Hardwood VS Softwood – The not so obvious difference

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through my links, at no extra cost to you.

If you are working with any kind of wood you have probably heard the terms hardwood and softwood multiple times. Since some hardwoods can be soft and some softwoods can be hard, the concept of hardwood and softwood can be quite confusing at first.

Hardwoods are deciduous, which means that they seasonally shed their leaves and regrow them.  Softwoods are evergreen and stay green all year round. The names hardwood and softwood do not correlate directly to the hardness or density of the wood. 

So let us get into some more detail, and go through the difference between hardwood and softwood. And let me show you why the concept of hardwood and softwood can be confusing.

Spruce – Softwood
Oak – Hardwood

Softwood VS Hardwood

In my early years of working with wood, before I did any proper research, I reached the simple conclusion that softwoods are soft and hardwoods are hard. But as I found out later on, logic was not my friend on this topic.

The fact is that some hardwoods are very soft, Balsa wood is a great example of a low-density hardwood. Balsa is the softest wood on the commercial market and it is still considered a hardwood. Most softwoods are softer than most hardwoods. But some softwoods are harder than some hardwoods.  Confusing?, let me explain.

As a tool to understand softwoods and hardwoods, we will use the Janka Hardness Scale. The Janka Hardness Scale measures how many pounds of force it takes to bury a metal ball half of its diameter into the wood.

When looking at the Representation of the Jenka Hardness Scale below we can see hardwoods on the entire spectrum of the scale (This representation only goes to 2000lbf, some woods has a rating of over 5000lbf ).

Hardwoods are spread all throughout the scale while softwoods stay fairly similar in hardness and are generally softer compared to hardwoods with some exemptions. This scale is just a representation to show you the variety of hardwoods and softwood and their hardness and density.

As we can see on the scale above, you will find hardwoods and softwoods throughout the scale, but the softwoods are more similar in structure and in density than the hardwoods. There are 1000s of other species and subspecies of trees that are not on this list, so this is not a complete list at all.

Some trees can almost become as hard as concrete, the “Australian Buloke” reaches a whopping 5,060lbf on the Janka Hardness Scale.

Structural differences in hardwoods and softwoods

The main structural difference between hardwoods and softwoods is that hardwood is more complex in structure and has pores, also called vessels. Hardwood structure also varies hugely between the different hardwood species.

Softwoods are simpler in structure and do not have pores. Softwoods are generally very similar to each other in structure. Of course with exceptions.

List of common softwoods

  • Fir
  • Pine
  • Spruce
  • Southern yellow pine
  • Redwood
  • Cedar
  • Sitka Spruce

List of common Hardwoods

  • Ash
  • Oak
  • Maple
  • Beech
  • Birch
  • Walnut
  • Hickory
  • Balsa
  • Aspen
  • Basswood
Hardwood, Protected seeds, And felling leafs
Softwood, Exposed seeds, Needles that does not shed seasonally

How To Tell Softwoods And Hardwoods Apart

There are two general ways to differentiate between hardwood and softwood. The first way is to look at the leaves, needles, or foliage of the tree. Hardwood trees seasonally shed their leaves, needles, and foliage. Softwood trees stay evergreen which means that leaves, needles, and foliage stay on all year round.

The other way of telling softwood and hardwood trees apart is by looking at the seed of the tree. The seed of hardwood trees is encapsulated or protected, the seed will be inside some kind of fruit, nut, or berry. Softwood trees are usually conifers, this means that their seed will be more exposed and naked like a pinecone.

Most softwood species stay evergreen throughout the year, but the Larch tree actually sheds its needles in the fall and follows the seasons like most hardwood trees, which is fairly uncommon for softwood. Below is are images of the larch tree in taken during the summer, fall and winter.

Which is cheaper: Hardwood or Softwood?

Softwoods are generally cheaper than hardwoods. Softwoods grow faster than most hardwoods and are of high commercial value. This means that softwoods are readily available in all wood retailers. Common affordable hardwoods in North America are maple, poplar, and oak. Common affordable softwoods in North America Pine, Cedar, Fir, and Spruce

What is Hardwood Used For?

The structure of different hardwoods varies greatly depending on the species. Therefore hardwood can be used in a huge range of different applications. Hardwood is used for tools, construction, boat, furniture, instruments, flooring, cooking, fuel, wood carving, art, and decking with many more.

What is Softwood Used For?

The different species of softwoods are similar in grain structure, softwoods also grow faster resulting in more availability and cheaper prices. This means that softwood has more of a general application since it will have many of the same qualities in the wood. Softwood is mainly used for construction, windows, indoor framing, panels, and plywoods. If softwood is used outdoors it is usually treated to extend its durability.

What is the hardest softwood?

The hardest softwood is the European Yew. European Yew has a Janka hardness rating of 1540lbf and grows slowly relative to other softwoods. Even though the wood of the European Yew tree is hard and dense it is one of the most flexible woods you can find. The combined strength and flexibility of the European Yew make it an optimal wood to use for longbows.

What is the softest softwood?

The softest softwood is the Northern White Cedar. Northern White Cedar has a Janka Hardness rating of 320lbf, it is a medium-sized tree and is native to Eastern Canada and some parts of the Northern United States. Northern White Cedar is mainly used as an ornamental tree.

What is the hardest hardwood?

The hardest hardwood is the Australian Buloke. Australian Buloke has a Janka hardness rating of 5,060lbf and is the hardest wood commercially available. The wood is so hard that the species it belongs to is named Ironwood. Australian Buloke is used for knife handles, flooring, god-quality furniture, and woodturning.

The absolute hardest hardwood is still under dispute, so I decided to use the most commercially available hardwood as an example in this article. According to wood-database.com, Waddywood is the hardest hardwood known at the moment. Waddywood is however protected and extremely hard to get your hands on.

What is the softest hardwood? 

The softest hardwood is Balsa. Balsa wood has a Janka Hardness rating of 67lbf and is the softest commercially available wood. Balsa I highly valued for its unique properties. Balsawood is commonly used as buoys, in surfboards, fish lures, and model airplanes. If your project needs to float or be light, balsa is the answer.

Hardwood vs softwood for Firewood

Hardwoods generally have better properties as firewood than softwoods. Hardwoods are denser, burn longer, and burn hotter than most softwoods. Of course with exceptions. But hardwoods grow slower than most softwoods and might be harder to obtain in large quantities depending on where you are located.

Both hardwoods and softwoods work well as firewood. If I have the chance I would use a denser hardwood rather than a softwood as firewood. But due to the huge availability in my area, I choose to use softwoods like pine and spruce as firewood. Sometimes I also use hardwoods like birch or maple. It all depends on availability and price.


Hardwood and Softwood are not terms to conclude if the wood is hard or soft. It refers to certain groups of trees. Softwoods usually grow fast, are evergreen, and have “naked” seeds like pinecones. Softwoods are more similar to each other in density and wood structure than hardwoods are.

Hardwoods come in all shapes and forms. Hardwoods can both grow slow and fast but are usually slower growing than softwoods, they are deciduous which means they seasonally shed their leaves and their seeds are protected, like in I a fruit or something.

That’s it. I hope you got a little more knowledgeable after reading the article.

Recent Posts