Using Hardwood vs Softwood to Identify Wood Types

When refinishing furniture and identifying wood, a critical step is learning the key difference between hardwood vs softwood. Furniture frequently uses both types of wood, so you will come across both types in your refinishing career. Determining hardwood from softwood will help your wood identification process, a critical step in your refinishing plan. While you would assume that based on the names, the hardness of the wood comes into play, but that is only one consideration. So, let’s dive in…  

Table of Contents

Definition of Hardwood and Softwood

In the most basic of terms, hardwoods are deciduous trees that grow broad leaves that drop in the winter. Examples of Hardwood trees used in furniture making are oak trees, maple, Walnut, Teak, mahogany, ash, and cherry. Softwoods are coniferous trees (aka evergreen trees) that have needle-like leaves and usually keep their leaves in the winter. Examples of softwood trees used in furniture making are pine trees, western red cedar, redwood, spruce, and Douglas fir. 

Art Deco Cocktail bar in Teak wood refinished with hardwax oil
Teak Wood

Main Differences Between Hardwood and Softwood

Hardwood and softwood have key differences regarding their structure, strength, cost and sustainability.

Structure

The rule of thumb is that hardwood is dense with tightly packed grain. It has fewer pores than its counterpart. Softwood has a more open grain structure, which makes it prone to dents and scratches. In fact, you can sometimes see visible pores in the end-grain from softwood lumber. Porous Softwoods are notoriously difficult to stain, resulting in a blotchy look.   

Pine wood with knots
Pine Wood with knots

Strength

The dense grain structure of hardwoods usually means that they can withstand more weight than softwoods. Hence, hardwood is considered less likely to bend or warp over time. It also means it is more durable and resilient to years of use. This is a key reason why furniture made from hardwood is usually advertised as such with a premium price. 

Cost

Hardwood lumber is generally more expensive than softwood lumber. The higher price comes from the time required for hardwood trees to mature—it can take decades! Furthermore, more labour and time are needed to cut and work hardwood. The cost of the wood also extends to fine veneers, and there is less supply of figured hardwood. High-quality furniture is almost always made from hardwood species, such as white oak, red oak, walnut and Teak.

Crotch , flame or feathered figured mahogany
Mahogany Figured Wood

Sustainability

Softwoods are considered more sustainable and renewable than hardwoods. The faster growth cycle of softwood trees compared to hardwoods allows more frequent harvesting. And there are effective reforestation programs worldwide for softwoods. On the other hand, some prized tropical hardwoods are considered endangered in their natural growing habitats. 

Which option should you choose?

In short, hardwood is usually (but there are exceptions) denser, stronger, and more costly than softwoods. Therefore, depending on your needs, you may want to reach for this higher density and durable wood. Wooden flooring is a great example. Hardwood flooring is the more popular choice due to its durability. This also extends to furniture. Timeless antiques are usually made with hardwoods that will withstand the test of time. 

On the other hand, softwood is much more cost-efficient, lighter, and sustainable, which is why it is the most commonly used building material. With the right treatments, softwoods can also be made durable for outdoor climates. 

Therefore, if you are looking to work with high-quality antiques, you should search for hardwood pieces. Or if your key business focus is sustainability, working with softwoods may be your jam. 

Determining Hardwood vs Softwood

There are several ways to tell whether a wood is hardwood or softwood by looking at these 3 characteristics: 

close up of oak engraving
Oak Wood

Check the Grain

Hardwoods generally have longer, wider, and more pronounced wood grain than softwoods. The growth rings are distinct and vary in thickness and spacing. which lends to more dramatic grain patterns. 

On the other hand, softwoods tend to have a uniform grain pattern with thinner growth rings that are evenly spaced. The overall look is less dramatic. with finer and straighter wood grain. How the lumber is cut can also affect the look of the grain

Check the Weight

This advice is a little hard to give exact measurements but comes from years of practice. Lift the piece you are working on. Hardwoods are usually heavier, while softwoods tend to be lightweight. Of course, if the piece you are working on is veneer, this will dramatically affect its weight.  

Unsure how to determine if your piece is veneer

Test the Hardness

Hardwoods are much denser than softwoods. They are more difficult to dent, scratch, or cut. 

You can judge hardness by pressing your fingernail into the wood. If you can easily press in and make an indentation, it’s likely a softwood. With hardwoods, your nail will not or will barely sink in. 

That being said, it’s not such a closed case. Balsa Wood is a hardwood type that is softer than most softwoods. Due to its softness, it’s a great wood for whittling. 

Use a coaster to protect your vintage furniture, oiled teak coffee table
Teak Veneer

Identify different types of wood.

​Each type of wood has different properties that need to be considered when refinishing furniture. For example, the high oil content in solid Teak can affect water-based products over time. Pine is notorious for knots and tannins, which will bleed through the most robust primers. Below are the popular types of wood used in furniture, the 5 key characteristics of identifying each, and considerations to take when refinishing. This list is being added regularly, so save this page or join the mailing list to get updates on this growing list. 

Popular Hardwoods used for furniture

Oak – Coming Soon

Maple – Coming Soon

Ash – Coming Soon

Cherry – Coming Soon

Common Softwoods used for furniture

Douglas Fir – Coming Soon

​Cedar – Coming Soon

Redwood – Coming Soon

Spruce – Coming Soon

Final Thoughts

Understanding the important differences between hardwood and softwood will help you identify which type of wood you are working with and determine the actual wood species you have. By knowing the type of tree your furniture comes from, will help you prepare your refinishing plan for the most success. This will enhance the overall quality, durability, and longevity of your refinished furniture. 

Looking for More Resources?

One of the most helpful tools I have for wood identification is the Veneer Identification Kit from Sauers & Company.  This kit comes with a variety common woods used in furniture making, as well as a variety of exotic wood.  Being able to see and touch the wood helps to improve your abilities to identify wood types.  

Each veneer sheet is clearly labelled with the type of wood and the type of cut that was made. 

Various pieces of veneer as part of the wood identification kit from Sauers
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Hey, I'm Sarah, the owner of Bold Wallflowers.

I'm on a self-taught journey through furniture refinishing and restoration, loving every experiment in my workshop.

Join me as I share my discoveries and gained knowledge with our vibrant community of fellow refinishers!

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