cellulose and lignin and reduce wood to dust and memories.

Photo: Under attack! The big problem with wood is that it’s a natural material subject to attack from other natural things, notably fungi and insects. This is what Formosan subterranean termites can do to wood. Photo by Scott Bauer courtesy of US Department of Agriculture/Agricultural Research Service.

Wood and water

Wood has many other interesting characteristics. It’s hygroscopic, which means that, just like a sponge, it absorbs water and swells up in damp conditions, giving out the water again when the air dries and the temperature rises. If, like mine, your home has wooden windows, you’ll probably notice that they open much more easily in summer than in winter, when the damp outdoor conditions make them swell into the frames (not necessarily such a bad thing, since it helps to keep out the cold). Why does wood absorb water? Remember that the trunk of a tree is designed to carry water from the roots to the leaves: it’s pretty much a water superhighway. A freshly cut piece of “green” wood typically contains a huge amount of hidden water, making it very difficult to burn as firewood without a great deal of smoking and spitting. Some kinds of wood can soak up several times their own weight of water, which is absorbed inside the wood by the very same structures that transported water from the roots of the tree to the leaves when the tree was a living, growing plant.

Wood and energy

What other properties does wood have? It’s a relatively good heat insulator (which comes in handy in building construction), but dry wood does burn quite easily and produces a great deal of heat energy if you heat it up beyond its ignition temperature (the point at which it catches fire, anywhere from around 200–400°C, 400–750°F). Although wood can absorb sound very effectively (another useful property in buildings, where people value sound insulation shutting out their neighbors), wooden objects can also be designed to transmit and amplify sounds—that’s how musical instruments work. Wood is generally a poor conductor of electricity but, interestingly, it’s piezoelectric (an electric charge will build up on wood if you squeeze it the right way).

Environmentally friendly

Wood was one of the first natural materials people learned to use, and it’s never lost its popularity. These days, it’s particularly prized for being a natural and environmentally friendly product. Forestry is a rare example of something that has the potential to be completely sustainable: in theory, if you plant a new tree for every old tree you cut down, you can go on using wood forever without damaging the planet. In practice, you need to replace like with like and forestry is not automatically sustainable, whatever papermakers like us to believe. A brand new tree has much less ecological value than a mature tree that’s hundreds of years old so planting a thousand saplings may be no replacement for felling just a handful of ancient trees. Logging can be hugely environmentally damaging, whether it involves clearcutting a tropical rainforest or selectively felling mature trees in old-growth temperate woodland. Some of the processes and chemicals used in forestry and woodworking are also environmentally damaging; chlorine, used to bleach wood fibers to make paper, can cause water pollution in rivers, for example. But on the positive side, growing trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and planting more of them is one way to reduce the effects of climate change. Trees also provide important habitats for many other species and help to increase biodiversity (the wide range of living organisms on Earth). Practiced the right way, forestry is a good example of how people can live in perfect harmony with the planet.

Using wood

How does wood get from the tree to the roof of your house, your bookshelf, or the chair you’re sitting on? It’s a longer and more complex journey than you might think that takes in harvesting, seasoning, preserving and other treatment, and cutting. Here’s a brief guide.

Harvesting

Photo: Chopping down a longleaf pine is only the start of the fun: now you’ve got to get it home preferably without damaging the rest of the forest in the process. That’s where this skidder machine comes in, lifting up the logs with a hydraulic crane and dragging them away with a powerful diesel engine. Photo by Randy C. Murray courtesy of US Army.

Growing plants for food is called agriculture; growing trees for human use is silviculture—and the two things have a great deal in common. Wood is a plant crop that must be harvested just like any other, but the difference is how long trees take to grow, often many years or even decades. How wood is harvested depends on whether trees are growing in plantations (where there are hundreds or thousands of the same species, generally of similar age) or in mature forests (where there’s a mixture of different species and trees of widely differing ages).

Planted trees may be grown according to a precise plan and clear-cut (the entire forest is felled) when they reach maturity. A drastic approach like that makes sense if the trees are a fast-growing species planted specifically for use as biomass fuel, for example. Individual trees can also be selectively felled from mixed forests and either dragged away by machine or animal or even (if it makes economic and environmental sense) hauled upward by helicopter, which avoids damaging other nearby trees. Sometimes trees have their bark and small branches removed in the forest before being hauled away to a lumber yard for further processing, though they can also be removed intact, with the entire processing done offsite. It all depends on the value of the tree, the growing conditions, how far away the lumber yard is, and how easy the tree is to transport. Another interesting form of forestry is called coppicing, which involves removing long, thin, low-growing branches from trees such as hazel and willow in a careful and respectful way that does no long-term damage.

