We all know the words hard and soft, and we know what they mean, generally. When it comes to wood, though, it is not quite so intuitive as we might think.
Those of us who work with wood know that there are hardwoods, and there are softwoods. It is an oversimplification, though, to suggest that all hardwoods are hard, and all softwoods are soft. While that may be true generally, there are exceptions, the most often cited being two: yew, for instance, is a softwood that is actually quite hard; while balsa is a hardwood that is softer than any softwood, the stuff that model airplanes were made within our youth.
To break it down even further, let’s consider these points:
- Hardwoods come from angiosperm trees, ie., flowering trees like oak and walnut;
- Softwoods come from gymnosperm trees, usually evergreen conifers (they make cones) like pine and spruce;
- Hardwoods under a microscope show vessels (like blood vessels) that carry water throughout the tree, and these appear as pores;
- Softwoods under a microscope show tracheids (cells that conduct water), and present no pores;
- Hardwoods are the woods of choice for high end furniture, flooring, and anything built with wood that needs to last;
- Softwoods represent about 80% of all timber, with a wide range of uses and applications that include windows, doors, MDF, furniture, and paper;
- Hardwoods include balsa, beech, oak, maple, walnut, teak, and mahogany;
- Softwoods include cedar, juniper, pine, redwood, spruce, and the previously mentioned yew;
- Hardwoods are the more expensive, and have a slower growth rate;
- Softwoods are less expensive and grow more rapidly.
Other Distinctions Between Hardwoods and Softwoods
Hardwoods, the deciduous trees, have broad leaves that are shed in the fall and winter months, reappearing as buds in the spring and leaves as those buds open. Softwoods, though, tend to have needles and cones.
The pores in hardwoods are what give the prominent and desirable grains that show so well. Softwoods do not have pores, and so present a soft grain. Each has its own sense of style and desirability, and it is usually the density of the woods, along with the type, that determines the uses to which the wood is put.
As mentioned, hardwoods are the more expensive of the two types of woods, even though hardwoods are more common throughout the world than softwoods. Softwoods, the less expensive, also tend to be much easier to work with than hardwoods.
The upside of hardwood for a project, though, is that most will be chosen because they last longer and are more durable. Thus, they are used for more high-end furniture projects, flooring, and such.
The answer to the main question, then, should be easy for you to answer now. Pine is a softwood, identified as such by two telltale signs:
- The tree produces needles and cones, is an evergreen, and does not have leaves; and,
- The wood has tracheids, the cells that transport water throughout the tree, and under a microscope presents no pores.
We like to offer video recommendations for all of our articles, and for this one, we found two. We chose them for particular reasons, too.
The first is somewhat academic and presented by someone with a British accent. Brits always seem to sound so smart.
For the second video, we went with the old tried and true “This Old House,” which never lets us down. In this video, you will also learn a wood you most likely don’t know and have never worked with, a hardwood that is so dense it doesn’t float. It’s worth a watch just for that reason alone.
Pine is an intuitive softwood. It isn’t necessary to know it is an evergreen conifer (needles and cones), or that the trees use tracheids to distribute water throughout the tree. The wood feels soft, and your fingernail can make a dent in it.
Not all pines are equally soft, though. Some pine species can challenge some hardwoods for durability, even. It is fair to say, though, that most common commercial species in the US such as the eastern white pine, sugar pine, and western white pine, will measure on the hardness scale well below most hardwoods.
Wood is ranked on the Janka scale – named after Gabriel Janka who created it – that relies on a very simple test. A hydraulic press pushes a half-inch steel ball into the wood being tested, and the force required in that task gives the wood’s hardness measurement.
Here’s something that might help you win a Trivial Pursuit game: balsa ranks at the bottom of the Janka scale at 100 lbs, even though balsa is a hardwood; and lignum vitae, the tropical wood mentioned in the “This Old House” video is at the top with a Janka score of 4500 lbs. That’s the wood that doesn’t even float in water.
Most pines have a Janka scale rating of between 300 and 1000 lbs. The three mentioned earlier rank near the bottom of the Janka scale: eastern white pine at 380 lbs, sugar pine at 380 lbs, and western white pine at 420 lbs.
Other pine species don’t measure much higher, either. Ponderosa pine comes in at 460 lbs, while jackpine measures in at 570 lbs. They don’t come close to the Janka scale rating for hardwoods.
Yet, notwithstanding this, pine is still an oft-used wood in home construction, including interior moldings and trim (windows, doors, baseboards), and furniture. The reasons are several:
There’s plenty of it. It grows at almost any elevation, and in almost any climate, and is easy to harvest. These all contribute to an inexpensive wood.
Ease of use. It’s easy to cut and work with, and it can be made more durable by chemical treatment. Pressure-treated pine is used in outdoor decks, pergolas, and other outdoor construction. Most expensive.
It’s good looking. The grain is open and pleasing, and it takes staining well to enhance that grain. While pine lumber is often knotty, the knots do add an appealing aesthetic when used in indoor paneling and even in cabinets. Less expensive.
Pine also is sold in grades, with Select being the “cleanest” in appearance (no blemishes or knots); Common having slight blemishes and some knots; and Construction, with plenty of knots and blemishes but still structurally sound. The latter is the grade most often pressure-treated to enhance durability for outdoor projects. Least expensive.
It didn’t take all these words to answer the question, of course, but now you know a lot more than you did before about hardwoods and softwoods.