Hardwood vs. Softwood: Which to Use?

Hardwood vs. Softwood: Which to Use?

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Whether you are building a chair, a table, a set of stairs, a patio deck, or a shed, one of the best building materials at your disposal is and always has been real, solid, wood. It’s durable, it looks nice, and it lasts for a long time too.

That said, there are two main types of wood you have to choose from, these being hardwood and softwood. Which one you go with will make a big difference in terms of the end result and more. So, which of the two is better for you? Let’s start with the basics.

What Is Hardwood?

Hardwood comes from trees known as angiosperms, which means that they produce seeds with some sort of covering, something like an acorn or an apple. These trees are also known as dicots, and they generally have broad leaves.

Hardwood trees have so-called vessel elements that carry water throughout the wood, which look like veins under a microscope. What usually always holds true is that hardwood comes from deciduous trees, or in other words, trees that lose their leaves during the winter.

Some of the most common types of hardwood trees include iroko, ash, beech, alder, teak, birch, mahogany, maple, oak, balsa, and walnut. And yes, they’re all known for having fairly dense and hard structures.

What Is Softwood?

Softwood on the other hand comes from trees known as gymnosperms, trees and plants that drop their seeds to the ground without any sort of covering, such as pine trees that grow their seeds in hard cones and then let them fall to the ground, seeds which are then released thanks to the wind.

Gymnosperm trees are also evergreen trees, also known as coniferous trees, which means that they do not lose their leaves during the winter, and stay green all year, hence the word, evergreen.

Keep in mind that these sorts of trees generally have needles, such as pine needles, unlike a softwood oak tree which has leaves. Some of the most common types of softwood trees include cedar, Douglas fir, juniper, pine, redwood, spruce, and yew. And yes, they are generally softer with lower densities than hardwood trees.

Hardwood vs. Softwood: What Are the Differences?

Alright, so now that we know what both hardwoods and softwoods are, let’s take a look at the major differences between them. Knowing how these two types of wood differ will help you choose the right one for your next big project.

Growth Rate

One of the big differences between hardwood and softwood has to do with the growth rate of the trees themselves, something that as you will see later on, also affects the cost.

Generally speaking, hardwood trees have a much slower growth rate than softwood trees. To put this in perspective, a hardwood tree can take up to 100 years to reach full maturity and size. Softwood trees on the other hand, while also fairly slow-growing, mature much quicker than hardwood trees, often in as little as 25 years.

In terms of usefulness and supply, you can imagine how it’s much more convenient to use trees that can be harvested every 25 years versus every 100 years, hence why softwood tends to be more prevalent in construction. It doesn’t take as long to grow, the supply is steadier, and as you can imagine, this does impact the cost of it as well.

Strength and Density

One of the biggest differences between hardwood and softwood, as the name implies, is how hard and dense they are. As you can probably guess by their names, hardwood is much harder and denser than softwood.

When it comes down to it, this is the main difference that leads to most of the other differences. How hard or soft the wood in question is will affect other factors such as burn rate, cost, moisture resistance, and what it can be used for. The bottom line here is that hardwood is hard and densely packed and softwood is soft and not nearly as dense.

Cost

As mentioned in our first point of comparison, softwood can take up to 75% less time to grow than hardwood. According to the laws of supply and demand, the less of something there is available, the more expensive it is. Moreover, the longer it takes for something to be produced, the more expensive it is.

Besides that, as already mentioned, hardwood is much harder and denser than softwood (and as you are about to find out, this comes with a variety of advantages).

What this all means is that hardwood is more expensive to purchase than softwood. On average, you can expect to spend around two to three times more money on hardwood than softwood.

Burn Rate

Seeing as hardwood is harder and denser, it means that there is more material present, more carbon to be burned. For this reason, when it comes to firewood, the wood of choice is always hardwood. You get much more heat and duration out of a hardwood log than a softwood log.

If you put some hardwood in your fireplace or stove, a few big pieces can burn for many hours and produce a whole lot of heat. While softwood will still produce a good amount of heat, the amount of heat and how long that same amount of wood burns for is much less when compared to hardwood.

Burn Resistance

Due to the fact that hardwood burns for much longer than softwood, it is also reasonable to say that it takes much longer to start burning. It’s much harder to light up a piece of hardwood than softwood.

For this reason, hardwood is ideal for structures and furniture that require decent burn resistance. Of course, hardwood is still wood, and yes, it still burns, but not nearly as easily as softwood.

Appearance

Ok, so in terms of the overall appearance, which of these two kinds of wood you prefer is of course up to you. It’s a matter of personal preference. What we can say is that hardwood tends to be much darker in color, whereas softwood is much lighter.

Softwood is also a bit softer to the touch. That said, you might like darker wood or you might like it lighter, so this is up to you. Also, keep in mind that hardwood tends to have more natural knots and texture in it.

Uses

Due to the strength and density of hardwood, it is most often used for framing, flooring, making large beams, and for other purposes where solid, strong, weight-bearing, burn-resistant, and moisture-resistant wood is needed.

On the other hand, for things like siding, veneers, furniture, roofing, doors, fences, and other such purposes, softwood is often used. With all of that said, did you know that about 80% of the timber used in the world is softwood? Yes, a lot of this has to do with cost.

Rot Resistance

Another important point of comparison here is moisture and rot resistance. Because hardwood is denser, it does not allow moisture to penetrate as easily as softwood, and therefore it has a higher degree of fungal and rot resistance.

There is a reason why ships were built out of hardwood, not softwood. You would not want to put a ship made out of porous and lightweight wood on the seas. It would soak up the water like a sponge.

Sap

Although this is generally irrelevant for building purposes, softwood trees do tend to produce more sap than hardwood trees, and it also tends to be much sweeter and tastier.

This is why maple syrup (made from the softwood deciduous maple tree) is so tasty and popular, whereas pine or mahogany syrup does not exist. If you try making syrup out of a hardwood tree, it’s not going to taste very good.

Which of the Two Should You Use?

Once again, let’s keep in mind that about 80% of the wood used today is softwood, and yes, if you want something that looks very nice, feels good to the touch, and doesn’t cost a fortune, then softwood is the way to go.

However, in all reality, if you want to build something solid, dense, and durable, something that can handle a lot of weight, has great impact resistance, and is burn and moisture resistant, then hardwood is the way to go. When it comes down to it, hardwood is usually always the better choice.

Put it this way, nobody makes floors out of softwood.

Summary

As you can see, both hardwood and softwood have their benefits, with softwood being the far more cost-effective and sustainable option, and hardwood being the generally better building material.