Photo: These cottonwood trees might look too spindly for making poles or planks, but they’ll not be used for either. They’re part of a fast-growing plantation that produces biomass, a type of renewable energy burned in power plants. Biomass is better for the environment because the trees take in as much carbon dioxide when they grow as they give out when they’re burned; leaving aside the energy wasted in harvesting and processing, a biomass plant produces no overall carbon dioxide emissions, unlike a traditional power plant fueled by oil or coal. Other “energy crops” include willow, poplar, and eucalyptus. Photo by Warren Gretz courtesy of US DOE/NREL (Department of Energy/National Renewable Energy Laboratory).

Seasoning

A freshly cut tree is a bit like a sponge that comes presoaked in water, so it has to be completely dried out or seasoned before it can be used. Dry wood is less likely to rot and decay, it’s easier to treat with preservatives and paint, and it’s much lighter and easier to transport (typically, half a freshly felled tree’s weight may come from water trapped inside). Dry wood is also much stronger and easier to build with (it won’t shrink so much) and if a tree is destined for burning as firewood (or an energy crop), it will burn more easily and give out more heat if it’s properly dried first. Typically wood is dried either in the open air (which takes anything from a few months to a year) or, if speed is important, in vast heated ovens called kilns (which cuts the drying time to days or weeks). Seasoned wood is still not completely dry: typically its moisture content varies from about 5–20 percent, depending on the drying method and time.

Preserving and other treatment

In theory, wood might last forever if it weren’t attacked by bugs and bacteria; preservatives can greatly extend its life by preventing rot. Different preservatives work in different ways. Paint, for example, works like an outer skin that stops fungi and insects penetrating the wood and eating it away, but sunlight and rain make paint crack and flake away, leaving the wood open to attack underneath. Creosote (another popular wood preservative) is a strong-smelling, oily brown liquid usually made from coal-tar. Unlike paint, it is a fungicide, insecticide, miticide, and sporicide: in other words, it works by stopping fungi, insects, mites, and spores from eating or growing in the wood.

Photo: A fence before (right) and after (left) treatment with wood preservative.

Different kinds of treatment help to protect and preserve wood in other ways. It’s a great irony that wood can be used to build a fine home that will last many decades or burn to the ground in minutes. Wood is so plentiful and burns so well that it has long been one of the world’s favorite fuels. That’s why fire-protection treatment of wooden building products is so important. Typically, wood is treated with fire retardant chemicals that affect the way it burns if it catches fire, reducing the volatile gases that are given off so it burns more slowly and with greater difficulty.

Cutting

There’s a big difference between a tree and the table it might become, even though both are made from exactly the same wood. That difference comes mainly from skillful cutting and woodworking. How much cutting a tree needs depends on the product that’s being made. Something like a utility pole or a fence post is not much more than a tree stripped of its branches and heavily treated with preservatives; that’s an example of what’s called roundwood. Trees need a bit more work in the sawmill to turn them into lumber, timber, or sawnwood (the three names are often used interchangeably, though they can be used with more specific meanings). Flat pieces of wood can be made from trees by cutting logs in two different directions. If you cut planks with the saw running in lines parallel to the length of the trunk, you get plainsawn (sometimes called flatsawn) wood (with ovals or curves on the biggest flat surface of the wood); if you fell a tree, cut the trunk into quarters, then slice each quarter into parallel planks, you get quartersawn wood (with the grain running along the biggest flat surface in broadly parallel stripes).

Photo: Left/above: Plainsawn wood is parallel to the trunk, revealing the annual rings as curves or ovals. Right/below: Quartersawn wood is first quartered and then sawn, revealing a pattern of roughly parallel lines.

See how attractive those patterns look? Not surprisingly, wood that’s destined for furniture and other decorative uses has to be cut much more thoughtfully and carefully with regard to what’s called its figure. This is the way a particular tree is cut to show off the growth patterns it contains in the most attractive way in the final piece of wood. The figure can also depend on which part of a tree is used. Wood cut from near the stump of a tree will sometimes produce a more attractive figure than wood cut from higher up.

Other wood products

Photo: Particle board is made from offcuts of wood stuck together and coated with an attractive veneer or other surface layer (perhaps plastic or a laminate). This is what an Ikea Billy bookcase looks like if you peer round the back. You can see the veneer on the extreme left and a hardwood backing on the right.

