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Hardwood vs. Softwood: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Updated on October 9, 2023
Hardwood comes from deciduous trees that lose leaves annually, typically denser, while softwood originates from conifers, generally lighter and softer.

Key Differences

Hardwood and softwood, despite their seemingly straightforward nomenclature, do not simply denote hard and soft woods, respectively. Hardwoods originate from deciduous trees, those that shed their leaves annually, and often have complex, porous structures. Oaks, maples, and cherry trees produce what we categorize as hardwood, which often bears a notable density and durability, making it preferable for certain applications like furniture-making and flooring. However, it’s crucial to recognize that the naming does not always reflect the physical hardness of the wood, as there are exceptions.
Conversely, softwoods come from coniferous trees, which retain their needles year-round. Examples of such trees include pine, spruce, and cedar. Generally, softwoods tend to be lighter and more pliable than hardwoods. Softwoods are often utilized for applications where ease of workability and cost-effectiveness are primary considerations, such as in the manufacture of paper, some furniture, and certain types of board. Even within the category of softwoods, there is variability in properties like density, color, and workability.
It's vital to underline that both hardwood and softwood have their distinct places in various industries, chosen based on their respective advantages and characteristics. While hardwood often gets associated with durability and quality, especially in furniture, softwood also represents a substantial segment of the timber market, given its often lower cost and versatile applications, particularly where structural strength may not be paramount.
While the terms hardwood and softwood might suggest a distinct dichotomy in their physical properties, the differentiation primarily stems from botanical classifications. It is essential to dispel the misconception that hardwood is always hard and durable, and softwood is always soft and workable. There are hardwoods that are softer than softwoods and vice versa, such as balsa, which is a hardwood yet notably soft and light.
The appropriate choice between hardwood and softwood in practical applications often boils down to considering various factors such as cost, workability, availability, and specific project requirements. For instance, hardwoods might be selected for high-quality furniture, cabinetry, or flooring due to their typically intricate grain and durability, while softwoods might be preferred for framing or outdoor applications owing to their generally lighter weight and cost-effectiveness.

Comparison Chart


Deciduous trees
Coniferous trees

Leaf Type

Broad leaves
Needles or scales


Flowers and fruits

Common Uses

Furniture, flooring
Paper, framing


Typically denser
Generally less dense

Hardwood and Softwood Definitions


Hardwood is derived from deciduous trees.
Oak is a type of hardwood often used in cabinetry.


Softwoods usually have simpler, linear grains.
The straightforward grain of fir softwood makes it a popular choice for basic lumber.


Hardwoods often have a higher density.
The durability of hardwood floors is often due to the dense nature of the material.


Softwoods tend to be more cost-effective.
Softwood lumber, like spruce, is frequently used in construction due to its affordability.


Hardwoods typically bear leaves.
The maple, known for its vivid autumn foliage, is a common hardwood.


Softwoods originate from coniferous trees.
Pine, a softwood, is widely used in furniture construction.


Hardwood generally has a more complex structure.
The detailed grain of walnut hardwood enhances the aesthetic of furniture.


Softwoods are generally easier to work with.
The ease of carving pine, a softwood, makes it a favorite among woodworkers.


Hardwood can sometimes be softer than softwood.
Balsa is a hardwood, despite its notable softness.


Softwood generally features needles or scales.
Cedar, known for its pleasant aroma, is a type of softwood.


Can softwood be utilized for flooring?

Yes, while hardwood is commonly chosen for high-traffic areas, softwoods can be used for flooring, offering a different aesthetic and feel.

What are some common uses of hardwood in construction?

Hardwood is frequently used in areas like flooring, cabinetry, and sometimes structural elements due to its durability.

Is all furniture made from hardwood?

No, furniture can be made from both hardwood and softwood, with the choice often dictated by factors like desired aesthetics, usage, and cost.

Are softwoods more prone to damage than hardwoods?

Softwoods tend to be more susceptible to scratches and dents due to their generally softer nature, but proper treatment can enhance durability.

Are all conifers softwood trees?

Nearly all conifers are classified as softwoods, but there are exceptions like yews, which are conifers but have characteristics akin to hardwoods.

Are hardwoods always physically harder than softwoods?

No, some hardwoods like balsa are softer than certain softwoods; the classification is botanical, not strictly physical.

Is hardwood or softwood more environmentally friendly?

It depends on factors like local availability, shipping distances, and sustainable harvesting practices, rather than the wood type itself.

Are hardwoods or softwoods more commonly used for paper production?

Softwoods are more commonly used for paper production due to their longer fibers and higher pulp yield.

What hardwood is commonly used for high-quality furniture?

Woods like oak, cherry, and mahogany are popular hardwood choices for high-quality furniture due to their durability and attractive grain.

Can hardwood be used in outdoor applications?

Yes, some hardwoods like teak or ipe are used outdoors due to their resistance to weather and insects.

What hardwood is often used for making musical instruments?

Mahogany and maple are popular hardwood choices in musical instrument making due to their acoustical properties.

Which is typically lighter in color, hardwood or softwood?

Softwoods are generally lighter in color, though there are always exceptions, and treatments can alter wood color.

Is softwood a good choice for cabinetry?

Softwood can be used for cabinetry, especially in designs where lighter weight, color, or cost savings are priorities.

Are hardwoods always darker in color than softwoods?

No, while hardwoods tend to often be darker, there are light hardwoods and dark softwoods; color can vary widely.

What softwood is most resistant to decay?

Cedar is known for its natural resistance to decay, often making it a choice for outdoor applications.

What makes hardwood typically harder or denser than softwood?

The cellular structure of hardwood is often more complex and dense, which can contribute to its relative hardness compared to softwood.

Why is hardwood typically more expensive than softwood?

Hardwood is often pricier due to its generally denser structure and often slower growth rates compared to softwood.

Can softwoods be used in furniture making?

Absolutely, softwoods like pine are commonly used in furniture due to their workability and cost-effectiveness.

Can softwood be durable?

Yes, certain softwoods, especially when properly treated and maintained, can offer substantial durability.

Can hardwood be sustainable?

Yes, hardwood can be sourced sustainably from managed forests and certified through organizations like the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council).
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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