I have a pretty old folk guitar that needs new strings. I'm new at this; practically not even a beginner yet. I just want to know what kind of strings I should buy if I just want a soft tone.
Glad to see you have an interest in getting your old guitar back into playing shape. The type of strings you choose will definitely affect the tone. If you want a soft tone, you will want phosphor/bronze acoustic strings which will give you a softer, more mellow tone than the 80/20 Bronze which will be bright. Also, coated strings tend to be a little softer in tone than un-coated. You can get coated in the phosphor bronze.
To get an even softer tone, and softer feel on un-calloused fingers, you might want to try "Silk and Steel" strings. These strings have a polyester (silk - like) layer between the winding and the steel core which not only gives them a very soft tone, but acts as padding. I usually recommend these to beginning students so they won't give up trying to learn to play because of the pain than can result from tender fingers pressing against hard steel strings. I just put a set of Martin Marquis Silk and Steel Folk Guitar Strings Standard Gauge (which is actually light) on a guitar for a new student.
If you have not been playing recently and have not yet built up callouses or finger strength, you may find light gauge (or even extra light) strings more comfortable to play.
You might also consider taking your guitar to a guitar tech for a set up. A set up includes checking the neck for proper relief and action (string height above frets), checking the neck angle, checking the saddle height, the nut slots, the condition of the saddle, and if needed perhaps dressing and crowning the frets. This will insure your guitar is in top playing condition so it will be easier to play and sound it's best.
Remember, it takes some commitment and dedication to learn to play guitar and it's a life long process. But it can provide a lifetime of enjoyment and relaxation and creative expression. It's worth the effort. Good luck.
Try Martin "silk & steel" strings. These are designed to soften the tone and feel of a steel-string guitar and make it a bit more applicable to folk guitar.
Vivian, Do a web search for images of "classical guitar" and then for "Spanish guitar." You will get a wide variety of results, but notice the width of the necks. See which kind most resembles your guitar.
Classical style guitars usually have broader necks than Spanish style guitars. There are many famous exceptions to this, but the Classical style instruments are more often played without a pick, and are plucked with the fingers. The strings are often nylon. In the old days, they were gut!
Spanish guitars have many body styles, but the necks are usually narrow and the strings often steel. A pick usually comes into play, but there many, many exceptions to this. (I am talking about you, Derek Trucks.)
Both kinds of guitars are used in Folk music. Both are used for either the purpose of playing a solo, or accompanying singers.
For folk music purposes, steel strings on a Spanish guitar will give you the volume to compete with a room full of hootenanny. (If that is a strange word to you, you have a fun trip to YouTube ahead of you.)
So, you have some approaches to try out. I envy you the journey of discovery you are embarking on. I hope the music will give you much fun and satisfaction.