Hardwood versus Softwood, What’s the Diff?
Check out our logo. Leaves on one side, evergreen boughs on the other. Valencia Lumber and Panel lives in a world of hardwoods and softwoods. So, what’s the difference?
More importantly, what does it mean to YOU, the person trying to choose which lumber to use for your project?
Softwoods and hardwoods all have the potential to render beautiful woodworking projects. There is no binary choice like “softwoods are for framing and hardwoods are for furniture”.
For you Future Wood Nerds of America, there’s more… (don’t worry, not science-y)
But let’s get a little science out of the way first. “Hardwood” and “softwood” are botanical classifications based primarily on reproduction. Do you really care how two trees make whoopie? I didn’t think so.
Hardwoods are deciduous: they drop their leaves in the winter. Softwoods are conifers, which generally stay green year ‘round. Hardwoods produce seeds or nuts: think nut trees, fruit trees, the oaks. Softwoods have cones and emit pollen to spread to other trees: think spruce/pine/fir, redwood, cedar.
We can make some basic statements about these groups: the lumber of evergreens tend to be less dense than that of deciduous trees, and are therefore easier to cut and you can drive a nail into them without splitting. Hardwoods will be sturdier and more dense, and they’re prone to splitting if you pound a nail into them.
Generalizations are deceiving.
Balsa wood is almost the softest wood of all: it’s a hardwood. Yew is a softwood but it’s extremely hard, and very flexible. (Longbows were made from yew due to their springiness: they bent but didn’t break. A bunch of sorry medieval-knight pincushions learned that the hard way. Fascinating history, but I digress).
You: “I get it, but how does that help me choose?”
Think about your application first: what are you going to do with it? Then, what’s the look you want? Lastly, are there any special considerations (for instance: I want to make lawn furniture that’ll get rained on)?
Are you framing a house? Making an armoire? Building a gazebo outside? Putting down floors? Making cabinets?
If you’re framing, you’re using construction-grade softwoods, which might be called simply SPF (spruce/pine/fir all sorted together). Why? Easy to cut, can pound nails into it all day long, it’s light, and generally isn’t too sensitive to moisture. This material is generally “green”, not kiln dried, for a really good reason: it will be sheathed in some kind of sheet goods that provide the necessary shear strength to keep a structure strong, plum and square. The framing ain’t going anywhere. (By the way- Valencia Lumber isn’t a good source for this stuff).
If you’re building fine furniture, you’re more likely to use a hardwood: stability over decades, hold crisp sharp edges, consistency of color. But there’s plenty of Pine furniture that is just right for a certain “country” or “rustic” look.
Gazebo? For the same reason you’d use softwoods for framing, you’ll choose softwoods for exterior projects like a gazebo or pergola. Except that you also want good looks, and insect- and weather-resistance, so you’re looking for higher-grade appearance grade softwoods like Western Red Cedar, heart Redwood. (Ummm, be wary of framing materials here).
“I’m building patio furniture”. There are softwood and hardwood species that get along just fine outside, with varying degrees of success. As long as you accept that Mother Nature and Old Mister Sun will win eventually, you can think about species like these: White Oak (hardwood), Western Red Cedar (softwood), Cypress (hard), Teak (hard), Redwood (soft), Ipe (hard), Redwood (soft), Mangaris (hard).
The lines blur. Floors take a beating, so naturally you’re moving up the Janka hardness scale toward Sugar Maple, Hickory, the Oaks. But there are beautiful floors of wide-blank pine and Vertical-Grain Doug Fir that have been around for a hundred years. These floors may show the dings and dents of a life well-lived, but they’ve stood up to time. By the way, tight-grained VG fir is much harder than it’s Janka test would indicate. BE CAREFUL OF MADE-UP HARDWOOD NAMES! Flooring manufacturers are notorious for inventing bogus names for floors made of questionable materials from questionable (sometimes illegal) sources.
Well, you’re in luck. Cabinetry is primarily a vertical-surface application, but they endure a LOT of traffic. You’re not walking on it or setting things down on it all day, so you have some choices. Get your cabinet-maker’s opinion; they’ve worked with lots of species and can provide valuable insights. Lately, I’m in love with cherry cabinetry, but I’ve built gorgeous Shaker-style cabinet doors with Vertical Grain Doug Fir (softwood) with a natural finish and I couldn’t be happier.
I KNOW, THANKS FOR NOTHIN’
So, are you seeing a trend here? With just a few exceptions, no matter what your project, you can choose from a big selection of hardwoods and softwoods. Which we carry in abundance. And we’d be happy to help you make a selection that’s just right for you!
But at least you know why have this really cool “hybrid” logo (Jeffry made it):