Hardwood versus Softwood Furniture

by | Dec 16, 2022

Ever considered what wood makes the best furniture?

Well, the answer isn’t quite as simple as it first appears. There are so many applications for wood in our homes and outdoor spaces, that it’s important to make sure the woods we use are fit for purpose.

In this article, we look at the difference between hard and soft wood and where they’re used for best results.

But first, the ‘science’ bit….

Hardwood usually comes from deciduous trees that lose their leaves annually and are most likely to produce nuts and fruits through the year. They are slow growing which gives the trunk much tighter rings. It’s these rings that contribute to their hardness.

Softwoods come from coniferous trees and grow at a much more rapid pace than deciduous trees. They are evergreen and grow cones instead of fruit and nuts. Typical evergreen softwood trees are pine and fir trees.

Application of various woods is important because they have varying durability. If, for example, you use softwood for outdoor furniture, where it will be open to the elements, you’ll soon be in trouble!

The durability of wood is ranked by a system called The Janka hardness scale. Peculiar as it seems, it uses an 11.28mm steel ball embedded into the middle of a piece of wood to figure out how hard it is.

The Janka scale is important because it helps to decide what wood type is fit for its required purpose.

Applications for hardwood 

It’s not surprising that hardwoods have the highest Janka rating, meaning they stand up to stress and strain much better than softwoods. This is why they’re ideal for flooring, cabinetry and worktops. Softwoods would simply fall apart in no time, when used in these situations.

Applications for softwood 

Softwoods are used where there isn’t so much wear and tear on the furniture item. They’re very often used for picture frames, shelves, hand rails etc. However, softwoods can be used to craft bigger furniture pieces, such as tables or cabinet doors, where a Janka scale of over 900 will suffice.

Softwoods are not recommended for outdoor furniture due to the weather conditions. Remember that softwoods are exactly what they imply and don’t do well when subjected to stress, wear and tear or moisture.

Costs differences 

It stands to reason that because hardwood is much slower growing than softwood, takes more drying time and is more robust and durable, it will obviously command a higher price. Having said that, the use of softwood in furniture is becoming more expensive because of the modern techniques that are being used to increase their durability.

For instance, oak, which is a hardwood, was used extensively for kitchen cabinets in the 1980’s. It was expensive but lasted for decades. Over time, we’re seeing kitchen cabinets being made from chipboard and plywood with softwood veneers and solid softwood doors. The use of modern technology makes these types of wood very strong and durable.

Outdoor furniture 

The best woods for outdoor furniture are teak and mahogany. They are superior in quality and durability, and if looked after and regularly maintained, they will last for many years. They are expensive, but when you factor in ‘cost per use’, there is little doubt that they will repay their initial investment quickly.

Indoor furniture 

Popular hardwoods for indoor furniture include oak and cherry. Cherry has a very fine grain and is on the softer side of all the hardwoods.

Softwoods are coming more popular because of their availability and with proper joinery and modern finishing techniques, they have become extremely durable.

Staining 

If you’re looking to add a modern stain to the wood, then consideration has to be given to the cell structure. As a general rule of thumb, hardwood has large cells which are very porous and are therefore likely to take up a stain very well and very evenly.

Softwoods, on the other hand, such as pine, have much smaller cells that aren’t as porous, making it difficult to get an even tone of stain and finish across the whole wood piece.

Shaping and carving 

If intricate carving and shaping is needed, then only softwood can be used, as hardwood is far too difficult, costly and time consuming to shape and carve.

Deciduous (Hardwood) Types 

Oak 

There are 2 types of oak used in furniture making – red and white. Although they are the same species, their cell structures are very different. Red oak has a grain that is almost honeycomb like in texture and is a popular choice for flooring, cabinetry and furniture.

White oak has balloon like swelling (tyloses) that fill its pores preventing water from entering. This makes the wood itself more water resistant and is therefore a great choice for outdoor furniture and flooring.

Cherry 

As mentioned earlier, cherry has a very fine grain, but it has a Janka scale of just 950. This means that it’s a great choice for cabinetry and some furniture pieces, but it’s not recommended for flooring.

It’s Janka rating makes it suitable for shaping even though it’s technically a hardwood.

Ash 

Ash, part of the olive family, is one of the softer hardwoods with relatively porous cells. The wood is durable but flexible as well. Black Ash is slightly stronger than White Ash, due to its closer ring spacings.

Because of its porous cells, it takes staining and painting extremely well and is perfect for flooring, cabinetry and furniture.

Maple 

Maple is one of the strongest hardwoods on the market, with a Janka rating of 1450. Because of this exceptional durability, it is ideal for flooring, cabinetry and all types of furniture. It has a very fine grain, making it difficult to get an even finish when staining, but the grain is so beautiful anyway, why would you want to anyway?

Birch 

A popular hardwood which is often used for furniture all over the home. It stains better than maple because of its closed cell structure.

Teak 

Considered one of the kings of the deciduous tree family, it is prized for its hardness, resistance to moisture and infestations. It’s no surprise that teak is used for outdoor furniture, decking and boat construction. It’s extraordinarily dense with a smooth, straight grain and takes staining in its stride!

Coniferous (Softwood) Types 

Some of the most popular softwoods for furniture are Cedar, Fir and Pine.

They are popular because they are easier to work with than hardwoods because they can be shaped and moulded more easily.

Having said that, they are nowhere near as durable as the deciduous hardwood species.

Summary  

Your questions answered

  1. What wood is best for outdoor furniture?

You need to use a highly durable, very strong, water resistant hardwood. Teak, mahogany and white oak are idea.

  1. How long does it take for a hardwood tree to grow?

It usually takes up to 100 years for a deciduous tree to fully grow. This is why we have sustainability problems when we over harvest over a short space of time.

  1. How long does it take for a softwood tree to grow?

In contrast to deciduous trees, it takes 75% less time to grow a fully mature coniferous tree – that’s approximately 25 years. It makes sense to use this type of wood for much of our furniture requirements due to its workability and sustainability.

  1. Which is the most durable wood type – hard or soft?

Hardwood is by far the most durable of wood types. Hardwood comes from deciduous trees and softwood comes from coniferous trees. It takes up to 100 years to grow a hardwood tree as opposed to 25 years for a fully grown softwood tree.

  1. Which types of wood are best for staining?

Some woods are not very good at taking stains. These are the ones that have very fine grains.

The best ones for staining are Birch, Ash, Red Oak and Pine

  1. Which is the most sustainable wood?

Softwoods are undoubtedly the more sustainable tree species. It takes over 100 years to grow a deciduous (hardwood) tree versus 25 years for a coniferous (softwood) tree to mature.

  1. Which wood has the best fire resistance?

Hardwoods have much better fire resistance than softwoods. That’s because their cells structure is densely packed and their growth rings are much tighter than softwood.

However, fire resistant treatments are applied to most softwoods to increase their resistance to flame.

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