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How hard are different types of wood?

To determine how hard a certain type (species) of wood is, the industry has developed a scale called Janka. A small steel ball is pushed into a sample of the wood up to half its height, and the force needed to do so is measured. The harder the wood, the higher the rating. It helps to determine how long a piece of furniture or flooring will last; how well it will be able to withstand everyday use.

The units of the measurement can cause confusion: in America, pounds-force (lbs) is used, while in Europe and Australia, kilogram-force (kgf) or Newton (N) is more usual. In the tables below, we note both lbs and N.

First we list wood species that are very hard (usually above 1,000 lbs) – but as you can see, their hardness varies significantly in this category.

SpeciesJanka (lbs)Janka (N)
Ebony (Brazilian)3,70016,000
Brazilian walnut3,68016,400
Ebony3,20014,300
Bamboo3,00013,000
Red mahogany2,70012,000
Golden teak2,30010,400
Tigerwood1,9008,200
Satinwood1,8008,100
Rosewood1,8008,100
Highland beech1,7007,500
Maple1,4506,400
White oak1,4006,000
Ash1,3005,900
Teak, English oak1,1005,000
Black walnut1,0004,500
Very hard wood species

Between 500 and 1,000 lbs, wood is usually classified as hard or suitable for hard. These are easier to work with, but still reasonably resilient.

SpecieslbsN
Cherry, Red maple9504,200
Paper birch9004,000
Mahogany8003,600
Silver maple7003,100
Fir6502,900
Larch6002,600
Chestnut, Poplar5502,400
Hard suitable wood species

350 to 500 is the semi-hard category, while woods below this are soft.

SpecieslbsN
Pine (different variants)200-4001,100-1,900
Fir, Lime, Poplar, Willow200-350900-1,600
Balsa70310
Semi-hard and soft wood species

Balsa is so soft and light that it is suitable as a material for model aeroplanes.

While the Janka scale is a good measure of hardness, it does not directly test resilience to scratches or scuffing. Engineered or composite wood boards will also have different characteristics. Nevertheless, these measurements are a good guide to how long your cabinet, desk, shelf or flooring can serve you.

What about softwoods and hardwoods?

The definition of softwoods and hardwoods is based on biology, and while it is true to most hardwoods are actually harder than softwoods, it is not necessarily so. Hardwoods are from dicot trees, whose seeds have two embryonic leaves. Softwoods are, on the other hand, are species whose seeds are not enclosed, e.g. in pine cones (angiosperms).

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Q&A

What is melamine?

Melamine is a nitrogen-based plastic that is used to create a variety of products from utensils, plates and cups to dry-erase boards, and, most importantly for furniture, countertops and as a finish on MDF, particle- and chipboards. (MFC, in particular, stands for melamine-faced chipboard.)

It is scratch- and moisture-resistant and hard enough to withstand everyday use, so boards with a melamine veneer are used to construct shelves, cabinets, desks and more. It protects the board, especially MDF, from spillages, that would otherwise damage it. Melamine can also be coloured, giving it great versatility, or patterned to imitate solid wood.

Explore furniture made with melamine veneer here.

Health concerns were raised regarding melamine when it was illegally added to milk formula in 2008. It is known to be a health hazard when ingested, and studies have shown that it can leak into hot or acidic foods (e.g. orange or tomato juice) when used as a container. However, this leakage was well below any levels of concern, and used as part of furniture, even in the kitchen, melamine should be perfectly safe. (Source)

Image by Laidler139 on Wikimedia Commons