There can naturally be some confusion about the two primary types of timber – hardwoods and softwoods – and what exactly makes them so different. Their names would indicate that a distinction between the two is as simple as levels of hardness, but in fact, the names can be more misleading than helpful. It’s true that most trees classified as “hardwood” produce tougher and more durable timber and trees called “softwoods” are notable for their pliancy and ease of carving, numerous exceptions to these rules suggest that there isn’t a clear line in the sand to distinguish which is which simply based on a measure as simplistic as hardness.
The truth is that trees are determined be “hard” or “soft” wood based on their botanical characteristics. What matters most is whether a tree is an angiosperm or gymnosperm, two technical terms that can be explained with relative simplicity.
Angiosperms, otherwise known as flowering plants, contain seeds within an ovary, often a fruit; conversely, gymnosperm seeds are external, found on the surface of scales, leaves, or most commonly as cones, inspiring the term “conifer.” It’s thanks to angiosperms that humans have nearly all forms of plant-based foodstuffs, including grains, gourds, and nightshades, which sound deadly, but in fact include such edible staples as potatoes, tomatoes, and chilies. Gymnosperms, which derive their name from an Ancient Greek phrase meaning “naked seed,” a name easily explained by its appearance. Picture an apple tree next to a pine tree, and you have a perfect visual of what distinguishes an angiosperm from a gymnosperm. One tree has fruits, flowers, and flat, broad-edged leaves, while the other has cones, needles, and the potential to become a lovely Christmas tree.
In addition to the visible surface-level differences between hardwoods and softwoods, the two demonstrate structural differences at the microscopic level. When viewed under magnification, hardwoods show a distinct pattern of pores, made by the vessel elements that transport water and nutrients throughout the wood, much like veins carry blood through the human body. These pores give hardwood its prominent grain patterns, while the absence of such vessel elements in gymnosperms lend softwoods a lighter, more even grain. Softwoods are also more likely to grow tall and straight, lending themselves to being cut into long planks for woodworking purposes.
The majority (around 80%) of timber used for commercial purposes is some variety of softwood, valued for its ease of use. Softwoods are commonly used for paper, furniture, indoor construction, cabinets, fiberboard, artisan crafts, and DIY projects. Although they tend to give off copious amounts of smoke when lit, softwoods are nonetheless excellent kindling for firewood, and all that smoke may even be put to good use when smoking meat. Some softwoods, like Douglas pine and white cypress, can even be utilized in hardier construction, such as roof tiles or structural framing; these varieties are as tough or tougher than most hardwoods.
Hardwoods and softwoods all exist on a spectrum of density, from the extraordinarily tough lignum vitae of the Caribbean and the ironwood tree native to Australia to the feather-light balsa wood used, for example, to help toy model airplanes fly. Perhaps surprisingly, balsa is technically considered a hardwood – a perfect example of how the classification alone doesn’t tell you everything about a particular type of wood. However, hardwoods are categorically considered more suitable for applications necessitating sturdy, reliable material. They also make far better firewood logs, having higher levels of BTUs (British Thermal Units), indicating a greater capacity to burn longer. Domestic hardwoods within the United States include oak, maple, ash, beech, and cherry; other, more exotic hardwoods must be imported from tropical locations, such as Honduran mahogany, Brazilian walnut, Spanish cedar, grenadilla, and teak.
As might be expected for denser varieties of wood, hardwood trees experience a slower growth rate than their softwood counterparts. As a result, they are correspondingly more costly due to the inherent limitations of their supply, despite being more common around the world than softwoods. However, they are in high demand for quality, long-lasting furniture, flooring, and outdoor construction, and need has the potential to outstrip supply if particular valuable types of lumber are not replanted at a sufficient rate.
At the moment, teak is a one variety of hardwood whose demand is outstripping supply; as the much-desired commodity is harvested at a rate approximately 8 to 12 times its rate of replanting, the consumer cost of teak continues to rise. It epitomizes the best qualities of a good hardwood: strong; resistant to weather, termites, rot, and fading from sunlight exposure; possesses a beautiful natural hue and grain, but will develop a sophisticated patina over time. These properties make teak in particular an ideal hardwood for shipbuilding, ornamental furniture, and outdoor construction. It is exactly the type of commodity that will benefit from greater capital investment, ensuring profits for the investor and a continuing supply of beautiful, hardy teak for consumers.