Hardwood or Softwood…what’s the big difference?

Since Door Renew works on doors, most of which are made of wood, we’re exposed to quite a few varieties of wood. While we’re not botanists we’ve learned a thing or two about wood simply out of necessity and proximity. No doubt you’ve heard the terms hardwood and softwood. Aside from the obvious meaning have you ever pondered why some trees produce hardwood and others softwood? You have, really? If true, then you’re in the right place…let’s take a quick look and scratch the surface on what accounts for the difference. When you notice text that’s highlighted or of a different color, there’s a link associated with it. Just click and you’ll be taken to a website with much more info. Yes, it’s more than a bit geeky but we just love wood so can’t help it.

If you thought that hard woods are just that, hard, and softwoods are soft you’d certainly be the ballpark.  If you had a piece of oak and another of white pine it would be pretty easy to tell which is the hardwood and which is the softwood. By knocking on them with your knuckle, digging your fingernail into the surface or poking them with a screwdriver you’ll notice a difference. The oak will sound more solid. Your fingernail will easily make an impression in the white pine. The screwdriver will barely dent the oak but will make a big gouge in the pine.  The oak is a hardwood and the white pine a softwood. But you already knew that, didn’t you? Let’s dig a bit deeper into the differences, at the 101 level since we’re wood workers after all and not botanists.

 With a very broad brush we can say that hardwoods come from trees that have broad leaves which are dropped each year. Deciduous is the fancy term for this. Softwoods, on the other hand, come from trees that have needles which are not shed each year. There are exceptions to both, as we’ll see later. So, deciduous trees such as Oak, Mahogany, Maple, Hickory and Walnut, to name just a few, are hardwoods. White pine, Cedar, Fir, Redwood and Spruce are examples of Softwood. All these would pass the hard vs soft test mentioned above. We also mentioned above that there are exceptions. That is, there are woods that feel soft but are actually classified as a hardwood species as well as those that feel hard but are from a tree in the softwood designation.  Remember those balsa wood airplanes you used to get as a kid? The wood was super light, soft and pliable – which is why they chose it for a toy airplane. The Balsa tree is actually a broad-leafed, deciduous hardwood. Go figure. At the other end of the spectrum is the needle-bearing Yew. It bears a softwood designation but the actual wood is quite hard. The exceptions between hardwoods and softwoods is nothing compared to the confusion between fruits and vegetables – that’s a knotty mess!

 So, what is it, then, that really accounts for the difference? Since this is a 101 level description we’ll try and keep it basic. In short, it’s the cellular structure that determines hardwood from softwood. The hardwoods are angiosperm trees. They have vessels (think of veins in the human body) that move water throughout the tree. These veins create pores that are visible under a microscope. The cell walls of these pores and vessels are quite thick, dense and hard. There’s much more solid component in a cubic inch of a hardwood than there is a softwood, making it, well, harder. Softwoods are gymnosperm trees. Instead of veins/vessels for transporting water and sap, they use medullary rays and tracheids to move the liquid around – rather like water being absorbed by a sponge and then spreading throughout. If you put a softwood under a microscope you wouldn’t see pores. Softwoods are less dense than hardwoods and are therefore lighter and softer, exceptions aside. It’s also the vessels and pores that, for the most part give hardwoods a more distinct grain pattern. There’s more to grain pattern than this, such as growth/annual rings but we won’t get into that in this piece.

 The different properties of the woods determine when and where it is used. The distinct and beautiful grain patter of a hardwood makes it very popular for finished items such as furniture and doors. Its hardness and durability make it great for wood floors and decks. Softwoods are great for building materials such as studs, rafters, subfloors and plywood. Softwoods tend to grow much more quickly than hardwoods. This makes it more plentiful and affordable, which is why it’s used so prevalently in construction. With long growing cycles the wood from hardwood trees is not nearly as plentiful, which makes it more expensive. It’s no wonder then that thin hardwood veneers are often used over a softwood core. This combines the beautiful appearance of the hardwood grain with the availability and affordability of the softwood core. As an interesting aside… Homeowners frequently tell us they have, for example, a ‘..solid mahogany door..’ They believe that their door is a solid hunk of mahogany hewn from the trunk of a single mahogany tree. This is not the case, nor should it be. Aside from the cost-savings of having a softwood core there are other benefits. If there door were a single, solid chunk, just think of the warping, bending and twisting that would occur. After only a few months the door would no longer fit in the frame. By using multiple wood components, oriented in different directions, the door is much better equipped to withstand the effect of humidity fluctuations, temperature changes, sun, moisture and anything else that Mother Nature throws at them.

 Wood is a miraculous, beautiful, wonderful product. We hope that by looking at hardwoods vs softwoods we’ve sparked in you the same interest in all things wood that we enjoy.

Ad when your front door needs refinishing, whether it’s wood, fiberglass or steel, please reach out to your local Door Renew location.