What’s the Difference between Hardwood and Softwood?

Contrary to popular belief, the difference between hardwood and softwood has little to do with the density of the wood itself. Instead, these designations refer to how the tree reproduces. A hardwood is an angiosperm (or flowering plant) that reproduces by dropping a hard seed, such as a fruit seed or an acorn. A softwood is a gymnosperm, which spreads its seeds more freely, typically producing cones that allow the wind to distribute the naked seeds far and wide.

Overall, hardwoods do tend to be more dense than softwoods, but there are exceptions -- such as feather-light balsa wood, which is classified as a hardwood.

What wood works best?:

  • Generally, angiosperm trees lose their leaves during cold weather. Gymnosperm trees keep their leaves -- often, these are needles -- all year long.

  • Softwoods tend to grow faster, and cost less. Hardwoods are more likely to be found in high-end furniture and used in construction that needs to last. But about 80 percent of all timber comes from softwood.

  • Examples of softwood include cedar, Douglas fir, juniper, pine, redwood, spruce, and yew. Hardwoods include hickory, oak, maple, and walnut.

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