Out of The Woods #1: Hardwood vs Softwood

What is the difference between hardwood and softwood?

Rachel thought it would be fun to answer a question we get often from clients. Little did she know how complicated the answer can be!

The quick, simplified answer to the question "What is the difference between hardwood and softwood" is that hardwood is the wood of broad leafed deciduous trees (the kind that shed their leaves in the fall), whereas softwoods are the wood from needle leafed evergreen trees (which retain their needles all year long).

You can stop reading there if you like. But if you wanna get your geek on, let's get technical!

Hardwood: a maple with seeds

Hardwood: a maple with seeds

We had to turn to our Tree Nerd friends to fully understand this, and what we learned is pretty cool:

Reproduction

The actual distinction between hardwood and softwood lies in plant reproduction.

Hardwoods are angiosperms, and angiosperms are flowering plants. So they reproduce by making flowers that produce pollen and ovules, and get busy either via wind (like maples, poplars, birch) or by attracting pollinators with showy flowers (like Rachel's favorite Magnolia).

Softwood trees (conifers) are gymnosperm. Get this: conifers are a much older group of plants - they are so old that flowers had not evolved yet.

[DUDE. That calls for a whole other post about the evolution of trees.]

In fact, 'Gymnosperm' means 'naked seed'. This means that they do not have that protective ovary around them and aren't in an enclosure.

At this point, I asked the Tree Nerds why a cone isn't considered an enclosure and they agreed it was pretty silly and confusing. They explained that instead of flowers, the conifers produce what we call cones, "but are really super specialized, modified leaf and stem tissue. Almost all conifers pollinate and disperse their seeds on the wind. The cone protects the developing embryo/seed just like the fruit does - from insects and drying out and the elements. It's just not as advanced, evolutionarily."

Softwood: a conifer wtih cones

Softwood: a conifer wtih cones

The Terminology

Now, it must be said: the terms “hardwood” and “softwood” are actually pretty misleading.

It sounds like they refer to material density, right?

But they don’t. Most hardwoods are indeed pretty dense - but pick up a piece of Balsa, a hardwood, and you’d think you were picking up styrofoam! It’s so light that Balsa is often the wood chosen for model plane building.

Be they technically hardwood or softwood, it turns out that interesting correlations can be drawn between the speed at which a tree grows and its density. Slower growing trees produce wood that is more dense while fast growing trees produce wood that is less dense. Cool.

Choosing Hardwood vs Softwood

So how do we decide which woods to work with? There are all sorts of things to consider when making the choice, like budget, rigidity, flexibility, hardness, coloring and “figure” (We'll explain figuring in another post!).

So usually it isn’t about choosing hardwood vs. softwood, but rather choosing a specific wood that best matches your various criteria.

When it comes down to it, we here at B&B tend to stick to a small selection of native and locally grown hardwoods that are available, durable, and gorgeous.

Big thanks to Carissa Brown at Memorial University of Newfoundland for the Tree Nerdery!