Generally speaking, wood is usually placed into one of two categories- hardwood vs. softwood. What exactly makes a given piece of wood qualify as either hard or soft and how did those definitions come about?

Perhaps the most important and misunderstood aspect of defining wood as either hard or soft is that it has absolutely nothing to do with the individual qualities of the harvested wood itself.

The most common used example of this concept is that of balsa wood which, despite being literally one of the least dense (and hence softest) woods of all, is technically classified as hardwood. Likewise- the wood of the yew tree, is classified as being a softwood, but is a great deal tougher than many hardwoods including several types of oak. So what’s going on here?

The basic answer is that classifying a wood as either hard or soft is entirely dependent on the seeds produced by the tree it comes from. If a tree’s seeds have some sort of covering when they fall from the tree, be it in the form of a shell or fruit, then the wood of that tree will be classified as hardwood.

On the other hand, if a tree produces seeds that are simply left to the elements when they fall to the ground, then the wood harvested from it will be classified as a softwood.

Although the terms hardwood and softwood are in no way related to the relative toughness of a given piece of wood, it’s noted that, for the most part, hardwoods are usually harder than softwoods.

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