Roundwood and sawnwood are what you might call natural wood products, because they involve using cut pieces of tree more or less in raw form. There are many other ways of using trees that involve greater amounts of processing. Some woods are very rare and expensive, while others are cheap and plentiful, so a common technique is to apply an outer layer of expensive and attractive wood to a core of cheaper material. Veneer is a thin decorative layer applied to cheaper wood made by turning a log against a blade, much like peeling an apple. Using veneer means you can get an attractive wooden finish at much lower cost than by using a solid piece of expensive wood. Plywood is made by taking layers of wood (or plies) and gluing them together with an outer coating of veneer. Typically each ply is placed at 90 degrees to the one underneath so the grains alternate. That means a piece of plywood is usually much stronger than a piece of the natural wood from which it’s made. Laminated wood is a weaker kind of plywood in which the grain of each layer runs in the same direction. Particle board (often called chipboard) is made by taking the waste chips, flakes, and sawdust from a mill and forcing it under high pressure, with glue, in a mold so it sticks together to make planks and panels. Low-cost and self-assembly furniture is often made this way. Fiber-board is similar, but made with wood-pulp fibers instead of wood chips and sawdust. Hardboard is a thin sheet of wood made from wood fibers in much the same way.

Not all wood products are immediately recognizable as such. A great deal of the paper and cardboard people use is made by turning cellulose from trees into a fibrous pulp, for example. Lignin (the other main chemical inside wood) also has many uses, including making plastics (such as the celluloid used in old-fashioned photographic film), paints, turpentine, and yeast products.

The Difference Between Softwood And Hardwood

You’d be forgiven for having a look at the title of this article and having a little chuckle to yourself, thinking we’ve completely lost the plot! Surely softwood is soft and hardwood is hard, no? It can’t be much simpler than that, you might think. But no, the terms softwood and hardwood don’t refer to the density or hardness of the wood itself. These are terms that refer right back to the tree and how it reproduces itself.

Trees, without exception reproduce by producing seeds, but the seeds of different trees vary and it is this that lies at the heart of the difference between a soft and a hardwood. Trees that produce hardwood are known as angiosperms and produce seeds that are covered, either with a skin or a shell. Such seeds could be fruits or nuts. Softwoods on the other hand come from trees that are known as gymnosperms. The seeds of this type of tree have no covering althought they might fall to the ground in some form of protection eg. the hard cones of a pine tree, but are subsequently distributed by the wind over a broad area.

Another difference between angiosperms and gymnosperms are the fact that angiosperm trees shed their leaves in the winter months, which means that they belong to the deciduous family of trees and gymnosperms don’t, they remain green all year round. It is this that gives rise to their name, evergreens. This means that deciduous trees produce hardwoods and evergreens produce softwoods.

So is there any difference in density? There is some truth in the fact that evergreens are, in general less dense than deciduous trees, but there again, Balsa wood throws this argument to the sharks. Balsa wood, which is classified as a hardwood is one of the lightest, least dense woods you can find. So there you have it, there’s no density or weight requirement to be classified as a hardwood, it’s all to do with reproduction.

Here is a summary of the essential differences between soft and hardwood:

Characteristic Hardwood Softwood
Originates from Deciduous trees Evergreen trees
Examples Oak, Teak, Mahogany Pine, Spruce, Fir
Price More expensive Less expensive
Density Typically harder (but not always) Usually softer (but not always)
Colour Generally dark Almost always light
Structure Lower sap Higher sap
Grain Close Loose
Fire resistance Good Poor
Weight Heavy Light

What does this mean in flooring terms?

When it comes to wood flooring, there are two types: engineered and solid wood. Engineered wood flooring is made up of layers of ply that are bonded together to create a solid and stable core board, which is then topped off with a solid wood top layer or lamella. Solid wood flooring, as its name suggests is made up of solid planks of one species of wood.

Although pine flooring is reasonably common and popular because of its low cost, it is less resistant to wear and tear than the likes of oak. As you’ll have gathered from the introduction of this article, pine is a softwood and oak is hardwood. In most cases, wood flooring, irrespective of whether it is engineered or solid, is made from hardwood because it tends to be more resilient.

Hardwood flooring is an investment and in some people’s opinion will even add value to your home or make it easier to sell because it is such a popular flooring solution these days. When it comes to choice, the selection of hardwood flooring is growing almost on a daily basis. This means that no matter whether you are hoping to create a highly modern or traditional looking interior, there will be an option to suit your styling. Both dark and light coloured hardwood floors will add real charm and style to any style of interior as well as standing the test of time.

