Introduction: Hard Wood or Soft Wood?

Use your fingernail to tell the difference between hard and soft wood. Hard woods are useful for making sturdy long-lasting constructions and produce more heat when burnt. Soft woods are light, easy to shape and are useful for making objects that float or fly. Is the wood your are using suitable for your project?

NOTE: This Instructable is to assist people who work with found wood, or are new users of wood. For the purposes of this Instructable taxonomic distinctions between hardwood and softwood will not be considered. These classical distinctions have little or no bearing on wood density and appropriate usage. I use the terms soft wood and hard wood to reference density; in contrast to hardwood and softwood which refer to traditional taxonomy.

Step 1: Soft Wood

When you press your thumbnail against soft wood and pull it along the surface it leaves a scratch mark. The deeper the mark - the softer the wood.


NOTE: This Instructable is to assist people who work with found wood, or are new users of wood. For the purposes of this Instructable taxonomic distinctions between hardwood and softwood will not be considered. These classical distinctions have little or no bearing on wood density and appropriate usage. I use the terms soft wood and hard wood to reference density; in contrast to hardwood and softwood which refer to traditional taxonomy.

Step 2: Hard Wood

When you press your nail against hard wood it will not leave a mark.


NOTE: This Instructable is to assist people who work with found wood, or are new users of wood. For the purposes of this Instructable taxonomic distinctions between hardwood and softwood will not be considered. These classical distinctions have little or no bearing on wood density and appropriate usage. I use the terms soft wood and hard wood to reference density; in contrast to hardwood and softwood which refer to traditional taxonomy.

Comments

author
Ben51 (author)2017-09-10

I always remember from my other younger life someone telling me the difference between soft wood and hard as a rule not conclusively can be determined buy the appearance of knots in the grain of soft wood and not in hardwood. Is this a rule that can be used buy a novice .?

author
sibuadvancetech (author)2014-06-20

Good and effective way to use.

author
Ole bally (author)2010-10-08

Woods are classified by their 'density'! Each timber has a 'Specific Gravity' value and 'calorific index'. The higher the SG and CI are the harder the wood! But the 'hardness' of a timber would be determined in simple terms by how much it grows during a year relatively. It's about the absorption of carbon from the atmosphere being deposited into the wood! Deciduous trees have relatively denser wood than evergreens generally and so the wood is termed 'harder'. However a 'hardness value' isn't much good unless one looks at the 'working properties' of the wood!

author
Bukwali (author)2008-06-23

Hardwood or softwood, Yes Balsa is a Hardwood, and Yes its very light and buoyant, does anyone remember from school the boat named “KON TIKI” made from Balsa wood, so why classify and what is the difference, basically the cell structure is different between hard and softwoods, hardwoods tend to have long egg shaped or rice shaped cells, while soft woods tend to have more circular type or bubble shaped cells. The area inside the cells is larger on softwoods and its within the cell that cellulose is stored and its cellulose that woodworm and other wood boring creatures like to eat, so your soft woods are more prone to infestation than hardwoods, so if you simply forget about the density of a timber and simply consider the cell structure you can make more informed choices. For example a window frame or cill can be made from a treated piece of pine [softwood] when treated the cellulose is replaced in the external layers of the timber by an insecticide, now this timber will be as long lasting as a piece of hardwood. John

author
thewarp16 (author)Bukwali2010-02-21

 the treatment you put on timber to stop woodworm will only soak into the timber a short way and its only when the insect burrows its way in and lays its eggs but the worm itself will eat its way out of the timber eating the treated timber which will kill it.

yeah you cant tell timber by just the hardness grain is important and also smell weight.

author
woody1996 (author)Bukwali2010-01-05

aup JOHNNY!!!!!!!! WE ARE MEMBERS!!!!!!!!!!! w00p w00p :)

author

The Kon Tiki was awesome!!! (I'm reading the book)

author

david arter-borkwood is reading it as well it is beastie

author

you have a book on wood ^o) coz ur cool :)

author
woody1996 (author)Bukwali2010-01-05

china

author
Karletto555 (author)2010-02-21

i bet wood on the picture is hardwood. am i good or what

author
brimstone (author)2007-05-14

Ok, I had to sign up just to comment on Sgt. Waffles's comment... Take a read through that wikipedia link you posted... it clearly states in the last paragraph: "Despite being very soft, balsa is classified as a hardwood, the softest commercial hardwood."

