Wood is the most common material for furniture, both inside and outside our homes. Tables, chairs, shelving units, wardrobes, cupboards, dressers, frames for sofas and beds – wood is used everywhere.
This is a reflection of how flexible timber is as a construction material. It can be readily shaped into beams and planks in all different sizes, and then cut, moulded and turned to suit specific needs.
Wood is tough and durable, but can also be lightweight. And in the hands of a skilled carpenter, woodwork can be elevated to high art.
The difference between softwood and harwood
It’s slightly misleading to talk about ‘wood’ and ‘timber’ as the same thing in the context of furniture making. There are dozens of different types of wood used for furniture, each of which has its own unique qualities. Mass-produced furniture made from cheap but reliable MDF is very different to a one-off hand-carved piece made from mahogany or walnut, for example.
If we put MDF and other types of manufactured fibreboard aside, timber can be broken down into two broad camps: softwood and hardwood.
In the softwood camp, pine is the most common type of wood used in furniture production. Fast-growing, it is ideal for commercial plantations, and because it’s such a tall tree it produces high yields. This means that pine is always in plentiful supply, which makes it affordable. And despite the term ‘softwood’, pine is not really soft at all. Like pretty much all wood, it’s a tough, durable, strong material. You don’t have to worry about your pine wardrobes and tables collapsing because the wood is weak!
That said, there are marked differences between hardwoods and so-called softwoods. Hardwoods generally come from deciduous trees, while softwoods like pines are evergreens. Deciduous hardwood trees are slower growing and live longer, which gives them a denser grain structure than evergreen softwood trees.
Benefits of hardwood furniture
In terms of their use as a building material, it’s this dense grain structure that gives hardwoods like oak, mahogany, walnut, maple and teak their unique properties. These properties carry a number of benefits for furniture making. Here are some of the most important benefits of hardwood furniture.
Softwood furniture is durable, but hardwood even more so. The denser grain structures of hardwood mean they are more resistant to chipping, splitting and other types of damage. Pine furniture should comfortably last one or two decades without the risk of major structural damage. But hardwood furniture will last generations, even under heavy use.
This makes hardwood particularly well suited to garden furniture. As well as having denser grain structure for extra durability, tropical hardwoods like teak also have an exceptionally high natural oil content. This makes them resistant to water-logging and water-related rot. Teak furniture will last for generations outside in all weather, without the need to cover it or take it inside over winter.
The durability of hardwood makes it easier to maintain. With a hardwood dining table, for example, you are less likely to get scratches and marks in the surface from cutlery, hot crockery and general daily use. With a pine table, you may need to get it sanded down and polished occasionally to bring it back to ‘as-new’ condition. But with a hardwood table, you probably won’t ever need to.
Similarly, softwood garden furniture has to be regularly varnished and waterproofed to prolong its life. Again, high-oil hardwoods like teak don’t need the same level of regular maintenance.
Another reason people like to stain or varnish their pine furniture is because they prefer a different colour tone on their wooden furniture.
Many people like the pale colour of pine and other softwoods, but hardwoods tend to be darker and richer in colour. Many varnishes are designed to recreate the colours that occur naturally in hardwoods. Popular examples include the rich red-brown of mahogany, and the deep chocolate brown of walnut.
Some natural hardwoods also offer unique characteristics that cannot be replicated by varnish, such as the distinctive medium-to-dark brown streaks of rosewood, or the way that teak naturally transforms gradually from rich honey-brown to unique silver-grey.
Do you enjoy the benefits of hardwood furniture in your home?
Check out Jo Alexander’s full collection of hardwood furniture for inside and outside your home, including all the latest additions for the new season.