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HARDWOOD VS. SOFTWOOD Understanding the difference

Wood is often classified into two categories including hardwood and softwood. But, the difference between these two types of wood isn’t in their name. That is, hardwood isn’t necessarily denser than softwood.
For instance, yew wood is classified as a softwood but is considerably tougher than certain hardwoods. Likewise, balsa wood is classified as a hardwood and yet it’s one of the least dense and softest types of wood.

So what’s the difference between hardwood and softwood if the difference isn’t in their name?

What makes a wood hard or soft?

To classify a wood as hard or soft depends on the seeds that the tree produces. A wood will be classified as a hardwood if the seeds that the tree produces have a coating. These coatings can either take the shape of a fruit or a shell.
A wood will be classified as a softwood if the seeds don’t have any type of coating and are instead dropped to the ground and left to the elements.

Hardwood trees are angiosperms, plants that produce seeds with some sort of covering. This might be a fruit, such as an apple, or a hard shell, such as an acorn.

Softwoods, on the other hand, are gymnosperms. These plants let seeds fall to the ground as is, with no covering. Pine trees, which grow seeds in hard cones, fall into this category. In conifers like pines, these seeds are released into the wind once they mature. This spreads the plant’s seed over a wider area.

For the most part, angiosperm trees lose their leaves during cold weather while gymnosperm trees keep their leaves all year round. So, it’s also accurate to say evergreens are softwoods and deciduous trees are hardwoods.

What types of trees are hardwood and softwood?

Hard wood is the wood that comes from flowering plants, also known as angiosperm. Angiosperm is a Greek term meaning “vessel seed.”

These types of trees include walnut, maple, and oak trees. However, hardwood trees don’t include monocots like palm trees and bamboo.

Softwood is the wood that comes from gymnosperm trees, which have needles and produce cones. Gymnosperm is a Greek term meaning “naked seed.” These trees are usually evergreen conifers such as spruce or pine trees.

What the difference in the physical structure of hard and softwoods?

There is a physical difference between hardwoods and softwoods, but it isn’t in the density of the wood. Hardwoods typically have very broad leaves (think of maple and oak leaves). Softwoods have cones and needles.
Hardwoods and softwoods also differ on a microscopic level. For instance, hardwoods have pores whereas softwoods don’t. These pores allow the hardwood to transport water throughout the wood to keep the tree healthy.
These pores are what creates the visual difference between the softwood and hardwood grain. Softwood has a light grain because it has no visual pores whereas hardwood grain is prominent.

What can hardwood and softwood be used for?

There are also differences between how hardwood and softwood can be used, although they’re sometimes used for the same application. In this instance, the type of tree being used comes into play because of how dense the wood will need to be.

Hardwoods are oftentimes denser than softwoods. For this reason, they’ll be used for flooring, construction, decks, and high-quality furniture.

Softwoods aren’t always dense, but they do have a wide range of applications. For instance, softwood is used for framing lumber, such as studs, joists, and beams. It is also used for trim and finish components such as doors or windows. It can also be used for engineered products, like plywood, OSB, and paper

Characteristics Softwood Hardwood
DurationLess durable wood.Hardwoods are highly durable and last for several decades.
Ring structureDistinct annual rings are found.The annual rings are not distinct.
Medullary raysIndistinct medullary rays.Distinct medullary rays.
Growth rateSoft wood trees grow faster than hardwood trees.The growth rate of this type of trees is slower.
Wood branchingCreates more branch or shoots.Have fewer shoots.
Tensile and shear strengthWell tensile and comparatively weaker shear strength.Good tensile and shear strength.
CostLess expensive.More expensive.
UsesPaper pulp, paper, solid wood products, Woodwares like homes and cabins and also for furniture.Generally flooring and furniture. Also used for papermaking.
ExampleBlack willow (Salix nigra), Redwood (Sequoioideae sp).Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus).
(Font: https://www.texastrees.org/american-chestnut-tree/)

References

  • https://www.horizonwood.com/hardwood-vs-softwood-understanding-the-difference-part-1/
  • https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/genetic/question598.htm
  • https://civiltoday.com/civil-engineering-materials/timber/150-difference-between-softwood-and-hardwood
  • https://www.easybiologyclass.com/difference-between-hardwood-and-softwood/
  • https://www.texastrees.org/american-chestnut-tree/
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