Easy to maintain and good-looking, hardwood flooring really is the way to go if you want to make an interior statement without breaking the bank. No matter whether you decide to fit your floor on a DIY basis or get the professionals in, you could have your new floor before you thought possible. Why not take a few minutes to browse our website right now?

Differences in Microscopic Structure

Presence of pores in hardwoods (oak, top) and the absence of pores in softwoods (pine, bottom).

There are differences between the physical structures of hardwoods and softwoods. This is usually visible at both microscopic level and at the surface — hardwoods tend to have broad leaves, while softwoods tend to have needles and cones. Hardwoods have vessel elements that transport water throughout the wood; under a microscope, these elements appear as pores. In softwoods, medullary rays and tracheids transport water and produce sap. When viewed under a microscope, softwoods have no visible pores because tracheids do not have pores.

The pores in hardwoods are a lot of what gives hardwood its prominent grain, which is quite different from softwood’s light grain.

Uses of Hardwood vs Softwood

In many cases, hardwoods and softwoods are both used for many of the same purposes, with more emphasis placed on the type of hardwood or softwood and how dense it is.

Generally, though, softwoods are cheaper and easier to work with than hardwoods. As such, they make up the bulk of all wood used in the world, with about 80% of all timber being a softwood. This is impressive considering hardwoods are much more common in the world than softwoods. Softwoods have a wide range of applications and are found in building components (e.g., windows, doors), furniture, medium-density fiberboard (MDF), paper, Christmas trees, and much more. Pines are one of the most commonly used softwoods.

Though hardwoods are often more expensive and sometimes more challenging to work with, their upside is that most — though not all — are denser, meaning many hardwoods will last longer than softwoods. For this reason, hardwoods are more likely to be found in high-quality furniture, decks, flooring, and construction that needs to last.

Hardwood vs. Softwood Density

The denser a wood is, the harder, stronger, and more durable it is. Most hardwoods have a higher density than most softwoods. The chart below shows the density of some commonly used woods.

As evidenced by the table above, alder and balsa are soft hardwoods, while juniper and yew are hard softwoods.

Composition of Hardwood and Softwood

Softwoods contain more glucomannans than hardwoods, while hardwoods contain more xylans. Hardwoods are generally far more resistant to decay than softwoods when used for exterior work. However, solid hardwood joinery is expensive compared to softwood and most hardwood doors, for instance, now consist of a thin veneer bonded to MDF, a softwood product.

Hardwood

Softwood

Cellulose

42±2%

45±2%

Hemicellulose

27±2%

30±5%

Lignin

28±3%

20±4%

Extractives

3±2%

5±3%

  • Wood Figure and Grain Terms – Hobbit House Glossary
  • Wood Densities – The Engineering Toolbox
  • Wikipedia: Softwood
  • Wikipedia: Hardwood

Hardwood vs Softwood: Pros, cons & best uses

Published 13 Apr 2018 in Articles, News

Choosing a timber solution for your next cladding, panelling or decking project can be more complex than it seems at first glance.

Hardwood vs softwood, what do you need to know before making your choice?

Timber is classified as either hardwood or softwood depending on its physical makeup. The characteristics of each timber varies from appearance, to density, and workability.

Are you unsure which timber will work for your project? Identifying the differences between hardwood and softwood, the pros and cons, and where each timber works best, will point you in the right direction.

Hardwood

Authentic hardwood timber is praised for its unprecedented style and performance. Hardwood comes from angiosperm trees, which have elements that distribute water and nutrients throughout the wood. The pores in the wood grain handle all the distribution, allowing the remaining timber grain to become denser. Hardwood trees are deciduous, and species include Eucalyptus, Balsa, Mahogany, Blackbutt and Spotted Gum.

Pros:

  • Longevity: Hardwood produces a very high quality product that offers great durability over time.
  • Easy maintenance: Hardwood is easy to clean, and scratches and dents can be fixed.
  • Strength: The trees’ dense cellular structure gives the timber incredible strength.
  • Appearance: Hardwood timber is available in a range of colours and finishes, and will suit almost any contemporary style setting.
  • Fire resistance: Hardwood timber offers a higher fire resistance than softwood.

Cons:

  • Slow growth rate: Hardwood forests take longer to replenish due to the tree’s slower growth rate.
  • Workability: Due to its density, hardwood tends to be a lot harder to work with during construction.
  • Cost: Hardwoods are generally more expensive, however in saying this, you get what you pay for.
  • Refinishing: Hardwood floors in high traffic areas will require refinishing down the track, which can also be quite costly.

When is best to use hardwood timber?

