Hard vs Soft Woods


In general, hardwoods come from trees that produce seeds that have a coating in the form of a fruit or a shell. Softwoods trees by contrast do not produce seeds that have a coating, they produce seeds that are dropped to the ground as in the case of trees that produce cones such as connifers, making it easier to propagate. Softwood trees usually have needles and cones.

Hardwood trees typically take longer to grow, creating dense woods that are likelier to split when nailed. Softwood trees grow much faster and produce lumber does not split as easily.

How hard and soft woods tested are tested

The Janka Scale of Hardness is the most common method for testing and communicating the hardness of wood. It uses a number system to describe the wood and how much of pounds-force (lbf) is required to imbed a .444″ (11.28 mm) diameter steel ball into the wood to half the ball's diameter.

Some woods that are considered hardwood, such as Balsa (90 lbf) and Paulownia (260 lbf) are actually quite soft, in fact, softer than softwoods. This just goes to show that the terms softwood and hardwood technically describe the type of tree; connifers vs angiosperms (trees that produce seeds that have a coating).

The hardest commercially available hardwood is hickory, and it is five times harder than aspen, one of the "soft" hardwoods.

The top 10 softest woods and their Janka hardness rating

  • Western Red Cedar - 350 lbf - often used for guitar soundboards.
  • Black Cottonwood - 350 lbf
  • White Cedar - 350 lbf
  • Quaking Aspen - 350 lbf
  • Yellow Buckeye - 350 lbf
  • Subalpine Fir - 350 lbf
  • European Silver Fir - 320 lbf
  • Balsam Poplar - 300 lbf - Related to Cottonwood and Aspen.
  • Paulownia - 260 lbf
  • Balsa - 90 lbf - the softest and lightest of them all. Useful for insulation, buoyancy, and other special applications.

Hardwoods and their Janka hardness rating

  • Hickory, Pecan 1,820 lbf
  • Hard Maple 1,450 lbf
  • White Oak 1,360 lbf
  • Beech 1,300 lbf
  • Red Oak 1,290 lbf
  • Yellow Birch 1,260 lbf
  • Green Ash 1,200 lbf
  • Black Walnut 1,010 lbf
  • Soft Maple 950 lbf
  • Cherry 950 lbf
  • Hackberry 880 lbf
  • Gum 850 lbf
  • Elm 830 lbf
  • Sycamore 770 lbf
  • Alder 590 lbf
  • Yellow Poplar 540 lbf
  • Cottonwood 430 lbf
  • Basswood 410 lbf
  • Aspen 350 lbf

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