All of you most likely know that there is hardwood and softwood furniture. But if you think the hardness is the feature which distinguishes them, you are wrong. The actual difference is a bit more complicated.
The names hardwood/softwood probably come from logging camps, where it used to be given to wood types based on their resistance to sawing. While generally it is true that most hardwoods are harder than softwoods, there are exceptions, such as balsa, which is classed as hardwood but is actually softer than any softwood out there.
The real difference is based in the reproduction of the trees. While hardwoods are angiosperms, whereby their seeds need some kind of covering such as shell or marrow, softwoods are gymnosperms, which means their seeds are “naked”. Softwoods keep their needles or leaves throughout the whole year and grow much faster than hardwoods. Interestingly, there are about one hundred times more varieties of hardwood trees than softwood trees, however, over 80% of the world’s production of timber is softwood. Typical hardwoods are mahogany, maple, oak or teak, while softwood is mostly represented by pine, cedar or redwood.
The most important difference comes from the microscopic structure. Hardwoods have pores which enable water transport, while softwood lacks it. This is the source of difference between hardwood and softwood furniture quality.
Hardwood furniture is generally considered to be of higher quality than softwood furniture. Its surface is more scratch resistant and since the furniture is heavier, it is sturdier and therefore lasts longer. Furniture made of hardwood is also more visually attractive due to its complicated cell structure, which creates various patterns on the surface and which are not as visible on softwood furniture.
Nevertheless, softwood furniture has its own advantages. Since softwood trees grow faster, it is cheaper and is also more environmentally friendly because of faster forest reproduction. The wood is easier to process, which again keeps the price lower, therefore the majority of casual furniture is made of softwood.
Softwood furniture requires more care compared to hardwood due to the higher possibility of suffering scratches and structural damage during every day use. On the other hand, with proper care, hardwood furniture can last for centuries. For exapmple, the same seats in your local church have probably been used by several generation of your own family.
Wood’s worst enemy is humidity. This is especially the case for porous hardwood furniture, which may swell, shrink or crack as a result of changing humidity. We cover this subject in more detail when we talk about wooden furniture care in one of our upcoming articles.