Hardwood vs Softwood Furniture and Decking

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Do you choose hardwood garden furniture and decking or go for softwood? It’s a common question. We thought it’d be useful to take a look at the pros and cons of each from a wood finish expert’s perspective.

Key differences between softwoods & hardwoods

How do hard and softwood differ? It’s actually nothing to do with whether the wood feels soft or hard. Softwood furniture is not necessarily soft, nor hardwood furniture particularly hard. It’s all about the seeds. If a tree’s seeds have some sort of covering, like a nutty shell or fleshy fruit coat, it’s a hardwood. If the seeds are bare, open to the elements, it’s a softwood. Another good indicator is if the tree is evergreen or not. Generally speaking, trees such as pine and spruce that keep their leaves and foliage all year long tend to be classed as softwoods.

Hardwood vs Softwood – Which is best?

Is hardwood always a better choice for wooden garden furniture and decks? Perhaps counter-intuitively, no. Hardwood isn’t better than softwood, it’s just different. Hardwood tends to require better woodworking skills and can be a bit more difficult to deal with. It’s almost always better to pre-drill and screw it, not nail it. But both types of wood make great decking and if you treat and maintain softwood decking and furniture properly it can last for decades. And both hard and softwoods are readily available in the UK.

What they look like

Whether you use soft or hard wood outside, it all ends up grey if you don’t treat or stain it in some way. But they’re very different colours when new and untreated.

  • Most new hardwoods are either a golden brown or red brown
  • Treated softwood is usually a pale greeny brown, but it’ll turn a honey brown after a few weeks outdoors
  • A softwood can look very like hardwood when you stain it

Durability is key

Most British garden decking is made from commercially treated softwoods, in other words ‘tanalised’. And it usually comes with a 15 year guarantee against rot, perfectly achievable as long as you look after it and treat any cut surfaces. Having said that, a really well-made and maintained deck can last a great deal longer.

How durable are different woods likely to be in your particular circumstances? It’s an important consideration. Because decking and garden furniture sets are outdoors 24/7, you need a wood that’ll stand up to the outdoor conditions all year round, come rain or shine…or worse!

Think about how it’ll look too, both straight away and after time has taken its toll. If you’re more interested in how it looks now than in years or decades time, a cheaper choice may suit you perfectly. If it’s a long-term investment, a more expensive wood might be more economical and practical.

As a rule, hardwoods like Teak, Iroko and Oak rot more slowly than softwoods. For durability, a properly-treated and manufactured softwood will perform very well compared to a hardwood product. If aesthetics and low maintenance are your priority, a hardwood may be your best bet, although treatment isn’t as necessary, treating it from time to time will help to keep it in top condition.

Most hardwoods survive outdoors all year round while softwood furniture often needs to be covered or brought indoors in the worst weather – not always practical when you’re short on storage space. There’s no such thing as weatherproof garden furniture if you’re looking at wood. And you can’t bring a garden deck indoors.

Environmental pros and cons

The hardwood vs softwood argument also has an environmental angle. Hardwood is cut from trees that grow very slowly. They tend to grow naturally in tropical areas so cost more to produce and ship, an important environmental concern. Most hardwood these days is carefully farmed, with new trees planted to replace those cut down.

It takes more energy to produce hardwoods because the drying process takes longer, as they’re denser than softwoods and contain more natural oils. They’re more likely to be used for high grade timber, dried to a lower moisture content than softwoods. Hardwoods are also usually cut thinner, which means the sawing process consumes more energy. And they usually have to travel further to reach Britain.

Some hardwoods are rare, which means they’re only an environmentally responsible solution when you know for sure they’ve been farmed responsibly, not cut down illegally in a protected forest. Look for the FSA logo and you should be fine.

Softwood tends to come from coniferous trees. They grow faster so they’re more economical, and they tend to be grown in the northern hemisphere rather than the tropics so transport costs are lower. Today’s softwoods almost always come from sustainable sources and the trees are often replaced many times over when farmed in fast-expanding commercial forests – a tick in the environmental box.

Softwoods are grown closer to home and grow much faster. They use less energy in the drying and cutting processes, which also comes with energy benefits. They’re also not as rare as some hardwood species.

Which is the most expensive – hard or softwood?

Softwoods are almost always cheaper. Garden furniture made of hardwood will last two to three decades as long as you maintain it in peak condition, while even well-maintained pine garden furniture only lasts about a decade. Hardwood garden furniture is significantly more expensive than softwood but it’s also more durable, which means it can work out more cost-efficient over time.

