Attention Fellow Woodworkers: This site contains affiliate links. If you click one of those links and then make a purchase we may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.

What Is The Difference Between Hardwood And Softwood?

Have you ever wondered about the difference between hardwood and softwood? It’s a common question for those exploring the world of lumber and woodworking. While the names may suggest the level of hardness, there’s actually more to it than that. Hardwood and softwood differ in terms of their origin, cellular structures, and overall strength. Understanding these distinctions can help you make informed decisions when it comes to selecting the right wood for your next project. Let’s take a closer look at the fascinating world of hardwood and softwood.

Definition of Hardwood and Softwood

Definition of Hardwood

Hardwood is a type of wood that comes from deciduous trees, which are trees that typically lose their leaves in the fall. These trees have broad leaves, such as oak, maple, and mahogany. The term “hardwood” can be a bit misleading, as it refers more to the type of tree than the actual hardness of the wood. Hardwoods tend to be denser and heavier than softwoods, making them more durable and resistant to wear and tear.

Definition of Softwood

Softwood, on the other hand, comes from coniferous trees, which are evergreen trees that have needles instead of leaves. Examples of softwoods include pine, cedar, and spruce. Despite the name, softwoods are not necessarily softer than hardwoods. In fact, some softwoods can be quite hard, but they are generally less dense and lighter in weight compared to hardwoods.

Tree Species

Types of Hardwood

There are numerous types of hardwood species, each with its own unique characteristics and uses. Some popular hardwood species include oak, maple, cherry, walnut, and mahogany. Oak is known for its strength and durability, while maple has a beautiful grain pattern and is often used in furniture making. Cherry has a warm reddish-brown color, walnut is prized for its rich dark tones, and mahogany is known for its natural beauty and resistance to decay.

Types of Softwood

Softwood species also come in a variety of types, with pine, cedar, spruce, and fir being among the most common. Pine is widely used for construction purposes due to its strength and affordability. Cedar is known for its natural resistance to decay and insect infestation, making it popular for outdoor applications such as decking and siding. Spruce is often used for framing and general carpentry, while fir is used for things like doors and windows due to its strength and stability.

Physical Characteristics


One of the key differences between hardwood and softwood lies in their density. Hardwoods are generally denser and heavier, making them more suitable for applications that require strength and durability. Softwoods, on the other hand, are less dense and lighter, which can make them easier to work with but potentially less durable in certain applications.

Cell Structure

Another difference between hardwood and softwood can be seen in their cell structure. Hardwoods typically have a more complex cell structure, with vessels that transport water and nutrients throughout the tree. This gives hardwoods their characteristic grain patterns. Softwoods, on the other hand, have a simpler cell structure and lack these vessels, resulting in a more uniform appearance.


Hardwoods and softwoods also differ in terms of their texture. Hardwoods tend to have a smooth and attractive texture, often with distinctive grain patterns that enhance their visual appeal. Softwoods, on the other hand, usually have a straight and even texture, although some softwoods like cedar can have a more pronounced grain.


Color is another distinguishing factor between hardwood and softwood. Hardwoods can vary widely in color, ranging from pale yellows and light browns to deep reds and dark browns. This natural variation in color allows for a wide range of aesthetic possibilities in woodworking projects. Softwoods, on the other hand, are usually lighter in color, with shades of yellow, white, and light brown being common.

Strength and Durability


Hardwoods are generally harder than softwoods, which means they are less likely to dent or scratch. This makes hardwoods a popular choice for high-traffic areas and furniture that needs to withstand heavy use. Softwoods, although less hard, can still be quite strong and suitable for many applications. The hardness of a wood species is usually measured using the Janka hardness scale, which determines the amount of force needed to embed a steel ball into the wood.

Resistance to Wear and Tear

Due to their density and hardness, hardwoods are typically more resistant to wear and tear compared to softwoods. This is why hardwoods are commonly used for flooring, furniture, and other applications that require a durable and long-lasting material. Softwoods, while not as resistant to wear, can still perform well in less demanding applications such as interior trim and general carpentry.

Rot Resistance

Another advantage of hardwoods over softwoods is their natural resistance to rot and decay. Hardwood species such as teak, cedar, and mahogany contain natural oils and resins that make them less susceptible to moisture damage. Softwoods, although generally less resistant to rot, can still be treated with preservatives to improve their durability and longevity, especially when used outdoors.

Common Uses

Hardwood Uses

Hardwoods find a wide range of applications in various industries. They are commonly used in furniture making, cabinetry, flooring, and millwork due to their strength, durability, and aesthetic appeal. The natural beauty and distinctive grain patterns of hardwoods also make them popular choices for decorative items like trim, paneling, and musical instruments. Additionally, hardwoods are often used in construction for things like beams, posts, and decking.

Softwood Uses

Softwoods have their own set of applications, particularly in construction and woodworking projects. They are widely used for structural framing, such as wall studs, roof trusses, and floor joists, thanks to their strength and affordability. Softwoods are also commonly used for exterior applications such as siding, decking, and fencing. Their light weight and ease of workability make softwoods ideal for DIY projects and general carpentry.

