Q: What is the difference between a hardwood and a softwood?
Michael Roemen: “This is a question that we get a lot, ‘What is the difference between a hardwood and a softwood?’ Both are going to bring warmth and beauty to your space, but sometimes the terms are tossed around and it’s not clear. Being up here in the Pacific Northwest, we work with all of these wood species every single day. We have a few factors that you should consider before you write your specification and make sure you are well aware of the difference between a hardwood and a softwood.”
Q: Technically speaking, what is the difference between a hardwood and a softwood?
So first, let us talk about the difference between a hardwood and a softwood in a technical term. Hardwood or angiosperms reproduce via a fruit or nut. Think of the beautiful forests out in the Northeast where the trees lose their leaves. These are the traditional hardwoods you think of: walnut, cherry, ash, maple, beech. Conversely, softwoods, also called a gymnosperm, bear cones. Think of a conifer or a Christmas tree or an evergreen, and they grow more predominately out in the western part of North America. Species like hemlock, Douglas fir, western red cedar, or redwood.
Q: Is one better than the other?
Sometimes there’s confusion about one being more premium than the other, but interestingly some softwoods are technically harder, more dense and more durable than some hardwoods. I’ll give you an example, the Balsa wood used in architectural models is technically a hardwood. Yeah that’s right, but some softwoods like Douglas fir, have a wonderful dimensional stability. They don’t expand and contract to a great degree when exposed to moisture. This is great if you want to continue your wood ceiling through the glazing into a protected exterior soffett.
Q: What are some general differences between hardwood and softwood?
Hardwoods tend to have a wider, natural range of color and grain, specifically on the darker end of the spectrum. Softwoods, on the other hand, tend to be lighter in color, a little bit more consistent on that lighter end of the spectrum. There are some exceptions like western red cedar or redwood. The thing about softwoods is that they can be more easily selected for all vertical grain, which brings its own color consistency. They stain really well, so if you’re looking for a dark hardwood, we can make it match in a softwood by the use of a stain.
Q: Are there limitations with hardwood?
The thing to remember with modules is hardwoods tend to come from smaller, slower growing trees. For you this means either a random length material in your ceiling or shorter panels if it’s a panelized system. Softwoods – those come from taller trees, you’ll get longer lengths, which means longer panels and fewer reveals. In terms of thickness, hardwoods net out at a ¾” thickness. The softwood milling industry yields a slightly thinner member, so a 1x will net out at 5/8” thick. They look very similar once up on a ceiling.
Q: Are there other strategies for using hardwoods?
Now another strategy with hardwoods, is to specify an architectural veneer on a substrate. That way you get a consistent 8’ length or 10’ length, and also that ¾” thickness. Veneers and softwoods are not as common, so typically with softwoods you want to go with solid wood.
Q: What about cost?
Obviously a really important factor. Well the thing to keep in mind with hardwoods is when you go with solid wood, it tends to carry a premium. One strategy, again is to use an architectural hardwood veneer, that way you get the look of a hardwood, but you’re not paying the heavy premium for solid wood. Softwood on the other hand, because of the supply chain and the plentiful nature of it, it tends to be less expensive than solid hardwood.
Just remember that solid hardwoods are the most expensive, followed by a hardwood veneer or solid softwood, which are usually within a ballpark of each other depending on the product. Hardwoods and softwoods are both great, one is not more premium or better than the other. Both are beautiful and warm and are going to bring a lot of life to your space.
Q: Does 9Wood work with both hardwood and softwood?
We work with all of these species and we are here to help you, support you in your design. We can send you samples, pricing, and any other design assistance that is useful for you. In the end, we want you to deliver on your design intent to your client.”