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Hardwood vs softwood: which is best for your wooden stair parts?

Updating your staircase means choosing between hardwood or softwood for your stair parts.

While both are great choices, hardwood and softwood have different features, so it’s worth doing some research into which is most suitable for your stairs.

In this guide we look at the differences between hardwood and softwood, including the following:

What’s the difference between softwood and hardwood?

Whether timber is a softwood or hardwood refers to how the trees reproduce—it doesn’t describe the strength of the wood.

Hardwood isn’t necessarily harder or stronger than softwood—balsa wood, for example, is an extremely soft and pliable hardwood. However, most types of hardwood are denser than softwood and therefore stronger and more durable.

What is hardwood?

Hardwood comes from deciduous trees (trees that shed their leaves in winter) that produce seeds in a closed covering, such as a shell or a fruit. An oak tree is an example of a hardwood tree, as it produces seeds inside acorns.

White oak is a hardwood that is commonly used for stair parts. You can view a full range of white oak stair parts here.

What is softwood?

Softwood comes from evergreen trees (trees that have leaves all year round) that produce seeds which aren’t in a closed cover, but instead drop to the ground or are carried off by the wind. A pine tree is an example of a softwood tree, as it releases seeds from pine cones.

Pine is a popular choice for affordable stair parts. You can view a full range of pine stair parts here.

Why is hardwood usually more expensive than softwood?

Hardwood tends to be more expensive than softwood because it:

  • takes longer to grow, meaning the trees can’t be harvested as quickly
  • can only grow in certain locations, whereas softwoods such as pine are far more adaptable
  • is harder to cultivate
  • takes longer to dry
  • is harder to work with

Essentially, hardwoods are typically more expensive because more time and effort goes into growing it and working with it. If you’re on a budget for home improvements, softwood stair parts are a more affordable choice.

The benefits of hardwood stair parts

Hardwood is popular for stair parts due to its strength, durability and luxurious appearance.

Hardwood is very easy to clean and requires very little maintenance, making it a particularly good choice for stair treads, risers and balustrades.

While it tends to be more expensive than softwood, it’s a worthwhile investment as it’s sturdy, wear-resistant and looks great with a natural varnish, rich stain or painted finish.

Hardwoods that are ideal for stair parts include:

The benefits of softwood stair parts

Softwood is an excellent, reasonably priced alternative to hardwood for finishing your staircase. It’s also a versatile choice for stair parts since it’s ideal for staining and painting.

As softwoods grow so quickly and easily, they are a much more environmentally friendly choice than hardwood.

Popular softwoods for balustrades include:

You can read more about the difference between hardwoods and softwoods with our guide to choosing the right materials for your balustrade.

Comparing softwood stair parts: Hemlock vs pine

Pine is a popular choice for stair parts as it’s easy to work with, sand and finish. When finished with a clear varnish, it can give a home a rustic feel. When painted with a colour, it can look very modern.

Hemlock is renowned for its strength and resistance to wear and tear, which makes it ideal for stair parts. The timber is very light in colour and takes varnish very well so a hemlock balustrade can give any hallway a striking, fresh feel.

You can view a full range of hemlock stair parts including handrails and spindles here.

Below is an overview of the key differences between the hemlock and pine:

Feature

Hemlock

Pine

Type of wood

Softwood

Softwood

Strength

Dense, and so stronger than many hardwoods

Has a close grain that makes it very strong

Colour

Pale brown

Light beige to yellow in colour

Appearance

Uniform grain, no knots, black vein line

Straight grain with attractive knots

Durability

Similar resistance to wear as pine

Can show scratches and dents

Finish

Staining, varnishing or painting

Staining, varnishing or painting

Maintenance

Low - Medium

Low - Medium

Cost

Low – Mid Range

Low Range

Comparing hardwood stair parts: White ash vs oak

White oak is an extremely tough wood with a highly distinctive tiger-stripe grain—two attributes that have made it a popular choice in construction for centuries.

As oak is such a traditional option for a staircase, it works well in giving period, characterful properties an impressive focal point in their hallways.

Ash is a strong wood with a close grain, meaning it can hold nails and screws very well. This adds to its strength when used as a balustrade. It’s easy to stain and looks beautiful with a clear finish to showcase the wood’s natural lightness. You can buy high-quality ash stair parts online—view a complete range of ash stair parts here.

Below is an overview of the key differences between oak and ash:

Feature

Oak

Ash

Type of wood

Hardwood

Hardwood (though soft varieties exist)

Strength

Renowned for being strong and long-lasting

Harder than oak but less water-resistant

Colour

Ranges in colour from blonde to dark tones

Warm beige to dark brown in colour

Appearance

Very strong and distinctive grain

Obvious grain but not as pronounced as oak

Durability

Resistant to dents and scratches

Takes stains well

Finish

Staining or polishing

Staining or polishing

Maintenance

Low-maintenance

Low-maintenance

Cost

Mid-range

Typically more expensive than oak

Comparing hardwood and softwood stair parts: hemlock vs oak

Hemlock and oak are two of the most popular woods used to make stair parts.

Below is an overview of the key differences between the two materials:

Feature

Hemlock

Oak

Type of wood

Softwood

Hardwood

Strength

Dense and stronger than many hardwoods

Renowned for being strong and long-lasting

Colour

Pale brown

Ranges in colour from blonde to dark tones

Appearance

Uniform grain, no knots, black vein line

Ideal for staining and painting

Very pronounced grain, no knots

Works well in combination with contrasting materials

Ideal for staining and showcasing natural timber

Durability

Similar resistance to wear as pine

Resistant to dents and scratches

Finish

Staining or painting

Staining or polishing

Maintenance

Low - Medium

Low-maintenance

Cost

Generally less expensive than oak

Mid-range

Hardwood and softwood stair parts—FAQs

How do I care for wooden stair parts?

  • Use a vacuum cleaner with a small nozzle attachment to clean off any dust and debris that’s collected on stair treads, on the handrail and base rail and in between the spindles.
  • Soak and wring out a soft, clean cloth in a solution of warm water and wood cleaner or mild detergent. Use the moist cloth to remove hard-to-reach dust and/or any dried spillages on the wood.
  • Wipe with a dry, lint-free cloth to remove excess moisture.
  • Repeat every four to six weeks.

How do I clean a wooden banister?

Over time, oil and dirt can build up on wooden banisters. However, cleaning this off and restoring the banister to its former beauty is simple.

  1. Use a baby wipe to remove the surface dirt from the handrail. You may need to use a few wipes to remove all the dirt.
  2. If the handrail still feels greasy, wipe it with a cloth moistened in a solution of equal parts vinegar and water.
  3. Use a clean, damp cloth to wipe away any residue from the vinegar solution.

Is hemlock a hardwood or a softwood?

Hemlock is a softwood with a beautiful pale colour and an even texture. It’s a popular timber inside the home, used for doors, shutters, mouldings and stair parts, for example.

You can view a range of our hemlock stair parts here.

Further resources

For more information on the full range of materials for stair parts, read our guide to choosing the right materials for your balustrade.

You can find more information on balustrades in our guide to balustrades here.

If you’re not sure what parts of your staircase are called, read our in-depth information on stair parts names and identification here.

 

Stair part guides & FAQs