Lumber can be grouped into two broad categories – softwoods and hardwoods.
Technically speaking, the hardness of wood is based on botanical distinction.
Hardwoods are those species that come from leaf-bearing trees that produce flowers, fruits, or nuts. Common North American hardwood lumber includes maple, oak, ash, walnut, cherry, beech, birch, and poplar.
There are many less common Western hardwoods as well, like butternut, mesquite, holly, pear, and sycamore.
Other countries produce innumerable hardwood species as well. Some of these exotics include teak, mahogany, ebony, rosewood, Bubinga, purpleheart, and pear.
These exotic woods can be purchased through the internet or specialty catalogs, however, they can be expensive and may only come in a limited size.
Softwoods come from a large family of cone-bearing trees that bear needles rather than leaves. Firs and pines of all sorts, redwood, cedar, and cypress are typically North American softwoods made into board lumber.
Because these species are well suited for construction purposes, all lumber used for framing and rough construction generally comes from softwood trees.
They are sufficiently strong for structural applications, yet are easy to work with common hand or power tools. Another advantage is that cone-bearing trees grow rapidly and develop straighter trunks and branches than the hardwoods.
Finally, more softwood trees can be planted per acre than hardwood trees so they produce a higher lumber yield in less time.
Wood Related Myths
It is a common misconception that hardwoods are called hardwood because the wood is hard, while softwood is so named because they are soft. It is true that many hardwoods are more difficult to machine than softwoods, however, the distinction actually has nothing to do with the hardness or workability.
Southern yellow pine, for example, is heavy dense softwood used for stair treads and large framing lumber. It machines and accepts fasteners in a manner like that of hardwoods. Walnut and poplar are common hardwoods, but they can be routed and sawed as easily as cedar or redwood.
Even pricing is not a good indicator of hardwoods or softwoods. More softwood is manufactured into building materials than furniture-grade lumber, but what does become lumber can be quite expensive. For instance, clear sugar pine lumber is approximately the same price as premium cherry or white oak.
The basic economics of supply and demand determine lumber pricing more than the particular species of wood or even its grade designation.
Hardwood vs. Softwood
Woodworking projects can make use of both softwoods and hardwoods. As a general rule, hardwoods are used for indoor projects such as furniture, trim-work, cabinetry, and turnings because the wood grain and figures are highly desirable.
Softwoods, on the other hand, tend to be used for outdoor furniture, children’s projects such as tree houses, and other sorts of utility or painting projects.
Take note that these are just general guidelines. If money is no object, you can build children’s furniture from practically any furniture-grade lumber you have.