Design Spotlight

What’s the difference between hardwood and Softwood?

You hear a lot of talk of both ‘hardwood’ and ‘softwood’ trees when it comes to construction projects. But what is the real difference between them? Are hardwoods harder than softwoods? Well, no, not necessarily! In fact, the lightest wood around, balsa, is considered a hardwood!

Their naming is based more in the science of the species of trees the woods come from. Softwood and hardwood tree are distinguished by the way they reproduce, not by their appearance or end-use. All trees reproduce using SEEDS, and it’s the seed-structure that defined the type of tree they are.

Generally, hardwood comes from deciduous trees – that is trees with broad leaves that shed annually. Softwood comes from conifers – also know as evergreens – that have needles instead of leaves, and tend to grow more quickly than their hardwood cousins.

A hardwood is an angiosperm – a plant that produces seeds with some sort of covering such as a shell or a fruit. Angiosperms usually tend to form flowers to reproduce. Birds, bees and other insects attracted to the flowers carry the pollen to other trees to fertilize them. When fertilized these trees form fruits or nuts that contain their seeds. Some common hardwoods trees include eucalypts, beech and blackwood.

Softwood trees are known as a gymnosperm plant. 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 trees include pine, redwood, douglas-fir, cypresses and larch.

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

The hardwood/softwood terminology does make some sense though. Evergreens tend to be less dense than deciduous trees – and are therefore easier to cut. And most hardwoods are more dense and sturdier, meaning that the wood will split if you pound a nail into it. That’s why you need to drill screw or bolt holes to fasten hardwood together.

Structural lumber is soft and light, accepts nails easily without splitting and thus is great for general construction.

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