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Hardwood or Softwood Timber? Which is best for the job?

The use of timber in our daily life dates back to prehistoric times when humans would use wood to create tools and weapons or as a source of fuel for fire.


The use of timber in our daily life dates back to prehistoric times when humans would use wood to create tools and weapons or as a source of fuel for fire. Jump forward a few hundred thousand years and timber was introduced to construction. In particular the building of shelters such as Neolithic longhouses, farm dwellings for humans and animals and boats to cross the waters. As we entered the common era, the Romans were using wood for writing tablets, and in 105 CE, the Chinese created paper from… you guessed it, wood.

As time goes by, it is human nature to attempt to improve our methods and practices, and the use of timber is no exception. In the present day, we have a greater understanding of timber, so where our ancestors would consider all timbers to be similar, we know the difference between hardwood and softwood, ensuring the ideal timber is used every time.

timber product hardwood and softwood
shaker timber wall panelling with table and lamp decor in a room

How can you tell if a timber is hardwood or softwood?

The Main Differences

Establishing whether a piece of timber is hardwood or softwood can be achieved through observations and tests – if the wood’s origins are unknown. These include the following:

  • Grain and Texture

Hardwood timber typically has a more varied grain pattern due to the presence of vessels, which appear as pores in the wood. Since softwoods lack these pores, they tend to have a smoother grain.

  • Weight and Density

Hardwoods tend to be heavier and denser than softwoods. However, there are exceptions to the rule, such as balsa wood which is a lightweight hardwood, so weight and density shouldn’t be used as the only factors to determine.

  • Colour

Hardwoods can exhibit a wider range of colours and are often darker than most softwoods. Once again, this is not a definitive method because there are considerable variations in both types of timber.

  • Chemical Reaction

Chemicals, such as iron acetate (which can be created with vinegar and steel wool), can be used to test the wood. Tannin-rich hardwoods will react and darken significantly, whilst softwoods tend not to react.

To achieve the most accurate results, the best way of testing is to incorporate a combination of the above methods, and, if it still isn’t possible to identify precisely, then a detailed analysis can be achieved using microscopic examination or even DNA testing.

What varieties of hardwood timber are there?

Hardwood timbers come from various trees which have the botanical classification of angiosperms and include the following:

Oak (Quercus spp.)

There are many species of oak including red and white oak. Oak is known for its strength and is commonly used in furniture, flooring and construction.

Maple (Acer spp.)

Hard maple, such as sugar maple, is prized for its firmness and is also used for flooring and furniture. Maple can also come in a softer variety but is still considered a hardwood.

Mahogany (Swietenia spp.)

Considered a luxury material, mahogany is a tropical hardwood often used in fine furniture and decorative items.

Birch (Betula spp.)

Birch is a hard and strong timber, often used for furniture, doors and plywood.

Beech (Fagus spp.)

Beech has a fine, tight grain and high density, making it ideal for furniture, flooring and, thanks to its toughness, it is perfect for children’s toys.

Rosewood (Dalbergia spp.)

Known for its rich colour and grain, rosewood is commonly used in fine musical instruments, high-end furniture and decorative items.

Ebony (Diospyros spp.)

Ebony is a dense black hardwood, highly valued for its smooth finish and also used in musical instruments, especially for piano keys.

Thanks to the natural properties of most hardwood timbers, one of the most common uses is in fine furniture. However, each species of hardwood comes with its own look and feel. Selecting the ideal hardwood for your intended purpose should be based on multiple factors, including workability, durability, colour and grain.

What varieties of softwood timber are there?

Softwood timber primarily comes from coniferous trees, which are classified botanically as gymnosperms. Common species of softwood include the following:

Pine (Pinus spp.)

There are numerous species of pine, including white pine, yellow pine and ponderosa pine. Pine is often found in framing, furniture and panelling.

Spruce (Picea spp.)

Spruce is commonly found in musical instruments, such as violins and pianos, and the manufacture of high-strength paper.

Cedar (Cedrus spp.)

Known for their aromatic wood, which is naturally resistant to insects and rot, cedars are ideal for outside applications such as in shingles, siding and outdoor furniture.

Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens.)

Redwood is known for its high resistance to rot and decay, making it ideal for outdoor applications such as decking and fencing.

Yew (Taxus spp.)

Although it is classed as a softwood, yew is extremely tough and used for speciality products like archery bows, musical instruments and veneers.

Thanks to the faster growth rate and ease of processing, softwoods are considered the more responsible and sustainable timber choice for many applications. Softwood trees are often found in forests that are sustainably managed. The ideal softwood for your needs will be determined by its individual properties such as strength, flexibility, colour and resistance to decay.

Still unsure which timber is right for you?

You may have identified whether your material is a hardwood or softwood timber, you may know which precise species you have and you may know the individual characteristics of that timber, but is it the right one for your job?

At Coventry Timber Products, we understand it can be a little confusing since so many varieties of timber are used for similar functions with a lot of crossover. So, get in touch with our friendly team and let us direct you to the optimum material to ensure the most professional finish that will last.

For more information on Hardwood or Softwood Timber? Which is best for the job? talk to Coventry Timber Products Ltd

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