Hard Wood or Soft Wood?

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Introduction: Hard Wood or Soft Wood?

About: Perhaps I am the heretical harbinger of the New Archaic, perhaps I just like 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.

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    50 Discussions

    Thanks for this. I did the fingernail test myself yesterday on a dozen pieces of driftwood I had, but wasn't sure how accurate it was. Since I am picking pieces for an aquarium, and so need something that is both rot-resistant AND can't be treated to improve it's resistance, I needed to be sure. Unfortunately, several of my favorite looking pieces failed the first round, but I let some in that could be dented but not have a serious mark (fingernail sinking in or anything). Guess I need to scoop those out of the soaking bath tonight and get it down to the real hard wood :) Cheers!

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    Ben51

    10 months ago

    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 .?

    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!

    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

    6 replies

     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.

    Wikipedia say "yew" is a hard softwood.

    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.

    4 replies

    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.