author
mrmath (author)brimstone2007-05-14

Sgt. Waffle said "Balsa IS a soft wood". He's right. Balsa is a soft wood. Balsa is, however, classified as a "hardwood". It's a soft hardwood. Makes me wonder if there are any hard softwoods?

author
westfw (author)mrmath2007-05-14

Wikipedia say "yew" is a hard softwood.

author
woody1997 (author)westfw2010-01-05

"you" is definately a hard wood

author
woody1996 (author)westfw2010-01-05

"you" is a hardwood

author
Mae-Yael (author)mrmath2009-11-15

The Monterey Pine is a hard softwood. They often use it to make grain-end cutting/chopping boards, who last well.

author
AcceptableRisk (author)2007-05-14

Arboreally, hardwood and softwood are classified by the way a tree grows. In general, broad-leaf deciduous trees are hardwoods and needle-bearing conifers are softwoods. Generally, hardwoods are harder than softwoods but there is plenty of variation up and down the scale in each category. In woodworking, a when considering a hardwood or softwood, it often has more to do with permeability and resistance to rot. Hardwoods, regardless of their actual hardness, are usually more resistant to water and less prone to rot.

author

yup. look at balsa. that's a hardwood

author
woody1997 (author)Sandal Man2010-01-05

LIAR its a soft wood actually (Y)

author

I wouldn't bet money on that Harwoods are more resistant to rot thing - more importantly, I wouldn't bet a bunch of hours of work on a project I was going to leave out in the rain. White oak is incredibly rot resistant. Red oak rots with glee! Cypress and cedar are both highly rot resistant despite the fact that they are soft woods. If you go to a store that caters to woodworkers you will tend to find lumber divided something like this: Hardwoods: Oak (white and red), maple, walnut, cherry (Plus some others like ash and hickory depending upon their selection and location) Softwoods: White Pine, Yellow Pine, Cypress, Fir Exotics: Most Everything Else (Red Heart, Ebony, Zebra Wood, etc.) A lot of the things that would be debated get lumped in with the exotics.

author
Rich99 (author)Austringer2009-08-28

don't forget poplar, the 'softest hardwood'.

author
kmaunder (author)AcceptableRisk2007-12-07

Balsa is one of the lightest, least dense woods there is, but it is considered a hardwood because it's an angiosperm. This is not useful knowledge unless you are buying a load of unspecified hardwood in tropical South America and also, may get you nicknamed "The Village Idiot" if you distrubute said knowledge at the more popular small town redneck bars. So speak it with caution.

PaulBalsa.jpg
author
jstrawther (author)2007-11-01

According to "The Complete Book of Woodworking" (ISBN 1-890621-35-8): "Botanically speaking, trees are categorized as either hardwoods or softwoods. Here's a simple way to distinguish the two: hardwoods are deciduous (broad leafed), generally losing their leaves in late fall and reproducing with flowers and fruits or nuts. Softwoods, on the other hand, are coniferous; they retain their needle-shaped leaves in the winter and reproduce by spreading their seed through open cones. The terms 'softwood' or 'hardwood' have nothing to do with whether the wood is physically hard of soft."

author
Mae-Yael (author)jstrawther2009-11-15

Spot on!

Hardwood seeds have a cover when they fall off the tree: apple, cherry, wallnut etc. and grow a new plant close to the parent tree.
Softwood fruit still hangs on the tree when their seeds escape from the cones and are distributed over a wide area.

author
woody1996 (author)Mae-Yael2010-01-05

you guys are so sad :)

author
woody1997 (author)woody19962010-01-05

i agree:)

author
tschwennesen (author)2007-08-07

Anyone know if it is possible to determine whether a piece of burnt wood was hardwood or softwood?

author
Mae-Yael (author)tschwennesen2009-11-15

Yes, but only if there is enough unburned wood left to put under the microscope to determine the cell structure of the piece of wood. If it is only charred coal which is left, I do not have enough exprience in burned timbers, but maybe experts can still decipher what it was.

author
TVBOY76 (author)2009-05-31

I prefer to test the wood with my carving knife, which is a modified Mckay stitcher. What I do that I shave off a few chips with the grain in order to test its natural "resistance". In this business (woodcarving), it is vital to know the grain pattern first because interlocking may provide "hard" samples even in known "softwoods". By the way ,here is a great link to a site that explains woods growing in Puerto Rico (my location) Although, it is written in spanish, it contains useful and information for any woodworker or exotic wood collector.
http://maderaspr.uprm.edu/Maderas%20de%20Puerto%20Rico/index.html

author
me comel (author)2009-01-28

I know how to determined hardwood and softwood.. it easy when we just use finger touch.. But if our look into the cell in the wood use example microscope image analyzer, i still cunfuse how to differ that..

author
WhiteTiger_604 (author)2007-08-12

thats commom sense

author
Sgt.Waffles (author)2007-05-14

Ummm, is it just me, or is this common sense?

