Hardwood vs. Softwood

Hardwood
Softwood

Classifying wood as either a hardwood or softwood comes down to its physical structure and makeup, and so it is overly simple to think of hardwoods as being hard and durable compared to soft and workable softwoods. This happens to be generally true, but there are exceptions, such as in the cases of wood from yew trees — a softwood that is relatively hard — and wood from balsa trees — a hardwood that is softer than softwoods.

Hardwood comes from angiosperm — or flowering plants — such as oak, maple, or walnut, that are not monocots. Softwood comes from gymnosperm trees, usually evergreen conifers, like pine or spruce.

Comparison chart

Hardwood

Softwood

Definition Comes from angiosperm trees that are not monocots; trees are usually broad-leaved. Has vessel elements that transport water throughout the wood; under a microscope, these elements appear as pores. Comes from gymnosperm trees which usually have needles and cones. Medullary rays and tracheids transport water and produce sap. When viewed under a microscope, softwoods have no visible pores because of tracheids.
Uses hardwoods are more likely to be found in high-quality furniture, decks, flooring, and construction that needs to last. About 80% of all timber comes from softwood. Softwoods have a wide range of applications and are found in building components (e.g., windows, doors), furniture, medium-density fiberboard (MDF), paper, Christmas trees, and much more.
Examples Examples of hardwood trees include alder, balsa, beech, hickory, mahogany, maple, oak, teak, and walnut. Examples of softwood trees are cedar, Douglas fir, juniper, pine, redwood, spruce, and yew.
Density Most hardwoods have a higher density than most softwoods. Most softwoods have a lower density than most hardwoods.
Cost Hardwood is typically more expensive than softwood. Softwood is typically less expensive compared to hardwood.
Growth Hardwood has a slower growth rate. Softwood has a faster rate of growth.
Shedding of leaves Hardwoods shed their leaves over a period of time in autumn and winter. Softwoods tend to keep their needles throughout the year.
Fire Resistance More Poor

Contents: Hardwood vs Softwood

Differences in Microscopic Structure

Presence of pores in hardwoods (oak, top) and the absence of pores in softwoods (pine, bottom).
Presence of pores in hardwoods (oak, top) and the absence of pores in softwoods (pine, bottom).

There are differences between the physical structures of hardwoods and softwoods. This is usually visible at both microscopic level and at the surface — hardwoods tend to have broad leaves, while softwoods tend to have needles and cones. Hardwoods have vessel elements that transport water throughout the wood; under a microscope, these elements appear as pores. In softwoods, medullary rays and tracheids transport water and produce sap. When viewed under a microscope, softwoods have no visible pores because tracheids do not have pores.

The pores in hardwoods are a lot of what gives hardwood its prominent grain, which is quite different from softwood's light grain.

Uses of Hardwood vs Softwood

In many cases, hardwoods and softwoods are both used for many of the same purposes, with more emphasis placed on the type of hardwood or softwood and how dense it is.

Generally, though, softwoods are cheaper and easier to work with than hardwoods. As such, they make up the bulk of all wood used in the world, with about 80% of all timber being a softwood. This is impressive considering hardwoods are much more common in the world than softwoods. Softwoods have a wide range of applications and are found in building components (e.g., windows, doors), furniture, medium-density fiberboard (MDF), paper, Christmas trees, and much more. Pines are one of the most commonly used softwoods.

Though hardwoods are often more expensive and sometimes more challenging to work with, their upside is that most — though not all — are denser, meaning many hardwoods will last longer than softwoods. For this reason, hardwoods are more likely to be found in high-quality furniture, decks, flooring, and construction that needs to last.

Hardwood vs Softwood Density

The denser a wood is, the harder, stronger, and more durable it is. Most hardwoods have a higher density than most softwoods. The chart below shows the density of some commonly used woods.