Hardwood is most commonly used for flooring, but can also be used for a range of things including cladding, panelling, buildings, fencing, boats and outdoor decks.

It works well in residential and commercial projects, and can be used for indoor or outdoor application. Hardwood is used when durability and strength are of upmost importance.

Softwood

Softwood is a versatile timber option that offers a stunning, seamless finish. Softwood comes from gymnosperm trees, which do not have pores, but instead rely on medullary rays and tracheids to transport water and produce sap. This characteristic gives softwood a lower density.

Softwood trees are evergreen, and species include Cedar, Douglas fir, Pine and Hemlock.

  • Workability: Softwood is easier to work with and can be used across a broad range of applications.
  • Sustainability: Softwood trees grow much faster than hardwood, and are considered a very renewable source.
  • Cost: These timbers tend to be cheaper, as they’re easier to source.
  • Density: The lower density of softwood timber means it’s weaker and less durable, however there are some ‘hard’ softwood options with a higher density like Juniper and Yew.
  • Longevity: Softwood is less suitable for high traffic areas as it does not wear as well as hardwood over time.
  • Fire resistance: Softwoods tend to have poor fire resistance unless treated.

When is it best to use softwood?

Softwood timber is most commonly used for feature walls, ceilings, furniture, doors and windows. It’s a versatile building material, offers a beautiful finish, and can be used to create stunning features for residential and commercial projects.

Hardwood vs softwood

At Urbanline, our quality selection of real timber solutions consists of a wide range of both hardwoods and softwoods. Our selection of hardwood species includes Blackbutt, Red Ironbark, Spotted Gum, Jarrah and more. While our softwood selection consists of Western Red Cedar and Western Hemlock.

Our panelling and cladding options are available in a range of hardwood timbers to suit commercial and residential projects.

Jarrah and spotted gum offer weather, fire and termite resistance, making either a great option for outdoor uses including wharf and bridge construction.

Hemlock and Western Red Cedar serve purposefully as creative cladding interiors and exteriors. Choose from a range of softwood timber cladding options for contemporary feature walls and ceilings.

When choosing the right timber for the job, think about what you’d like to achieve in the short and long term future. Both types of timber offer impressive construction benefits across a wide range of applications.

Get in touch with Urbanline today

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A small stand (group) of hardwood trees.

Hardwood is wood from deciduous trees and broad-leaf evergreen trees. All hardwoods are angiosperms (flowering plants) which are the most assorted and largest group of land plants. Hardwoods all have enclosed nuts or seeds. Hardwood is in contrast to softwood which come from conifers, cone bearing seed plants. Hardwoods are not always harder than softwoods, Balsa wood being a notable exception. Hardwoods have a more complex internal structure than softwoods. It is mostly solid wood fibers with hollow tubes (vessels) used to supply water to the tree. Softwoods have a structure that looks like many drinking straws bound together all of which are used to supply water to the tree. Hardwood trees are more varied than softwoods and there are about 100 times more species of hardwood than there are softwoods.

Introduction

Hardwoods are a type of tree that produce a dense wood. Unlike softwoods, hardwoods usually have broad leaves. Deciduous hardwoods undergo a colour change, usually once a year, going from green to yellow, then red/purple and then brown. Except for brown, these colours are always present in the leaves while they are green but are masked by the large amounts of chlorophyll which is green. In a green leaf, water drawn up from the ground, carbon dioxide from the air and sunlight combine with water to make molecules of glucose which the tree uses as energy to grow. In some cases such as the maple trees glucose gets trapped inside the autumn leaf and sunlight and cool weather turns the glucose into reds and purples. The brown colours seen in autumn leaves are due to waste products left inside the leaf. Hardwoods all have enclosed nuts or seeds, where softwoods are Gymnosperms, naked seed plants. Hardwood species are much more in number than softwoods, there being about 100 times more species of hard than softwoods.

Properties

The difference between hard and soft wood under a microscope; oak on top, pine underneath.SEM image (top) and Transmission Light Microscope image (bottom) of vessel elements in Oak

Each species of hardwood has its own set of properties, however they have some properties in common. Hardwoods normally have broad leaves and come from deciduous or broad-leafed evergreen trees. Hardwoods grow slower than softwoods. Evergreen softwoods grow faster than deciduous hardwoods, and can grow to a larger size. Hardwoods are excellent for carving. One of the hardest hardwoods is black ironwood which is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the heaviest wood. Ironwoods are so dense that they sink in water rather than float as other woods do.

