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Types of Wood

Comparing American Hardwoods, Softwoods and Tropical Hardwoods

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 often misused 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 oak, ash, cherry, maple and poplar species. Each species can be crafted into durable, long-lasting furniture, cabinetry, flooring and millwork, and 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.
  • Tropical Hardwoods, including mahogany, rosewood, teak and wenge - are not native to North America. They grow in the tropical forests of the world and must be imported for domestic use. While some tropical hardwoods can be used for interior applications, including flooring, the color, grain pattern, hardness and luster of many imported woods differ from those of American hardwoods. For more information on non-native species, refer to the “Don’t be fooled” article.

Janka Rating System

When in doubt about the type of wood to select for your cabinetry, flooring, furniture or millwork project, refer to the Janka Rating System, which measures the relative hardness of woods. The hardest commercially available hardwood is hickory, and it is five times harder than aspen, one of the “soft” hardwoods. And while this example lists just some of the most popular hardwood species, there are hundreds of varieties, representing the North American hardwood population. Because hardness is an important factor, and hardness varies for each species, the Janka Scale of Hardness is an excellent tool to help identify appropriate choices.

SpeciesPressure To Mar
(Kiln-dried) (in pounds)
Hickory, Pecan 1,820
Hard Maple 1,450
White Oak 1,360
Beech 1,300
Red Oak 1,290
Yellow Birch 1,260
Green Ash 1,200
Black Walnut 1,010
Soft Maple 950
Cherry 950
Hackberry 880
Gum 850
Elm 830
Sycamore 770
Alder 590
Yellow Poplar 540
Cottonwood 430
Basswood 410
Aspen 350
Source: Wood Handbook: Wood as an Engineering Material, USDA, Washington, D.C.