hardwood vs softwood

So you’ve decided to get rid of that worn or dingy floor and replace it with wood flooring.

Congratulations! Great choice.

Wood is classic, stylish and functional. But it’s important to know that not all woods are the same. Aside from having to decide how big the planks will be and what “color” wood you want, there’s an even bigger question.

What kind of wood will you choose? Yep. It’s the whole hardwood vs softwood quandary. And it’s an important one because it will be the basis for the other choices.

The Battle of Hardwood vs Softwood

Okay, it’s not so much a battle as gaining a simple understanding of the differences. One is not better than the other. But one will be better for you.

It depends on your specific needs.

So let’s take a look at the differences.

Origin 

In terms of timber used around the word, softwood accounts for about 80% of it.

Softwood comes from gymnosperm trees. These are trees with needles or cones, such as pine or spruce. These are faster growing trees and some are expressly grown for the timber industry.

Meanwhile, hardwood comes from angiosperm trees which, in nature, outnumber gymnosperm trees. These trees have broad leaves and flowers. Examples of hardwood trees are walnut, maple and oak.

Density

The denser wood is, the stronger it will be. So how is density determined?

Not to go all technical on you, but the wood density – also known as specific gravity (SG) – is a physical property of wood that is a guide to the ease of drying the wood, as well as an index of weight.

It comes down to the ratio of the weight of a body to the weight of an equal volume of water. Wood density is usually based on the volume of the wood at some specified percentage of moisture content and its weight when oven dried to a moisture content of 12%.

It is assigned a numeric value which represents the wood’s density as compared to that of water, which is 1.0. Most softwoods have an SG of less than 1.0. That means they can float on water.

If that’s too confusing, then just remember this. Generally speaking, the more dense the wood, the slower the drying rate will be. In the past, this meant a higher likelihood of developing defects during drying.

But lumber manufacturers now kiln dry wood with an understanding of these different wood densities to ensure that the final product will perform to specifications. Even so, it’s important to understand that wood density can cause differences in flooring performance.

In general, hardwoods have a higher density than softwoods – which makes them stronger. Mahogany and teak are among the most dense. But one of the lowest density woods is balsa, and it’s considered a “soft” hardwood.

Meanwhile, softwoods tend to have lower density. Cedar is among the lowest. But just as there are soft hardwoods, so too are there hard softwoods. Softwoods like juniper and yew are fairly dense. For softwoods, at least.

So you can’t judge on density alone.

Durability

It would make sense, then, that the more dense a wood, the more durable it will be. And this is mostly true.

Hardwoods are typically considered more durable than softwoods. So if you’re looking for floors that will need to endure heavy traffic, you’ll probably want to go with hardwoods. Plus, they’ll last longer.

Then again, if you want something that’s going to be a little more forgiving underfoot, you may want to choose a softwood. Although they’re prone to scratches and dings, they are more resilient.

The finish you choose will also impact a wood’s durability.

If your wood floor isn’t going to see a lot of foot traffic, you could stain and seal a softwood to increase its durability. It’s still going to be prone to imperfections, but it will also last longer.

In the case of hardwoods, they typically come pre-finished.

Appearance

If you take a gander at a hardwood under a microscope, you’ll notice a lot of pores. This has to do with how water is transported through the tree.

Water transport is done in a completely different way in softwood trees. Thus, they lack pores.

Why are we telling you this?

Because it’s the pores in hardwoods that give them their prominent and well-defined grain patterns. They also boast a range of colors from dark browns and reds all the way to (almost) white.

Meanwhile, softwoods tend to have less pronounced grain patterns and generally come is yellowish of light red colors.

Installation

Hardwood floors are easier to install than softwoods. They also take well to sanding.

When installing softwood floors though, sanding machines can quickly create low spots, so the surface may only withstand a single sanding. Also, softwood floors are easily dinged and dented so anything that’s accidentally dropped or spilled during the installation process could mar the floor.

Now, it is possible to use softwoods as a subfloor beneath hardwood flooring top surface layers. This will result in floors that provide more spring in the step.

But this choice relies on expert installation. Installers must leave enough room between the softwood planks for expansion due to fluctuations in the subfloor’s moisture content. This is especially crucial when softwood plank subfloors are going to be sandwiched underneath ¼” plywood and hardwood flooring.

Cost

Since hardwoods are usually denser and more durable, they come with a higher price tag. But the beautiful grain, deeper colors and staying power are often worth it. Especially in rooms like kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms and bedrooms where the foot traffic is high.

Then again, if you’re making the investment for wood floors in a room that just doesn’t get as much use, then a softwood floor finished and stained could last just as long. And it won’t cost as much.

Which Choice Is Right for You?

As you can see, the hardwood vs softwood conundrum doesn’t have just one clear-cut solution.

But regardless of which you choose, you simply can’t go wrong with adding wood flooring to your home. So if you want some additional expert flooring advice, please contact us today.

We’ll point you in the right direction.

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