The properties of the wood are caused by its structure. Hardwoods have a denser structure, which is the reason they are usually harder and heavier. Hardwood has xylem vessels which are used to transport water. Their cell walls are strongly lignified: lignin is a hard material used to support plants above the surface. The quantity of lignin is probably the main factor in their hardness.

Softwoods have a vascular structure which looks similar to a bunch of drinking straws held together. They also have lignin, but of a slightly different type, and less of it than most hardwoods.

Species of hardwood

Common species of hardwood found in the USA, Many species are also found in other areas of the world. This is not a complete list of all hardwood trees.

Alder Ash Aspen Basswood Beech Birch Cherry
Cottonwood Elm Hackberry Hickory Hard Maple Pecan Red Oak
Sap Gum Sassafras Soft Maple American Tulipwood Walnut Willow White Oak

Uses of hardwood

A mahogany sofa showing detailed carving

Hardwoods are often used to make items that get used a lot because of their density. These items include furniture, flooring, and utensils. They are also used in construction. Hardwoods are also less likely to decay or rot than softwoods. Furniture made by hardwood joinery is more expensive than that made from softwoods. Utensils for use in preparing food can include things such as the vessel in the gallery below used by the Ede people to grind corn and grains for food. Other utensils include; spoons, chopsticks, bowls, plates and cups. Because of the dense nature of the wood used such a vessel can be used for many years without breaking. Other examples include the handle of the Luzon knife seen in the gallery. Because of the nature of sound transmission provide a good wood for musical instruments such as violins, guitars, pianos and hand drums such as the Djembe drum pictured in the gallery below. Flooring is often made of hardwood because it can stand up to years of people walking on it with their shoes. An example is the flooring made from tiger-wood seen in the gallery below. Hardwoods are also used to make wood veneers to glue over other, cheaper woods, making them less expensive than solid hardwood while still giving them the appearance of a particular species of wood. This has become a common way of using tropical hardwoods that have a limited supply of trees due to deforestation occurring in many tropical countries. In Europe, hardwoods account for 29% and softwoods 71% of wood consumption. Hardwood has very short fibers about 1mm in length and is so also used to make fine paper such as writing paper, tissue, and printing paper. Paper with longer fibers such as paper bags, cardboard and shipping containers is made of softwoods.

Gallery

A variety of objects made from different types of hardwood.

  • A vessel used by the Ede to grind food for cooking

  • Hardwood flooring made from Tigerwood

  • A bridge made from hardwood

  • Children’s wooden play blocks made from hardwood

  • Hardwood clappers

  • A Luzon knife with a hardwood handle

  • A Djembe drum made of hardwood

  • Bandstick made of hardwood for use in book binding

  • A boxwood carving from China

  • Mahogany piano

Other pages

  • Lumber
  • Veneer
  • Woodwork

Other websites

  • Forestry Commission Scotland – Hardwoods
  • Paper Online

Is cedar a hardwood?

If you are looking to find out if cedar is a hardwood for your home improvement then you are absolutely right. Furniture and other wood items are required in the house. Wood materials like fencing, floors, and shelves are the most vital part of our houses.

Nowadays, a lot of duplicate things are traded in the market. It includes cheap woods that are no longer stable. However, these woods are not so strong to support your home. This step can increase your problems. Do not worry because there is a solution. The name of this solution is cedar wood. Cedar is a resilient and stable wood. It is one of the old wood materials that are useful for many purposes. Moreover, it will serve you many and many years. So, there is no need to worry about for you at all.

Stability

Cedarwood is so strong that it is not prone to bending and twisting. When it comes to the means of stability, there’s no other wood that can match the class of cedar wood. However, the furniture made up of cedar looks so astonishing and implacable that no one other can match. According to researches, cedar wood furniture can be last long for more than 30 years. Furthermore, this period is longer any of the other woods furniture such as pine.

Cedarwood has major advantages and that it can be used for outdoor purposes easily such as fencing, outdoor lawn furniture, or doors and gates. However, it is known for being the most suitable option for outdoor furniture because it is resistant to water and other weather conditions.

Benefits

Durability and sturdiness are one of the main advantages of cedar wood. However, there are several reasons listed below:

  • Natural smell
  • Temperature control
  • Low maintenance and affordability

Natural smell

Cedarwood has one of the best natural properties that are very beneficial in its stability. Cedarwood smell is pungent that repels insects and bugs around it. Moreover, this smell is pleasant to humans. Decay is one of the main problems of the woods. Therefore, the oil present is the cedar wood keeps it safe from decay. So, you can say that cedar wood is ideal in every condition and weather. Bacteria and fungal growth are also very common in the woods. But cedar wood prevents these problems.

