Wouldn't it be great if everything was as simple as it sounds? 'Hardwood' was called hardwood because the wood is dense, solid and firm; and the term 'Softwood' was coined for equally obvious reasons. Unfortunately you only have to look at hardwood trees such as the Willow, Elm or Balsam Poplar to see that this is simply not the case, as the wood born from them are softer and weaker than a great many softwoods. As a matter of fact out of approximately 175 different hardwoods, 68 are considered 'Soft Hardwoods'.
So if it is not the hardness or softness of the wood that determines under what category it falls, what does? Well interestingly enough it is actually the way in which the tree's seeds are housed and dispersed which act as the deciding factor.
Softwood comes from trees that are 'Gymnosperms', which means that the seeds have no protective coverings; in fact the word gymnosperms comes from a Greek word which literally translates to 'naked seeds'. Softwood trees do tend to have similar features to one another, including having a light colour, resinous structure, leaves all year round (evergreen), and they tend to grow at a faster rate than hardwood trees; but also catch fire and burn easier.
Hardwood trees on the other hand are 'Angiosperms', which means their seeds are produced inside some sort of protective coating, such as a flower, fruit or shell, in the case of acorns or conkers. In the same way that softwood trees have similar characteristics, so do hardwoods; which as a rule are heavier in weight, darker in colour, close grained, and produce broader leaves; which are shed and regrown periodically. Trees which shed their leaves in this way are known as 'Deciduous' which literally means 'falling off at maturity'.
Apart from the way in which their seeds are kept, the characteristics of both types of tree are general, applying to the majority rather than to all. For a detailed, in-depth look at the characteristics of any of the wood we sell here on Woodshop Direct, please view the individual product listing of the wood you are interested in, or keep an eye on our Facebook, Twitter or Google+ for any upcoming individual wood spotlights.