Wood products are known for their natural beauty, but when selecting a type of wood for your next cabinetry, flooring, furniture or millwork project, it is important to also consider the level of durability by understanding the difference between wood types. Each type and species of wood has an individual cellular structure that creates unique physical properties that determine suitability for different uses. For example, the hardness of woods varies widely, so certain hardwood species are not recommended for flooring because they are not hard enough to withstand heavy wear and tear.
The following offers a brief comparison of American hardwoods, softwoods and tropical hardwoods and their appropriate applications:
Hardwoods are deciduous trees that have broad leaves, produce a fruit or nut and generally go dormant in the winter. North America’s forests grow hundreds of varieties that thrive in temperate climates, including red oak, white oak, ash, cherry, hard maple, hickory and poplar. For a more detailed list of commercially available woods in the United States, refer to our species guide. Each species can be crafted into durable, long-lasting furniture, cabinetry, flooring, millwork and more. Each offers unique markings with variation in grain pattern, texture and color.
Softwoods or conifers, from the Latin word meaning “cone-bearing,” have needles rather than leaves. Widely available U.S. softwood trees include cedar, fir, hemlock, pine, redwood and spruce. In a home, softwoods primarily are used as structural lumber such as 2x4s and 2x6s, with limited decorative applications. Woods such as white pine and cypress do break those rules and are treated in the lumber industry similar to hardwoods.
Tropical Hardwoods, including mahogany, rosewood, teak and cocobolo, are not native to North America. They grow in the tropical forests of the world and are imported for use in the United States. Many tropical hardwoods are used for exterior applications where outdoor durability is important. However, many tropical hardwoods are also be used for interior applications, including flooring and woodworking projects. The color, grain pattern, hardness and luster of many imported woods differ from those of American hardwoods.
Visit the Species Comparison Guide to determine what woods would best suit your project needs.