Temperature control

Temperature and weather can decrease the life of the wood. But cedar wood is different from all. It has tiny holes inside the wood that makes air available for it. So, when the temperature is cool or hot outside, the temperature of cedar wood will be normal. This is one
of the main reasons for its stability. You will enjoy sitting on cedar furniture in the hottest days of summer.

Low maintenance and affordability

Cedar is a hardwood. So, it requires low maintenance to look after. However, everybody is busy in their daily life. So, cedar wood will give you more time to enjoy. Furthermore, you make money with very efforts. You try to make things that are more durable at a very reasonable price. So, same is the case with cedar wood. Its price is very reasonable. Moreover, durability is its sign.

Types of Wood

  • Consumer
    • Rediscovering Hardwoods
      • Types of Wood
      • American Hardwoods’ Natural Abundance
      • “Solid” Hardwood and its Advantages
      • Don’t be Fooled by the “Pseudo” Species
      • Glossary of Wood Terms
      • Fast Facts on American Hardwoods
      • Hardwoods -vs- Bamboo
      • How Selecting Materials Impacts Our Lives
    • Treasured for Generations
      • Outdoor Living Spaces
        • New Ideas, Natural Looks
      • Throughout the Home
        • 5 Residential Design Trends in Hardwood
        • Trend Alert: Wood Planks Warm up Ceilings and Walls
        • For the Love of Wood
        • From modest to magnificent: Create an entertainment space for any home
        • Maximize your home’s value. Experts agree, American Hardwood sells!
        • American Hardwoods Offer a Breath of Fresh Air
        • Living Large in Smaller Spaces
        • Mix – Don’t Match – Wood Textures and Colors; Experts Across the U.S. Urge Diversity in Design
        • Hardwoods in Unlikely Places
        • Straight Talk About Hardwoods from Four Savvy Design Pros
      • Flooring
        • Hardwood Flooring Trends – A Touch of the Creative
        • “All the Rage” in Hardwood Flooring
        • Hardwood Flooring Must-Know Shopping Facts
        • About To Show Your Hardwood Floor The Door?
        • An Expert’s Guide to Hardwood Flooring
      • Cabinets
        • Top Trends in Hardwood Kitchen Cabinetry
        • Furniture looks, elegant simplicity mark new styles in kitchen cabinetry
        • Hardwood Cabinets Enhance Universal Design
        • Space-saving Hardwood Storage Stunners
      • Furniture
        • Fashion for the home: Hardwoods are key design element in contemporary furnishings
        • Furnishing the Nursery with an Eye to the Future
        • Rocking Chairs Help Mom and Baby Relax
        • Solid Hardwood Furniture, Still the Classic Choice
      • Moulding / Woodwork
        • Create Character with the Crowning Touch of Hardwood Mouldings
        • Add style to your home from floor to ceiling
        • America’s History Etched in Hardwood
        • Transform an aging room into a dazzling showcase
        • Creating Characterful Interiors with Hardwood Moulding
        • Enhance a Home’s Character with Hardwood Architectural Details
    • Green & Sustainable
      • Taking a closer look at ‘Natural and Healthy’ American hardwood products
      • The Confident Choice for Eco-conscious Consumers
      • Forest Management and Best Practices
      • American Hardwoods: Renewable, Abundant and Sustainable
      • American Hardwoods: The Natural, Eco-Friendly Choice for Your Home
    • Care, Repair, & (Re)Finish
      • Keeping hardwood floors looking beautiful is easier than you think.
      • Hardwood Finishes More Eco-Friendly than Ever
      • Hardwood Care Do’s and Don’ts
      • Caring for Hardwood Countertops
      • Know your Hardwood Floors by Starting at the “Finish”
      • Revealing Hardwood Treasure beneath Carpeting and Linoleum
      • First Aid for Solid Hardwood Products
      • When to Call a Professional Refinisher
      • How to Locate a Refinisher or Restorer
      • Glossary of Repair Materials
    • Expert Insights
      • Wendy SIlverstein
      • From the Pros
    • Where to Buy
      • Flooring
      • Cabinetry
      • Furniture
      • Woodwork
      • Specialty Items
  • Professional
    • Advantages
      • Types of Wood
      • American Hardwoods’ Natural Abundance
      • “Solid” Hardwood and its Advantages
      • Don’t be Fooled by the “Pseudo” Species
      • Glossary of Wood Terms
      • Fast Facts on American Hardwoods
      • Hardwoods -vs- Bamboo
      • How Selecting Materials Impacts Our Lives
    • Professional Specifying
      • Exterior Applications
        • New Ideas, Natural Looks
      • Specifying
        • Craftsmanship Standards
        • Sawing Methods
        • Lumber Grades
        • Secrets of Smart Specifying
        • How Dry Should Hardwood Products Be?
        • How Much Dimensional Change Should You Expect?
      • Finishing
        • Hardwood Finishes More Eco-Friendly than Ever
        • Glossary of Finishing Terms
        • Selecting a Finishing System
        • Factory Finishes
        • Eliminating Finish Blotches on Maple and Cherry
        • Comparison of Finish Products
        • The Basics of Hardwood Finishing
    • Eco-Friendly
      • The Confident Choice for Eco-conscious Specifiers
      • Forest Management and Best Practices
      • American Hardwoods: Renewable, Abundant and Sustainable
      • American Hardwoods: The Natural, Eco-Friendly Choice
    • Case Studies
      • Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts (Red Oak)
      • Amsterdam Conservatory (Red Oak)
      • Boston Golf Club (White Oak)
      • El Torco (Ash)
      • Press Club San Francisco (Walnut)
      • Penn State University (Maple Glulams)
      • Solar Decathlon (Hickory)
      • Studio II (Maple)
      • Traverwood Library (Ash)
      • Yale – Kroon Hall (Red Oak)
    • Project Support
      • Flooring Guides
        • Reviving Hardwood Staircases
        • Fixing Cracks and Squeaks in Hardwood Floors
        • Installing a Hardwood Floor Over a Concrete Slab
        • How to Install Ceramic Overlay
        • How to Install Hardwood Floors Over Radiant Heat
        • When Refinishing is Required………
      • Woodwork Guides
        • How to Install Crown Mouldings
        • How to Install a Hardwood Tub Surround
        • How to Apply Specialty Finishes for Hardwood Trim
        • How to Build a Recessed Wall Unit
    • Continuing Ed
      • Overview
      • American Hardwoods and Their Role in Carbon Neutral Design
    • Resource Guide
      • Mobile App
      • Hardwood Industry
      • Architects
      • Design Professionals
      • Flooring
      • Forests and Forestry
      • Furniture
      • Kitchens and Baths
      • Moulding and Woodwork
      • Building and Remodeling
  • Image Gallery
    • Flooring
    • Cabinetry
    • Furniture
    • Moulding / Woodwork
    • Inspiration
  • Species Guide
    • Species Guide: A-G
      • Alder
      • Ash
      • Aspen
      • Basswood
      • Birch
      • Cherry
      • Cottonwood
      • Cypress
      • Elm
      • Gum
    • Species Guide: H-Z
      • Hackberry
      • Hard Maple
      • Hickory & Pecan
      • Pacific Coast Maple
      • Poplar
      • Red Oak
      • Soft Maple
      • Sycamore
      • Walnut
      • White Oak
  • Contact Us