Whichever you go for, you can’t get out of the maintenance bit…you’ll need to treat the wood at least once a year, depending on the type of wood and the conditions where you live.

Treatments and maintenance for hard and soft woods

  • If you’re looking at brand new wood, use a wood protector then protect it with your chosen wood finish
  • If the wood is already grey and worn, first use a wood cleaner and colour restorer, then protect it with a wood finish of your choice
  • If the wood is already coated, oiled, painted or varnished and the finish is completely worn out, strip the old finish off by sanding back to bare wood, then clean the wood before adding a protective finish
  • If the finish is old but in good condition and you want to use the same product, clean and dust the surface, sand off any loose flakes and so on then re-coat it
  • If you want to change an existing finish you’ll need to get rid of the original product completely before adding a new type of finish

Recommended protection for exterior soft and hardwood

A penetrating oil finish is perfect for soft and hardwoods, protecting from within to prevent cracking, peeling and flaking, moisture and UV damage. Most oils are clear, although you can get gorgeous tinted wood oils, for example.

Exterior wood paints, stains and varnishes generally require less maintenance than wood oils. This said, however, they only coat the surface, not penetrating the wood, which means you’ll need to take extra care to keep them in tip top condition. On the flip side, although wood oils require maintenance on a more regular basis, they are much easier to maintain as there’s no need to sand back or sand off the old coating first, simply clean the surface and apply a fresh coat of oil…job done.

All the best protective coatings include water repellents and UV absorbents, will be fade resistant, flexible and offer long term protection as well as being easy to apply to your garden deck or outside garden furniture. So how do you choose which wood finish to use on your particular exterior wood?

The timber type matters. Hardwoods like oak and teak for instance will require more maintenance than mahogany, for example, but less than a softwood. If your garden faces south your exterior wood may suffer more sun damage than average, affecting the wood as much as 75% faster.

Wind is also an issue – it can ‘sandblast’ the surface, degrading the coating quicker. So choose a finish that suits your outdoor environment and gives you the least onerous maintenance schedule.

Lost? Ask us which exterior wood product we recommend

As you’ve discovered, it’s complicated. The decision about which wood to choose depends on so many things; the look you’re after, the project, the weather where you live, how much work you’re prepared to put into maintenance, and how you want the wood to look in the short and long term.

If you’re lost in space, why not give us a call? While we can’t choose your wood for you, we can help you pick the very best product for the job in hand. In the meantime this might help. Here’s what our expert says:

Hardwood decking and furniture in a sheltered garden

“In general, dense exotic hardwoods are naturally oily and resistant to mould, algae etc. In sheltered environments, best practice would be to keep them clean and free from organic build up such as leaves, tree sap and other organic matter. Clean yearly with a decking cleaner and treat with a ‘thin’ wood oil that can penetrate into the tight grain of the timber, such as teak oil.”

Softwood decking and furniture in a sheltered garden

“Softwoods in sheltered, damp environments, where there is a lack of direct sunlight, could become prone to mould and algae fairly quickly. Use a wood preservative followed by a decking oil or garden furniture oil. If mould or algae is already present, clean thoroughly with a fungicidal wash or mould and mildew cleaner first. When treated, try to keep free of organic matter. Covering with plastic or tarpaulin may not always help as it may prevent air flow to the wood and trap condensation, potentially accelerating the onset of rot.”

Hardwood decking and furniture in an exposed garden

“Untreated hardwood garden decking and furniture, exposed to wind rain and sun, will lose its colour and eventually turn grey. Using a product that contains Oxalic Acid, such as Osmo Wood Reviver Gel, can help to restore the natural colour of bare timber. Once treated, dense exotic hardwoods should be oiled with a refined oil, such as teak oil, or other thin oil that can penetrate into the tight grain. This will help to protect the timber and retain the colour of the wood for longer.”

Softwood decking and furniture in an exposed garden

“Softwood garden decking and furniture is more susceptible to the elements than hardwood so needs more care and protection, especially to end grain, furniture feet, table legs etc. If it’s new timber, treat with wood preservative then a good quality decking oil or furniture oil. Products with UV filters will prolong the colour of the timber for longer. Wood can easily be coloured with a pigmented / coloured exterior wood oil or decking oil. As a general rule, the darker the colour, the more UV protection it offers. It’s always a good idea to oil exterior softwoods in Autumn to help keep it protected over the wet, cold winter months.”

If you have any questions about what to use on your wooden garden furniture or decking, give us a call. Our team of experts are always on hand to provide helpful advice on how best to protect, restore and renovate new and old, softwood and hardwood garden decking and furniture.

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