Can something that is hard also be soft? While that may sound like a Zen question, it actually is a legitimate question when it comes to wood and woodworking.
We’ve written often about hardwoods and softwoods, the most recent being about hickory, and before that, spruce. Whether a wood is a hardwood or a softwood actually doesn’t have to do with the hardness quality of the wood; rather, it has to do with the tree the wood comes from. But, even then, it is possible to be both hard and soft when it comes to wood.
What Is The Difference Between a Hardwood and a Softwood?
We said it had to do with the tree the wood comes from, and that is the determining factor that differentiates between hardwoods and softwoods.
Hardwoods fall under the category of deciduous trees. As you know, deciduous trees produce flowers and lose their leaves in the fall and winter, and are angiosperms, which has to do with their cell structure and how water is distributed to the entire tree. They are characterized by flat leaves and are pollinated by animals and birds. Examples of hardwoods include maple, hickory, cherry, and walnut.
Hardwood trees are slower-growing than softwood trees, and most hardwoods are more dense than softwoods.
By contrast, softwoods are evergreen trees and produce needles, not leaves. They do not produce flowers; they are conifers, and produce cones instead, and are mostly pollinated by wind. They are gymnosperms, which has to do with their cell structure and how water is conveyed throughout the tree.
Softwood trees grow faster than hardwood trees, and most have a lower density than hardwoods. Examples of softwoods include pine, spruce, and fir.
To draw a finer point on the difference and how we can tell which category a tree falls into; if a tree produces seeds that are in a shell, they will be hardwood trees; if a tree produces seeds that have no coating and simply fall to the ground, they will be softwood trees.
We’ve all worked with both hardwoods and softwoods in our woodworking shop. While we probably don’t think about the type of tree the respective woods come from, we know what they are like to work with when it comes to cutting, shaping, nailing, and screwing.
With more than 30 species of elm trees, there is a wide variety of woods to choose from. In North America, the most well-known are the American elm, the red elm, and the English elm.
Elm trees are deciduous trees, tossing their leaves in the fall and winter and producing new leaves in the spring. They actually grow fairly rapidly and can reach a height of 140 feet, although most will grow to between 60 – 115 feet, with a trunk size of 3 to 6 feet in diameter.
In Celtic mythology, the elm tree was associated with the Underworld. There was a special relationship between elves and elms, and the elves guarded burial mounds and passages to the Underworld. In Great Britain, elms are among the tallest and largest native trees.
In the latter half of the 20th century, much damage was done to the American elm by Dutch Elm disease, a fungal disease that is spread by the elm bark beetles. Once infected, elm trees will die. There are far fewer mature American elm trees today as a result, and elm trees do not grow as tall and large as they once did.
Nonetheless, forests of elm trees do exist, and the wood from them remains available for use. It is moderately priced, not as inexpensive as pine (a softwood that grows rapidly), but not as expensive as hardwoods like oak, cherry, and walnut. Among those types of hardwood, elm wood is one of the softer ones.
Elm wood is a beautiful wood with different colors between its heartwood and sapwood. Heartwood comes from the heart of a tree, as you would expect from its name, while sapwood surrounds the heartwood just beneath the outer bark of the tree. The colors range from light to medium reddish-brown in the heart of the tree to a much lighter, almost off-white, shade in the sapwood that surrounds it.
The wood grain of elm wood is unusual and unique. The grain is interlocked and has a coarse and uneven texture that features swirls and waves, presenting a truly unique appearance.
Elm wood is fairly easy to work with and takes to power tools much better than hand tools. As long as the blade is sharp, there is unlikely to be any tear-out when cutting. It also will hold nails and screws well. Elm wood also sands well to a very smooth finish so that the wavy and swirly grain can appear prominently.
To continue with the elm wood grain, the swirls and waves occur when the grain fibers reverse direction as the tree grows. You’ve no doubt gathered by now that elm is a hardwood – deciduous, angiosperm.
However, as hardwoods go, elm wood is fairly soft. Thus, a wood that is hard (hardwood) and soft, at least as measured by the Janka Scale.
Elm Wood On The Janka Scale
We all know by now the Janka Scale, developed by Gabriel Janka, to measure the degree of a wood’s hardness. The test involves measuring the pressure required to embed a half-inch steel ball halfway into a piece of wood.
The Janka rating of elm wood is 830. To put this into perspective, it rates as harder than softwoods but near the bottom with respect to all other hardwoods. By way of comparison, Southern Yellow Pine, a softwood, has a Janka rating of only 690; cherry, a hardwood, has a Janka rating of 950; and white oak, a rating of 1360.
As you can see, elm wood is harder than one of the harder softwoods but below the degree of hardness of other hardwoods, making elm wood a soft hardwood. It is quite durable, though, and tough, with its interlocking grain adding to that toughness and prevents it from splitting. Its uses include:
- cutting boards
- chair seats
- tool handles
- baseball bats
- hockey sticks
Even though elm wood is tough and durable, it also takes well to steaming and bending and will hold its shape after it has cooled and dried. It is resistant to decay and has even been used in shipbuilding in the past.
If you’ve never worked with elm wood, or seen its wavy, spirally grain, here’s a video that presents a lot of information about working with elm wood. At the very beginning of the video, you will see a couple of planks of elm wood with the wavy grain prominently displayed.
So now you know that something can be both hard and soft at the same time. Elm wood is a soft hardwood, as paradoxical as that may seem. Bring some into your shop some time and see what you think about working with it – a cutting board, maybe, or a seat for a chair mixed in with another hardwood.