Hardwoods and Softwoods – A Guide

When looking at furniture, one often hears the expression “hardwood and softwood.” Many people do not understand the difference. This article will help you to understand about timber choices which will help you gain more confidence when you next buy furniture.

What is hardwood?

Hardwoods come from trees which bear fruit. Nuts are also a type of fruit. Some examples are cherry, hazel, apple and beech trees. Some them are deciduous which means that they are broad-leaved and lose their leaves in winter, for example oak and ash. Others are grown in tropical regions where there are no winters, therefore they do not tend to have a leaf-fall as temperatures remain fairly constant throughout the dry and wet seasons. Some hardwoods from these hot regions are mahogany, teak and sapele.

Hardwoods are often, but not always, harder than softwoods. It is important to note that hardness is not the defining factor though. This means that balsawood, favoured by model-makers and so easily damaged with a fingernail, is a hardwood. Other examples of hardwoods are iroko, ebony, maple and walnut.

What is softwood?

Softwoods come from trees which bear cones – in other words, conifers. They usually have needle-like leaves and grow in the cooler temperate zones of the world such as Scotland, the Alps and Scandinavia. Examples are the ubiquitous pine, spruce – which is often referred to a “whitewood” – red deal and scots pine.

Many have been introduced into parts of England instead of the native broad-leaved woodland. Softwoods also used are yew, larch, hemlock, redwood and cedar.

Are there any other differences?

One big aspect is the length of time it takes to grow to a full-sized tree which is ready to cut down to make into furniture. Softwoods can achieve full size in as little as 30 years. Deciduous hardwoods will take around 100 years to get to the same maturity – that is over three times as long. That explains why that lovely oak sideboard is so much more expensive than the same design in pine. Another aspect that affects the cost is how easy or difficult it is to “work” the material. Harder timber takes more effort. I mentioned earlier that the hardness is not necessarily a reliable indicator and cited balsa as a very soft hardwood. One very hard softwood is parana pine. It is often found in Victorian and Edwardian homes in solid wooden doors and is harder than many hardwoods.

Armed with the knowledge in this article, you will now be able to understand why certain types of timber cost more than others.