Hardwood versus Softwood: Not what you Think
We are surrounded by trees and yet we actually pay very little attention to them on a day to day basis. In fact, many people could not identify some of the most common species that are living right in our back yards. Another mystery to most is the difference between hardwood and softwood. While one might try to presume that the difference lies in the density of the wood, they however would be incorrect in doing so. The actual distinguishing characteristic between the two lies in the tree’s manner of reproduction. While tree reproduction is not usually a topic of discussion, it is central to understanding the variance between hard and soft wood.
While it is generally true that hardwoods are typically denser woods than softwoods, this is not always the case and it is not a reliable manner for distinguishing the two. The moniker hardwood was used in the past by loggers to characterize those trees that were more difficult to saw through. This was more of a ‘rule of thumb’ than a scientific manner for identifying the species type. One perfect example for why the density of the tree cannot be relied upon for determining hard versus softwood is the Balsa tree. This particular species is very light and thus not very dense, however, it is biologically a hardwood.
So at this point, one may be wondering what the actual biological difference is if density is not the final point of reference. This is where we turn the conversation to the topic of seeds and reproduction. Trees rely on seeds in order to reproduce; however, not all seeds are created equal. Structurally, seeds can vary, and herein lies the difference between hardwood and softwood. For example, hardwood trees are biologically termed angiosperms. This means that their seeds are protected by some sort of covering. Now the actual covering can vary from a fruit to a hard shell. One example of the fruit is say an apple that protects and carries the seeds contained within. As for the hard shell, consider the hickory nut or an acorn. The end grain of a hardwood contains pores, or vessels, which are wood fibers that have no top or bottom. They are stacked end on end forming pipelines for water and sap that extend from the roots to the top of the tree. Hardwood species are more varied than softwood. There are about a hundred times as many hardwood species as softwoods.
Now, turning our attention to the softwoods, we have gymnosperms, which means the seeds are not protected by an outer layer. More or less, these seeds are considered ‘naked’ and will merely fall to the ground. Examples of such are spruces, firs and pines. Now one may notice that this grouping also includes species where the seeds are grown in cones. In such example, seeds are blown and carried by the wind after reaching maturity. This results in the seedlings being carried over wide surfaces. On the other hand, hardwoods rely on carriers such as animals to propagate the seeds. Softwood usually grows in huge tracts of trees which may spread for miles, while hardwoods tend to be found mixed with a variety of other species.
One sort of rudimentary way to recognize the difference between hardwoods and softwoods while in the forest, is that hardwoods (angiosperms) typically lose their leaves in the fall whereas softwoods (gymnosperms) are more commonly evergreens and maintain structure throughout the winter. Hardwoods also commonly have flat broad leaves whereas softwoods commonly have needles.
Some examples of hardwoods include ash, aspen, beech, basswood, birch, black cherry, black walnut, buckeye, American chestnut, cottonwood, dogwood, elm, hackberry, hickory, holly, locust, magnolia, maple, oak, poplar, red alder, redbud, sassafras, sweetgum, sycamore, tupelo and willow.
Some examples of softwoods include baldcypress, cedar, Douglas-fir, fir, hemlock, larch, pine, redwood, spruce and juniper.
The lumber produced from softwoods has no vessels or pores so the density or the wood is much more uniform. Most fine furniture is made of hardwoods, but there are beautiful examples of woodworking that are made from wood of all species. Both hardwood and softwood are used for everything from crucial structural beams to decorative accents. Some woods within each category are favored for particular uses: for example, maple and elm are common elements in hardwood flooring. Redwood is often used for decking and other outdoor applications because the wood is naturally insect resistant and does not need to be treated with dangerous chemicals. Balsa is used for models and lightweight wood projects because it is easy to work with.
When picking out wood for any project, there are a few things to look for, regardless as to whether the wood is a hardwood or a softwood. The wood should have a tight, even grain without excessive knots or changes in pattern, unless it is being used decoratively. The wood should also not have any cracks or splits, and should be milled along the grain so that it will be strong. Be wary of staining and discoloration, which may represent exposure to water that could result in rot later. You can also check the Janka hardness scale to learn more.