Wood Density (lb/ft3)
Alder (Hardwood) 26-42
Aspen (Hardwood) 26
Balsa (Hardwood) 7-9
Beech (Hardwood) 32-56
Cedar (Softwood) 23
Douglas Fir (Softwood) 33
Hickory (Hardwood) 37-58
Juniper (Softwood) 35
Magnolia (Hardwood) 35
Mahogany (Hardwood) 31-53
Maple (Hardwood) 39-47
Oak (Hardwood) 37-56
Pine (Softwood) 22-35
Poplar (Hardwood) 22-31
Redwood (Softwood) 28-55
Spruce (Softwood) 25-44
Teak (Hardwood) 41-61
Walnut (Hardwood) 40-43
Yew (Softwood) 42

As evidenced by the table above, alder and balsa are soft hardwoods, while juniper and yew are hard softwoods.

Composition of Hardwood and Softwood

Softwoods contain more glucomannans than hardwoods, while hardwoods contain more xylans. Hardwoods are generally far more resistant to decay than softwoods when used for exterior work. However, solid hardwood joinery is expensive compared to softwood and most hardwood doors, for instance, now consist of a thin veneer bonded to MDF, a softwood product.

Hardwood

Softwood

Cellulose

42±2%

45±2%

Hemicellulose

27±2%

30±5%

Lignin

28±3%

20±4%

Extractives

3±2%

5±3%

References

Share this comparison:

If you read this far, you should follow us on:

"Hardwood vs Softwood." Diffen.com. Diffen LLC, n.d. Web. 25 Jul 2014. < http://www.diffen.com/difference/Hardwood_vs_Softwood >

Stay informed Related Comparisons
Follow Diffen
Make Diffen Smarter.

Log in to edit comparisons or create new comparisons in your area of expertise!

Sign up »
Top 5 Comparisons Recently Compared

Comments: Hardwood vs Softwood

Comments via Facebook

Anonymous comments (15)

October 13, 2013, 12:11am

Thanks a ton for this, you don't understand how much people really appreciate sites like this.

— 58.✗.✗.65
4

February 27, 2014, 4:45pm

Hard wood is the best and thax 4 that

— 41.✗.✗.4
2

September 25, 2013, 6:40pm

This really helped me for my GCSE control tech exam. Thank you sooo much! :)

— 86.✗.✗.164
2

April 14, 2013, 2:35am

it would be great if you put the authors name so that we could cite this page and the great information it has!

— 58.✗.✗.185
2

April 7, 2013, 11:03am

Very helpful for year 8 homework, I am so grateful I found this.

— 101.✗.✗.114
2

August 10, 2011, 11:40am

Hardwoods denser than softwoods? Really? Balsa is a hardwood, so go figure!

— 217.✗.✗.168
1

May 7, 2011, 5:15pm

hepd me sooooooooo muchh during exam time,thanx a lootzzz

— 112.✗.✗.232
1

February 26, 2011, 1:45pm

helped me do my h/w alot coz i copyed it all lol ty

— 212.✗.✗.146
1

December 7, 2010, 12:40pm

you guyz r g8t. it has really helped me

— 64.✗.✗.240
1

December 9, 2013, 8:03pm

very good

— 141.✗.✗.185
0

December 17, 2012, 10:27pm

thx, but why does hardwood burn longer????

— 76.✗.✗.33
0

May 27, 2012, 6:29pm

Softwood


Hardwood

Cellulose content


42% +/- 2%


45% +/- 2%

Lignin content


28% +/- 3%


20% +/- 4%

Extractives content


3% +/- 2%


5% +/- 3%

Fibre length


2-6 mm


0.6-1.5 mm

Coarseness


15-35 mg/100 mm


5-10 mg/100m

— 141.✗.✗.25
0

November 4, 2011, 11:28am

yes hardwood is denser than softwood.

— 180.✗.✗.233
0

November 25, 2012, 6:51pm

thx for helping me with my science fair project!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

— 184.✗.✗.18
-1

March 4, 2012, 5:00pm

A good site, really helped with my homework, cheers!

— 95.✗.✗.57
-1

share

Up next

Hardwood Floor vs. Laminate Floor