Hardwood Vs. Softwood—Which Should I Use?
The short answer is, it depends on the species of hardwood or softwood.
Both hardwood and softwood work for many types of projects, from furniture to musical instruments to cabinetry.
The reason for this is that each species of wood within those categories has differing qualities. Some species of hardwoods will be more like softwoods and vice versa.
But because using the categories of softwood and hardwood can be helpful, we’ll talk about them here, including:
- How to identify hardwoods and softwoods
- The differences between the two
- Which type to use for your project
Let’s start with some popularly misunderstood terms.
How to identify hardwoods and softwoods
Identifying hardwoods and softwoods is not as easy as figuring out whether the wood is hard or soft. Instead, you have to understand how the tree grows.
As woodworker Ellis Walentine puts it, “the strongest softwoods are stronger than the weakest hardwoods.” For that reason, he emphasizes the importance of knowing what type or species of wood you have.1
But you can distinguish between the two types—just not in the way many people think. Here’s how.
Hardwood is wood from a deciduous tree—a tree that has broad leaves, fruit, and seeds. It’s also known as an angiosperm, a term that refers to how the seed is covered by fruit. For those of us who live in four-season climates, these trees are the ones that lose their leaves every fall and regain them in the spring.
In most cases, the wood from these trees is harder or denser than the wood from softwood trees, but there are some exceptions.
For example, poplar is a hardwood that is softer than many softwoods, including pine and Douglas fir.
Another way to identify hardwood is by looking at the grain of the wood. Hardwood trees have very obvious pores that help to transport water and nutrients—resulting in a noticeable grain.
Hardwoods also tend to be darker in color—though this is not always the case. Some well-known hardwoods, like maple and hickory, are lighter.
Here are some more types of hardwood:
Softwood comes from conifers, also known as gymnosperm (literally “naked seed”) or evergreen trees. Rather than having leaves, seeds, and fruit, they are covered in needles—the naked seeds—that scatter and reproduce.
This type of wood is typically softer and less dense, though again, there are exceptions. Yew is one example.
Softwood does not contain pores. Instead, it has smaller vessels, called medullary rays and tracheids, that transport nutrients and sap throughout the tree. They are not as easy to see, making for a less distinct grain.
Softwood is usually a yellow or reddish wood, such as:
- Douglas fir
What are the differences between hardwoods and softwoods?
Hardwoods and softwoods have some differences that can affect their use. Again, keep in mind that this comparison will be a generalization. You’ll want to learn about the specific species you’re using for your project.
But now, for those differences.
As we’ve already mentioned, hardwoods and softwoods have some differences in appearance. Hardwoods tend to be darker, while softwoods are lighter. Hardwoods also have a closed and obvious grain, while the grain in softwoods is less noticeable.
The density of hardwoods makes it a very durable material that is less likely to be damaged. It also has high fire resistance.
However, this durability has its downsides because it can make the wood more challenging to work with. Woodworkers find that they often have to opt for drilling or screwing rather than nailing hardwoods because the nails increase the chance of splitting in the wood.
This type also doesn’t seem to do as well with finishes or paints.
Softwoods, on the other hand, are much more workable in general. They’re also lightweight.
But the benefit of workability comes with its cons too. Softwoods tend to get damaged, scratched, and dented much more easily. And they’re less durable, especially outdoors (unless we’re talking about red cedar). However, treating them can help solve this problem and make them usable in many situations.
Finally, let’s talk about the differences between obtaining hardwoods and softwoods.
Hardwoods tend to have a higher price tag because they have a slower growth rate than softwoods—taking even up to 150 years. In contrast, softwoods only take about 40 years to grow, making them a more cost-effective option for woodworkers.
So, in summary:
|Darker colors||Lighter colors|
|Pores||Medullary rays and tracheids|
|Obvious grain||Less obvious grain|
|Durable||More easily damaged|
|Heavier and higher density||Lighter and lower density|
|Harder to work with||Easy workability|
|Doesn’t take paint or finish well||Finishes well|
|Higher cost||Lower cost|
With these differences in mind, let’s talk about how to know which one is best for you.
Which type of wood should I use for my project?
The type of wood you use for your project has more to do with the species than whether it’s a hardwood or softwood. But here are some general suggestions.
Because hardwoods are typically stronger, more durable, and less likely to rot,2 they’re the best option for:
- Flooring (hence why they’re called hardwood floors)
- High-quality furniture
- Windows and doors
- Boat making
- Some outdoor construction
Softwoods can be used in many projects, too, however, and tend to provide more of a budget option. If treated, they can do just as well outdoors as hardwoods.
In fact, softwood is quite popular, considering that it makes up 80% of timber in the world.3
Some uses for softwood are:
- Various building components, like framing (especially pine), trim, and finish
- Indoor construction
- Some furniture and cabinetry (pine, poplar, and spruce especially)
- Instruments (luthiers love spruce because of its sound)
- Wood products
Protect your hardwoods and softwoods
Understanding hardwoods and softwoods can give you a basic idea of what to look for in wood. But because of the many exceptions to their characteristics, you’ll ideally want to learn about individual species of wood.
Explore your options on our page about choosing the right wood type for your project. We take a closer look at some common examples of hardwoods and softwoods, plus how to know which ones work best for specific projects.
Regardless of what you choose, be sure that you’re protecting the wood from damage by checking its moisture content and acclimating the wood to its environment. That’s a vital step for a successful project with both hardwoods and softwoods.
- “Difference Between Hard and Soft Woods?” Woodworker’s Journal. (↑)
- Feldman, Lew, “I’m Glad You Asked: The Story of Hardwood and Softwood,” University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley, April 8, 2021. (↑)
- Ibid. (↑)