Hardwoods VS. Softwoods

Botanically speaking, trees are categorized as either hardwoods or softwoods.  

Defining Hardwoods & Softwoods

Here’s a simple way to distinguish the two:

Hardwoods are deciduous (broad leafed), generally losing their leaves in the late fall and reproducing with flowers and fruits or nuts.

Softwoods on the other hand are coniferous. They retain their needle-shape leaves in the winter and reproduce by spreading their seed through open cones.

The terms “Softwood” or “Hardwood” have nothing to do with whether the wood is physically hard or soft.

All trees have two growth spurts each year. Their spring growth produces a light-colored material between the rings, called earlywood.  The more dense cells produced in the late summer and fall are know as latewood and these constitute the darker rings that every child has counted to determine a tree’s age. 

Softwood trees tenant to grow more rapidly than hardwoods and they have wider bands of earlywood than most slow-growing hardwoods.  Softwood trees also have larger, less dense cells in the earlywood than hardwoods.  This helps explain why a nail can be driven into a wide-celled pine board more easily than a tight-grained oak board; the cell structure is less dense, allowing easier penetration.

Color, Figure & Grain Pattern

Another property worth noting is that hardwood trees allow their branches time and space to grow in almost any direction, in order to maximize leaf exposure to sunlight.  The internal stresses present in the wood, resulting from the weight of these outspread branches, create interesting figure and grain patterns in the wood.

However, there is a price to pay for that beauty: highly figured wood tends to distort more readily than straight-grained boards as the stresses are released.

Three centuries ago, colonial woodworkers cut their lumber from vast tracts of virgin coniferous forest.  It wasn’t uncommon for them to clean white pine boards measuring 2,3 and even 4 ft. wide, with no knots or other disfigurement.  It’s no surprise that much of their early furniture was built from softwood.

Boards culled from today’s replanted pine forests, on the other hand, have knots every 12 to 18 in. along their length (one year’s growth).  Because of their minimal girth at harvest, boards often contain considerable sapwood as well.

Part of the attraction of woodworking comes from the opportunity to work with wood displaying dramatic differences in color, figure and grain pattern.  Wood color is a product of how it’s tannins, gums and resins react to exposure to the air.  Often, wood will continue to darken and change color over time, developing a rich patina.

The surface pattern on a board can be the result of numerous natural causes ranging from drought or freezing to prevailing winds, disease, age or insect damage.  Grain display is dependent on the direction and regularity of the wood fibers relative to the center of the trunk as well as how the lumber is cut from the tree.

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The Difference Between Hardwoods and Softwoods (I Swear, More Interesting Than It Sounds)

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Perhaps the most important and misunderstood aspect of defining wood as either hard or soft is that it has absolutely nothing to do with the individual qualities of the harvested wood itself. The most famous and oft used example of this concept is that of balsa wood which, despite being literally one of the least dense (and hence softest) woods of all, is technically classified as hardwood. Likewise, the wood of the yew tree, which is classified as being a softwood, is a great deal tougher than many hardwoods including several types of oak.

The Real Differences Between Hardwoods and Softwoods, Might Not Be What You Thought!

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Today we look at the difference between Hardwoods and Softwoods, talk about wood hardness and how its measured, cut some wood and split some wood.

Softwood Workbench VS Hardwood Workbench

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