There is something timeless about woodworking, whether you’re new to it yourself or have been making beautiful wood projects for decades. Regardless of your experience level, you have to know the difference between hardwood and softwood to get started.
Knowledge about different wood types has been passed down through generations of craftsmen, giving those who learn as much as they can a leg up as they make choices for specific projects. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but there are certain choices you could make that would raise the eyebrows of an expert woodworker.
You definitely want to avoid being asked something like, “You’re planning to make that out of this kind of wood?”
One of the major distinctions to consider is softwood versus hardwood. When you’re spending good money on high-quality materials like live edge slabs, you want to make sure the wood you choose is likely to stand up to the pressures of the project process. Learning about these distinctions helps you select a great project medium and create a beautiful, one-of-a-kind piece of furniture as a result.
Here’s everything you need to know about softwood and hardwood varieties.
Why Different Types of Wood Matter
Trees have unique properties, and those properties persist even when their wood is harvested, cut, and dried. Here are a few of the characteristics that make a difference in the type used for your woodworking project:
- Some woods are durable and resist warping and changing, while others will immediately take a dent or a ding.
- Flexible woods can be shaped and molded into curves of various angles, while other woods will resist being flexed or are actually highly brittle, snapping under the pressure to bend.
- Different woods respond differently to stains, sealants, and lacquer, so you want to talk to someone who knows wood well before choosing your materials.
Many hardwoods and softwoods share properties, which makes discussing which is right for which project a rather subjective topic. So view this more as a general guideline, rather than unbreakable rules.
While you may consider hardwoods to be named for their density and strength, they are actually distinguished because they come from flowering deciduous trees. Here’s what you need to know:
- The wood is obtained from the flowering trees’ angiosperms.
- In general, hardwoods tend to be more dense than softwoods.
- Hardwood trees are also slower-growing, which contributes to the fact that there are fewer of them in the woodworking world.
- Their prices are often a bit higher, though there are ranges of price even within the hardwoods available.
- The wood is sturdy, so it’s use in fine furniture-making is more common.
While there are many different hardwoods, some of the common include maple, beech, hickory, mahogany, oak, teak, and walnut. With Maple,beech and poplar on the softer side of hardwood.
Softwoods come from gymnosperm, or seed-producing trees such as pine, which are often referred to as evergreens. Here are a few facts to keep in mind:
- 80 percent of all timber comes from softwoods.
- Softwood timber is used in a huge variety of ways, from paper and fiberboard to building materials for construction projects.
- Softwoods are also used in furniture, although it is less commonly used for fine custom furniture than hardwood.
- This is partially due to it being lower in density and a little less sturdy, overall.
- Softwoods generally grow quickly and as a result are cheaper.
- Softwood tends to reproduce more quickly than hardwood.
- The soft material can splinter and split due to its larger grain, though, so it may not hold up over time as long as a hardwood would.
Examples of softwoods include pine, redwood, spruce, juniper, and Douglas fir.
The Care and Keeping of Hardwoods and Softwoods
Working with a softwood for a project gives you some distinct advantages, from the project being a little less pricey to the wood often being easier to work with or more flexible. If you know your project will be subjected to a lot of rigor, however — think flooring or other high traffic items that need to hold up to wear and tear — you may consider whether a hardwood’s advantages would be best, despite the extra cost.
Hardwoods tend to be sturdy, provide great longevity, and offer easy maintenance, and information on how your project will be used is crucial to choosing the right type.
Before selecting a particular type for your projects or applications, it’s important to know when softwood and hardwood should be used. Here are a few things to consider when you’re selecting the right lumber or products for your next woodworking project.
What to Ask When Choosing Between Hardwood and Softwood:
- How much will you generally need to work this wood?
- How is it likely to respond to the cutting or modifications you’ll need to make?
- What wear-and-tear from the elements or daily use will this project encounter?
- How does this kind tend to respond to those rigors?
- Will this wood perform better when cleaned frequently, refinished on occasion, oiled, or kept in a particular humidity?
- Are you prepared to shoulder the cost of this project in order to do the job right?
- Is there a more affordable option available?
- What kinds of trade-offs will you need to consider in order to use that option?
- Do you have the tools or access to equipment that will make this material look and work its best?
These questions can be answered by discussing the different types of wood with someone more knowledgeable. You’ll want to decide whether you’re committed to the unique needs of a type of wood before you opt for it, because a poorly maintained softwood may end up costing you more in replacement costs than a well-maintained, low-maintenance hardwood.
Ready to Get Started?
When you’re ready to start a woodworking project, the experts at Makers Woodshop are ready to provide the expert assistance you need, whether you want to commission a piece or source wood to start your own project. Contact us today to speak with a woodworking expert about the many kinds of projects out there, the differences between hardwood and softwood (and how each may impact those projects), and where to get started on yours.