Softwood VS Hardwood

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Forum topic by Holbs posted 01-29-2013 03:28 AM 2299 views 0 times favorited 16 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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946 posts in 1116 days

01-29-2013 03:28 AM

in my ongoing education of wood working (chisels, sharpening stones, which screws to use, power tool reviews here, etc).... now comes the confusing topic. softwood vs hardwood.
i’ve researched this weekend about which wood is ideal for lifting and holding up 100-200lbs machinery: torque values, density, compression values for a utility project i have going on (i’m still working on my retractable wheels, entering phase2!). i’ll share my thoughts to others who are starting out in wood working.

the first sentence of every comparison is the vocabulary: softwood and hardwood are misleading. example: balsa (the kind of wood for model airplanes) is classified as hardwood but i wouldn’t want to build a desk out of it.

poplar (hardwood) to pine (softwood): pine has more density than poplar, yet it is labeled softwood? even the standard douglas fir (softwood) is more dense than either poplar and pine by a fraction. when it comes to strength, i’m learning not rely on vocabulary.

i know there are other things to consider like grain pattern, mold resistance, knots, how it takes liquids, the weight, how it fairs with turning or sawing tools, how easily it dents, etc. i guess the real test is to just buy various types of wood on my journey to be a more experienced wood worker.
some helpful insights for engineer guru’s who understand formula’s: Wood as an Engineering Material
The density of seasoned & dry wood

and a couple billion other links.

16 replies so far

View Zboom's profile


67 posts in 1441 days

#1 posted 01-29-2013 03:51 AM

I was told that deciduous trees are classed as hardwoods and coniferous SE softwoods. Im not 100% sure this is correct but does seem to have some clout once you think about it.

-- Michael,

View bbasiaga's profile


380 posts in 1082 days

#2 posted 01-29-2013 03:56 AM

I have read the classification the same was as Zboom has it. Most homes are built out of ‘soft wood’, right? The stuff you get from lumber supply yards. Its still pretty strong. But it dents easy so not the best choice for certain projects. I’ve built a flip top cart out of cheap home depot wood and ply…its holding together just fine with about 125lbs of tools on it. Actually, I keep my small jointer in the bottom and that adds another 65lbs…plenty strong.


-- Part of engineering is to know when to put your calculator down and pick up your tools.

View BentheViking's profile


1761 posts in 1651 days

#3 posted 01-29-2013 03:59 AM

check out nick gibbs real wood bible for a good introduction to a lot of things about wood

-- It's made of wood. Real sturdy.--Chubbs Peterson

View MonteCristo's profile


2098 posts in 1275 days

#4 posted 01-29-2013 04:16 AM

Hardwood vs softwood has nothing to do with how hard or soft the wood actually is. The terms are used to distinguish trees based on the two fundamentally different types of basic cell structure. Softwoods are a much simpler (and more ancient I believe) type of tree than hardwoods, which have a much more complex cell structure.

More often than not, a given hardwood will actually be fairly hard, harder than many/most softwoods, but not always. Also, most softwoods are needle bearing evergreens, and most hardwoods are deciduous and leaf bearing. But there are exceptions here also.

Hence the confusion.

Once again, I recommend R. Bruce Hoadley’s seminal book “Understanding Wood”. A must read for any serious woodworker.

-- Dwight - "Free legal advice available - contact Dewey, Cheetam & Howe""

View Holbs's profile


946 posts in 1116 days

#5 posted 01-29-2013 04:43 AM

am i wrong to suggest using douglas fir as a carcass structure frame only, would be the most bang for the buck? again, i’m just talking more of a utility wood than a presentation wood.

and i read that chestnut trees were wiped out in the early 1900’s by some scourge or something? all the remaining ones are on their last legs then POOF, gone forever?

View crank49's profile


3898 posts in 2058 days

#6 posted 01-29-2013 05:00 AM

The history of the Chestnut is a long and interesting read in itself.
The few remaining Chestnut trees all reach a certain size then die.
Another sprout may come back from the roots and develope into a tree but it will also reach a certain size and then die.
People are working to try to save the Chestnut by genetically altering its resistance to the blight that infected the species.

-- Michael: Hillary has a long list of accomplishments, though most DAs would refer to them as felonies.