Cost and Availability

Hardwood Cost and Availability

The cost and availability of hardwoods can vary depending on factors such as species, quality, and location. Certain hardwood species, such as teak or mahogany, are considered more exotic and therefore tend to be more expensive. Additionally, if a particular hardwood species is native to a specific region, it may be more readily available and therefore more affordable in that area. Overall, hardwoods are often seen as a premium material and can be pricier compared to softwoods.

Softwood Cost and Availability

Softwoods, on the other hand, are generally more cost-effective and readily available compared to hardwoods. Softwood trees, such as pine and spruce, grow more quickly and can be harvested on a shorter rotation period, making the supply more abundant. The lower cost and easy availability of softwoods make them a popular choice for construction projects and other applications where cost efficiency is important.

Environmental Impact

Sustainable Harvesting

Sustainability is an important consideration when it comes to choosing between hardwood and softwood. Sustainable harvesting practices involve ensuring that forests are managed responsibly to maintain their ecological balance and prevent depletion. Both hardwood and softwood can be harvested sustainably, with certifications such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) ensuring that wood products come from well-managed forests.

Carbon Footprint

There is an ongoing debate about the carbon footprint of hardwood versus softwood. While both types of wood are carbon-neutral in the sense that they absorb and store carbon dioxide as they grow, the production and transportation of wood products can contribute to carbon emissions. Softwoods, being lighter and more easily processed, generally have a lower carbon footprint compared to hardwoods. However, the difference in carbon emissions can vary depending on factors such as the distance traveled and the specific production processes involved.

Working with Hardwood and Softwood

Cutting and Shaping

Working with both hardwood and softwood requires different tools and techniques. Hardwoods, being denser and harder, can be more challenging to cut and shape compared to softwoods. They often require more powerful tools and more careful planning to achieve desired results. Softwoods, on the other hand, can be easily cut and shaped with basic hand and power tools. The lighter weight and softer nature of softwoods make them more forgiving when it comes to woodworking operations.


Both hardwood and softwood can be finished to enhance their appearance and protect them from moisture and wear. Hardwoods, with their beautiful grain patterns, can be stained or varnished to highlight their natural colors and textures. Softwoods, which tend to have a more uniform appearance, can also be stained or painted to achieve a desired look. It is important to sand and prepare the wood surface properly before applying any finish to ensure a smooth and professional result.

Strength and Weight

When it comes to strength and weight, there are advantages and disadvantages to both hardwood and softwood. Hardwoods, with their density and hardness, offer excellent strength and durability for applications that require structural integrity. Softwoods, while generally not as strong, are lighter and easier to handle, making them suitable for projects where weight is a consideration. The choice between hardwood and softwood for a specific project should take into account the desired level of strength and weight.

Splitting and Cracking

Hardwoods tend to be less prone to splitting and cracking compared to softwoods, thanks to their higher density and natural moisture content. However, it is still important to properly dry and acclimate both hardwood and softwood before using them in applications that involve exposure to changes in humidity. Proper installation techniques, such as pre-drilling holes and using appropriate fasteners, can also minimize the risk of splitting or cracking in both hardwood and softwood.

Examples of Hardwood and Softwood

Examples of Hardwood

Some examples of hardwood species include:

  1. Oak: Known for its strength and durability, oak is commonly used in furniture making and flooring.
  2. Maple: Maple wood has a beautiful, fine grain and is often used in cabinetry and musical instruments.
  3. Cherry: Cherry wood has warm tones and is prized for its appearance in furniture and interior trim.
  4. Walnut: Walnut is known for its richness and is often used in high-end furniture and decorative items.
  5. Mahogany: Mahogany is a tropical hardwood with a deep, reddish-brown color and is frequently used in high-quality furniture and woodworking projects.

Examples of Softwood

Some examples of softwood species include:

  1. Pine: Pine is widely used for construction lumber and is known for its strength and affordability.
  2. Cedar: Cedar has natural oils that make it highly resistant to decay and is often used for outdoor applications like decking and siding.
  3. Spruce: Spruce is commonly used for framing and general carpentry due to its strength and stability.
  4. Fir: Fir wood is known for its strength and is used for things like doors, windows, and interior trim.


In conclusion, hardwood and softwood have distinct characteristics that make them suitable for different applications. Hardwoods, with their density, strength, and durability, are often used in furniture making, cabinetry, and flooring. Softwoods, on the other hand, are commonly used in construction, framing, and outdoor applications due to their affordability and light weight. While both types of wood can be sustainable and environmentally friendly, there are considerations such as cost, availability, and the carbon footprint to take into account. Whether you choose hardwood or softwood ultimately depends on your specific needs and preferences, as well as the requirements of your project.

If you enjoyed this article, please share with your audience!


The Art of Woodworking

Get your FREE 440-page Woodworking Guide. Includes 40 Step-by-Step Plans in Full Color.

The Art of Woodworking Book

We value your privacy and we’ll never spam you.

The Art of Woodworking

Get your FREE 440-page Woodworking Guide. Includes 40 Step-by-Step Plans in Full Color. The “Art of Woodworking” guide is a jam-packed, no fluff guide to all things woodworking! And to top it off you’ll also get fully detailed step-by-step plans to many different projects!
The Art of Woodworking Book

Download your copy of this FREE guide

We value your privacy and we’ll never spam you.