What is the difference between softwood and hardwood?

Coniferous trees are softwood.

Different types of construction projects require different types of wood, and many people are familiar with the concepts of hardwood and softwood. Few people know why woods are divided into these two categories, however, and assume that hardwoods are hard while softwoods are soft. This distinction is incorrect: balsa wood, for example, is classified as a hardwood, despite being very soft and light. The two types of wood are actually distinguished botanically, not by their end use or appearance.

Hardwoods come from deciduous trees.

In general, hardwood comes from a deciduous tree that sheds its leaves annually, and softwood comes from a conifer, which usually remains an evergreen. Hardwoods tend to be slower growing and therefore are usually denser, but not always. Softwoods often grow in large expanses of trees that can spread for miles, while hardwoods tend to be found mixed with a variety of other species.

An eagle carved from balsa wood, a hard wood.

Softwood comes from a type of tree known as a gymnosperm. Gymnosperms reproduce by forming cones that emit pollen to be spread by the wind to other trees. Pollinated trees form bare seeds that are dropped to the ground or carried by the wind so that new trees can grow elsewhere. Some examples include pine, redwood, spruce, cedar and larch.

A hardwood is an angiosperm, which means it produces seeds or closed fruits. Angiosperms usually form flowers to reproduce. Birds and insects attracted to the flowers carry the pollen to other trees, and when fertilized, the trees form fruits like apples or nuts and seeds like acorns and walnuts. Examples include maple, balsa, oak, elm, mahogany and sycamore.

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Mahogany is an example of hardwood.

Both types of wood are used for everything from structural beams to decorative details. Some woods within each category are favored for specific uses: maple and elm are common elements in flooring. Redwood is often used for decking and other outdoor applications because the wood is naturally insect resistant and does not need to be treated with hazardous chemicals. Balsa is used for light wood models and projects because it is easy to work with.

Wood harvested from maple, oak and other hardwood trees is often used to produce hardwood floors.

When choosing wood for any project, there are a few things a woodworker should look for, regardless of the wood being used. It should have a firm, even texture with no excessive knots or pattern changes unless it is being used for decorative purposes. The wood must also be free of cracks or splits and must be ground along the grain so that it is strong. Woodworkers should be wary of stains and discoloration, which can represent exposure to water that can result in rotting later on.

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