View ScottinTexas's profile


108 posts in 1035 days

#7 posted 01-29-2013 05:07 AM

I only recently heard about the sad tale of the chestnut trees from someone who knew quite a bit about it – they were part of some society to preserve them. I believe one approach is to cross them with some Chinese variety that is reistanct to the blight.

View Mark Kornell's profile

Mark Kornell

919 posts in 1618 days

#8 posted 01-29-2013 05:08 AM

Holbs, for a structure frame any construction-grade lumber would probably be your best bang for the buck. Douglas-fir is likely a bit more expensive per board-foot, but maybe not by much.

You haven’t shared any details about your project and how you are planning on constructing it. Most woods, soft or hard, could be used to support 200 lbs. Balsa excepted. How you construct it is more important.

For example, I built a table to put my 90-lb planer + in/outfeed tables on. The unsupported span is about 78 inches. Made from standard 2×4s, primarily spruce. The Sagulator says I’ll get about .01” of total sag. It is way overbuilt for what it needs to hold up, could probably support upwards of 500 lbs.

And, according to Hoadley, the differentiation between hard and softwoods is the type of seed pod. Hardwoods have closed seed pods (think acorns and walnuts) whereas softwoods have open seed pods (think pine cones).

-- Mark Kornell, Kornell Wood Design

View ScottinTexas's profile


108 posts in 1035 days

#9 posted 01-29-2013 05:12 AM

As has been stated, deciduous versus non-deciduous is what I’ve learned recently myself.

(I’m still trying to get open vs closed grain straight.)

I found a neat chart here:

I ran across another that was more information-rich – let me see if I can find it….

Here we go:

View Holbs's profile


946 posts in 1116 days

#10 posted 01-29-2013 05:15 AM

iguana… look in my workshop (or maybe it’s my blog) about my retracting wheels project (i actually added a 3rd cross piece to lower the wheels at equal height). it’s from a compound lever design. it might be rather excessive JUST to raise/lower your machine… but i have time and i love levers and gears :)
and then, i plan on creating something similar to the planer infeed/outfeed mobile table like this one by christopher merrill:
or i could use my small jointer with this type of infeed/outfeed table, or drill press, bandsaw, etc.

View Holbs's profile


946 posts in 1116 days

#11 posted 01-29-2013 05:18 AM

scott… after all this research, i think i’ll get a 2×4 of alder and a 2×4 of beech. whack both on my head. then pick :)

View pintodeluxe's profile


4185 posts in 1900 days

#12 posted 01-29-2013 05:21 AM

The compression strength of most lumber far exceeds anything that will be stored on a bench. It is the racking force you need to account for. This can easily be accomplished with shouldered tenons, and a little bracing. Fir is a suitable material.

-- Willie, Washington "If You Choose Not To Decide, You Still Have Made a Choice" - Rush

View bondogaposis's profile


3447 posts in 1438 days

#13 posted 01-29-2013 02:36 PM

Zboom is correct. Softwoods are confers, like pine, fir spruce, cedar, etc. Deciduous trees are generally considered hardwoods, think, oak, maple, cherry. There are exceptions to all rules. For instance larch is a deciduous conifer. It’s wood is similar to fir and is considered a softwood. Some of the hardwoods are evergreens, like Pacific madrone and live oak. It really comes down to conifers vs broadleaf trees and has little to do with actual hardness. The best way to understand hardness is to use the Janka scale. It is a test that measures how much force is needed to embed a .444” steel ball halfway into the surface of a piece of wood. Here is a link to the Janka wood hardness chart.

-- Bondo Gaposis

View Zboom's profile


67 posts in 1441 days

#14 posted 01-29-2013 03:54 PM

Holbs, please post a video if you decide to do that, lol!!!

-- Michael,

View Mark Kornell's profile

Mark Kornell

919 posts in 1618 days

#15 posted 01-31-2013 05:33 AM


I looked at that mobile cart design. I like the compound lever idea, gonna file that away for future use.

I didn’t need a mobile base for the planer – I wanted to put it on a table above the jointer. (Jointer is already on a mobile base.) So, long, unsupported span. A torsion box might’ve been OK, but I figured construction studs were easier and probably cheaper. Pic:

BTW, beech is considerably harder than alder. Alder is slightly softer than Douglas-fir. But I’d still watch the video…

-- Mark Kornell, Kornell Wood Design

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