Hardwood is not necessarily a harder material (more dense) and a softwood is not necessarily a softer material (less dense).

Different types of construction projects call for different kinds of timber, both hardwood and softwood are used for everything from structural to decorative.

Softwood and hardwood are distinguished botanically in terms of their reproduction, not by their end use or appearance. All trees reproduce by producing seeds, but the seed structure varies.

In general, hardwood comes from a deciduous tree which loses its leaves annually and softwood comes from a conifer, which usually remains evergreen. Hardwoods tend to be slower growing, and are therefore usually more dense.

Softwood trees are known as a gymnosperm. Gymnosperms reproduce by forming cones which emit pollen to be spread by the wind to other trees. Pollinated trees form naked seeds which are dropped to the ground or borne on the wind so that new trees can grow elsewhere. Some examples of softwood include pine, redwood, douglas-fir, cypresses and larch. (more information visit our species section)

A hardwood is an angiosperm, a plant that produces seeds with some sort of covering such as a shell or a fruit. Angiosperms usually form flowers to reproduce. Birds and insects attracted to the flowers carry the pollen to other trees and when fertilized the trees form fruits or nuts and seeds. Hardwoods include eucalypts, beech and blackwood.

The hardwood/softwood terminology does make some sense. Evergreens do tend to be less dense than deciduous trees, and therefore easier to cut, while most hardwoods tend to be more dense, and therefore sturdier. In practical terms, this denseness also means that the wood will split if you pound a nail into it. Thus you need to drill screw or bolt holes to fasten hardwood together. But structural lumber is soft and light, accepts nails easily without splitting and thus is great for general construction.

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