Differences Between Softwood and Hardwood Trees

Infographic on differences between softwood and hardwood

When discussing solid wood flooring, it is not uncommon to hear the terms ‘hardwood’ and ‘softwood’. People just assume that hardwood is…well, ‘hard’ and softwood is respectively ‘soft’. No, it isn’t as simple as that. Those terms have nothing to do with tough the wood itself is. Yew, for example, is classified as softwood but it’s harder than many types of hardwood, including some types of oak.

What do those terms mean then? What is the difference between softwood and hardwood and how can this help us choose the right type of floor for us? 

Main Difference Between Softwood and Hardwood

All trees reproduce through seeds but not all seeds are alike. If a tree’s seeds are naturally covered with some kind of skin or shell, they are also referred to as ‘angiosperm’.  Typical examples are cherry, oak, maple and walnut.

Should the seeds produced by the tree be completely uncovered it is classified as ‘gymnosperm’. Well-known representatives are pine, cedar and spruce. 

There is more here. Angiosperm trees actually shed their leaves during the winter while gymnosperm species do not.  This is the easiest way to distinguish them. All gymnosperm trees are evergreen. This means that their very structure is also different. Hardwood has pores that vary in size and shape. Those pores make the grain denser and more resistant to fire compared to softwood.

Janka Hardness Test

The industrial standard for determining how hard is a piece of wood is the Janka Hardness Test. The test itself is about measuring the force needed to ‘embed a .444-inch steel ball to half its diameter into a certain type of wood to decide how suitable it is for flooring. According to this world standard, the softest wood in the world is considered to be the Cuipo tree, which curiously enough is hardwood. The obvious conclusion is that toughness has more to do with the individual wood species, rather than the classification it has been given. There is no denying, though, that hardwood is more resilient in general, and with denser grain. Often, but not always. 

Colour and Staining

Every wood specimen is unique and they show various characteristics. This is also reflected in the wood’s colour. Many softwoods have a red or yellow tint while hardwoods circle around white, brown and certain darker shades of red. This matters if you want to stain your floor and aim for specific colour the results will vary a lot depending on the species.

Pros and Cons

So, if we have to make a thorough comparison of which is better - softwood or hardwood, there is no real answer because each category has its merits. In the end, hardwood will be more durable and better suited to withstand damage especially wood flooring but this will be reflected in the price. Some people actually enjoy the looks of softwood and prefer it over the alternative. Pine floors, for example, are cheap and popular yet they will never match the durability of oak. It’s all about personal taste, really.

Hardwood is Tougher the majority of the time, with a darker colour, a lower amount of sap in it and somewhat higher fire resistance (as much as can this be said about the wood of any kind).

Softwood is cheaper, usually softer, with lighter colours, more sap in its structure and lighter in weight.