Also, to dispel the rumors, Balsa IS a soft wood:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balsa

Second paragraph, first sentance.

OWNED!

author

Same article thirth paragraph, first sentence: Despite being very soft, balsa is classified as a hardwood, the softest commercial hardwood.

author

Yeah, i just realized "hard wood" and "soft wood" have nothing to do with the hardness of the wood, but the tree either being coniferous or deciduous. Learn somehthing new every day, huh?

However the person who posted this:

technically balsa wood is a hard wood... try cutting an equally small piece of oak and try to snap it... you'll see what i mean...

Is wrong. Oak is MUCH stronger than balsa wood, and i know that for a FACT!

author
stevoIution (author)2007-05-16

So scientific, I've seen hard softwood and soft hardwood. Hahahaha at Sgt.Waffles being owned by his own wiki pasting. "Despite being very soft, balsa is classified as a hardwood, the softest commercial hardwood." Jesse said "part of me wonders why we would be so silly as to distinguish between hardwood and softwood for any other reason than density." Rightly so but that's how it is and this method is incorrect, unless your fingernail can work out what type foliage the wood used to have.

author
jesse.hensel (author)2007-05-15

Thanks for the semantics clarification. However, part of me wonders why we would be so silly as to distinguish between hardwood and softwood for any other reason than density.

author
lemonie (author)jesse.hensel2007-05-15

Well, if you're telling us that 'hardwoods' are hard and you can tell this by seeing how hard they are with your fingers this is svery obvious. As has been pointed out repeatedly, strict definitions of hard and soft woods are not neccesarily related to their mechanical properties, this is where being able to tell the difference would be of some value (perhaps?) L

author
jtobako (author)jesse.hensel2007-05-15

European fixation. Most (with exceptions) trees fall into the hardwood-leaf and softwood-needle categories.

author
mrmath (author)2007-05-14

Hard wood is wood that is hard. Soft wood is wood that is soft. Hardwood is "wood from broad-leaved ... or angiosperm trees." Softwood is "the wood from conifers..." Note the space. Hardwood is a specific term meaning a specific thing. Hard wood, with the space, means wood that can be described as "hard. Same with Softwood and soft wood. Balsa is a soft wood that comes from a hardwood tree.

author
rimar2000 (author)mrmath2007-05-15

Thank you, this is a good explanation. I am no longer so perplexed.

author
mrbob1000 (author)2007-05-14

technically balsa wood is a hard wood... try cutting an equally small piece of oak and try to snap it... you'll see what i mean...

author
rimar2000 (author)mrbob10002007-05-14

Please, explain me that "...technically balsa wood is a hard wood..." I believe balsa is a very soft wood.

author
awoodcarver (author)rimar20002007-05-14

La balsa (Balsawood) por una definición del libro es una madera dura, no de tacto (touch) y de peso ......Is balsa raft in Spanish ? Sorry the border Spanish again

author
mrbob1000 (author)rimar20002007-05-14

by what jesse hensel said... it qualifies by his test

author
Tool Using Animal (author)2007-05-14

"Hardwoods Generally one of the botanical groups of trees that have broad leaves in contrast to the conifers or softwoods. The term has no reference to the actual hardness of the wood." -- Wood Handbook, Wood as an Engineering Material, USDA Forest Products Laboratory, Agriculture Handbook 74 I knew this book would come in handy some day.

author
Trans_Am (author)2007-05-14

Balsa is a wood that is soft. But it is a hardwood. The above linked wikipedia article states so.

author
dataphool (author)2007-05-14

What are your criteria for separating the two? I was taught and always believed that the "hardness" of the wood and the weight or density of the wood was the key. I suspect your dividing by species. Calling hardwoods deciduous trees, and softwoods are coniferous. I will make the vote a tie at two to two.

author
lemonie (author)2007-05-14

Balsa wood is a 'hardwood' L

About This Instructable

86,228views

36favorites

License:

Bio: Perhaps I am the heretical harbinger of the New Archaic, perhaps I just like wood.
More by jesse.hensel:Fire Polished SpoonWoven TetrahedronCuboctahedron
Add instructable to: