What is the difference between a hardwood and a softwood?

Varnished wooden board.
The difference between hardwood and softwood actually has to do with plant reproduction. All trees reproduce by producing seeds, but the seed structure varies. LeliaSpb / Getty Images

Hardwood vs. softwood: Pardon the pun, but "hardwood" and "softwood" are household terms. It's safe to assume that you've encountered at least one of these terms in the last day or two. And, despite our dependence on man-made building materials like steel and concrete, wood isn't going anywhere.

This is for those who are too afraid to ask about the difference between hardwood and softwood. Or, those that still believe that hardwood and softwood is about softness and density.


It's time to explore the differences between hardwood and softwood trees, and chop down those misconceptions once and for all!

Breaking Down Botanical Classifications

Contrary to what the name suggests, softwood lumber has nothing to do with the material's softness. Hardwood isn't always harder either. In fact, the difference between hardwood and softwood lies in the ways the reproduce.

All trees reproduce by producing seeds, but the seed structure of each classification varies in a couple of distinct ways.


Hardwood trees are angiosperm trees, a variety of flowering plant that produces seeds with some sort of covering. This might be a fruit, such as an apple, or a hard shell, such as an acorn.

On the other hand, softwood trees are gymnosperm trees. These plants let seeds fall to the ground as is, with no covering. Pine trees, which grow seeds in hard cones, fall into this category. In conifers like pines, these seeds are released into the wind once they mature. This spreads the plant's seed over a wider area.


Hardwood Trees

Hardwoods are known for their broad leaves and unique reproductive structures, which include flowers and fruits. They occupy a special place not only in the woodworking realm but also within ecosystems, providing crucial habitats and resources.

Defining traits: Typically deciduous, these trees shed their leaves annually to conserve water during colder months. Their diverse leaf structures range from the lobed oak leaves to the smooth-edged ones of cherry trees.


Their reproductive process is marked by the production of flowers which evolve into fruits or nuts, serving as essential nourishment for a variety of wildlife.

Key examples:

  • Oak: Distinguished for its strength, oak wood is favored for furniture and flooring. Its acorns are a vital wildlife food source.
  • Maple: Maple's striking grain makes it a woodworking favorite, with the sugar maple renowned for its sap, the source of maple syrup.
  • Cherry: With its fine grain and rich hue, cherry wood is ideal for cabinetry. Its fruits are cherished by humans and animals alike.
  • Mahogany & teak: Both found primarily in temperate and tropical forests, mahogany is lauded for its reddish-brown color, while teak is prized for its water resistance, making it perfect for outdoor settings.

Ecological role: Hardwood trees are pivotal in ecosystems. They regulate temperatures with their shade, act as carbon sinks, absorbing considerable CO2, and their diverse habitats bolster biodiversity.

These trees represent a harmonious blend of utility and nature, highlighting the importance of sustainable management and appreciation of these natural treasures.


Species Spotlight: Balsa

Balsa wood, sourced from the balsa tree (Ochroma pyramidale), is a unique hardwood that defies conventional expectations. Native to Central and South America, this tree produces wood that's famously lightweight and soft, making it an exceptional choice for specific applications.

Characteristics: Balsa trees grow rapidly, often reaching maturity within just a few years. Their wood is characterized by large cells with thin cell walls, which contributes to its low density. This structure, while making the wood lightweight, also means it's quite porous. As a result, balsa can absorb a significant amount of moisture but can also dry out quickly.


Uses: The lightness of balsa, combined with its relative strength for its weight, has made it a favorite in various industries. Historically, it was used for constructing rafts. Today, it's popular in:

  • Model building: Due to its ease of carving and shaping, it's the go-to wood for model airplanes, boats, and architectural mock-ups.
  • Insulation: Its cellular structure gives it good insulating properties.
  • Aerospace: Some aircraft designs use balsa as a core material sandwiched between strong, lightweight composites.
  • Arts and crafts: Its softness makes it beginner-friendly for carving projects.


Softwood Trees

Categorized as gymnosperm trees, softwoods tend to stand out with their needle-like leaves and iconic cones. Essential in the construction of timber framed buildings, and critical to their respective ecosystems, softwood trees provide diverse resources, habitats, and environmental benefits.

Distinctive Features: Most softwood trees are evergreen, maintaining their foliage year-round and ensuring continuous photosynthesis. Their needle-like leaves, often coated with a protective wax, minimize water loss, enabling these trees to flourish in various climates. Cones, their reproductive structures, safeguard and disperse seeds that ensure the species' continuity.


Prominent examples:

  • Pine: A versatile wood, pine is prevalent in construction and furniture. Its sap is also a source of resin and turpentine.
  • Spruce: Esteemed for its resonance, spruce is chosen for musical instruments, including violins.
  • Cedar: Cedar’s aromatic and insect-repellent qualities make it a favorite for closets and outdoor applications. Western red cedar is particularly beloved among enthusiasts.
  • Fir: With its robust and consistent grain, fir is essential in construction, especially framing.
  • Redwood: Among the world's tallest trees, redwoods offer durable, rot-resistant wood ideal for exterior structures.

Ecological role: Softwoods house diverse wildlife, from birds to smaller creatures, within their branches and undergrowth. Beyond offering shelter, they're instrumental in soil preservation and atmospheric balance, thanks to their expansive root systems and year-round carbon absorption.


Species Spotlight: Douglas Fir

The Douglas fir, not a true fir by botanical standards, holds a prominent position among North American softwoods. Scientifically named Pseudotsuga menziesii, this tree is native to the west coast of the United States and Canada.

Characteristics: Douglas fir trees can grow impressively tall, some reaching over 300 feet in height. They're recognized for their distinctive cones, which have a unique "mouse tail and legs" appearance due to the protruding bracts. The tree's bark is thick and deeply grooved, providing it with some fire resistance.


Uses: Considered one of a few naturally durable softwoods, the Douglas fir is known for its strength, stiffness, and durability. It has a light brown color with a hint of red or yellow, making it aesthetically pleasing for various applications. Predominantly, it's used in construction projects, particularly for framing houses. However, its versatility extends to furniture, flooring, and veneer.

Typical Hardness and Density

Although hardwoods aren't necessarily always harder than softwoods, they are often denser. This general characteristic is due to their slow growth rate, which results in closely packed growth rings.

Some hardwoods like balsa are lighter and softer than most softwoods, while yew trees, a softwood species, produce wood that is considerably harder than many hardwoods.


However, the generalized belief that hardwoods are denser than softwoods stands true in many cases. The high density of hardwoods often makes them more suitable for applications requiring strength and durability like fencing, cladding, decking, and a broad range of consumer goods.

Aesthetic and Grain Differences

Aesthetically, most hardwoods showcase a more varied grain pattern due to their complex structure. This uniqueness is one reason hardwoods are favored for pieces where the wood's beauty is central, such as in furniture and decorative panels.

Softwoods, in comparison, often have a more uniform and straight grain, which can be equally appealing for certain designs. Their lighter color palette can also be an advantage in projects requiring a brighter or more neutral tone.


Maintenance and Care

While both hardwood and softwood items require maintenance, their care routines differ. Hardwood surfaces, like floors or countertops, benefit from regular polishing to maintain their sheen. They're also less prone to scratches but can be refinished if necessary.

Softwood surfaces, being softer, can be more susceptible to dings and scratches. However, they're often easier to repair. Softwood items, especially those outdoors, might require treatments to protect against pests and rot.


Durability and Lifespan

When it comes to durability, hardwood often has an advantage. Because of its dense structure, it's naturally more resistant to damage from external factors like pests or environmental conditions. This makes hardwood items, such as furniture or floors, last for generations when properly cared for.

Softwoods, while not as durable as their hardwood counterparts, have a respectable lifespan, especially when treated or used in environments where they're not exposed to extreme conditions. Properly maintained softwood structures, such as homes or decks, can also stand the test of time.


Cost Implications

There's a noticeable difference in the cost of hardwoods and softwoods. Hardwoods, being slower-growing and often more sought-after for their aesthetic qualities, tend to be more expensive. The pricing can vary widely based on the specific type of hardwood and its origin.

The softwood tree is much more abundant, grows faster, and is generally more affordable. However, rarer softwoods or those with special properties can fetch higher prices. When budgeting for a project, it's crucial to weigh the benefits of each wood type against its cost.

For The Love of Wood

Hardwoods and softwoods, while often discussed in terms of their density, are distinct in many ways, from their botanical classifications to their common uses and aesthetics. Both types of wood have their unique advantages and are integral to our daily lives, from the homes we live in to the furniture we use.

The more you learn about these wondrous plants the better. It's not just about choosing the right hardwood veneer either. It's about nurturing that budding curiosity and expanding your horizons. But, sure, knowing the differences between hardwood and softwood can come in handy at the local lumber yard too.

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Frequently Answered Questions

What is the main difference between hard and softwood?
The main difference between hard and softwood is that hardwood is derived from deciduous trees and softwood is derived from evergreen trees.