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What is the Difference Between a Softwood and a Hardwood?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Different types of construction projects call for different kinds of timber, and many people are familiar with the concepts of hardwood and softwood. Few people know why woods are split into these two categories, however, and they make the assumption that hardwoods are hard, while softwoods are soft. This distinction is incorrect: balsa wood, for example, is classified as a hardwood despite the fact that it is very soft and light. The two wood types are actually distinguished botanically, not by their end use or appearance.

In general, hardwood comes from a deciduous tree that loses its leaves annually, and softwood comes from a conifer, which usually remains evergreen. Hardwoods tend to be slower growing, and are therefore usually more dense, but not always. Softwood usually grows in huge tracts of trees which may spread for miles, while hardwoods tend to be found mixed with a variety of other species.

Softwood comes from a type of tree known as a gymnosperm. Gymnosperms reproduce by forming cones which emit pollen to be spread by the wind to other trees. Pollinated trees form naked seeds that are dropped to the ground or borne along the wind so that new trees can grow elsewhere. Some examples include pine, redwood, fir, cedar, and larch.

A hardwood is an angiosperm, which means that it makes enclosed seeds or fruits. Angiosperms usually form flowers to reproduce. Birds and insects attracted to the flowers carry the pollen to other trees, and when fertilized the trees form fruits such as apples or nuts and seeds like acorns and walnuts. Examples include maple, balsa, oak, elm, mahogany, and sycamore.

Both types of wood are used for everything from structural beams to decorative accents. Some woods within each category are favored for particular uses: maple and elm are common elements in flooring. Redwood is often used for decking and other outdoor applications because the wood is naturally insect resistant and does not need to be treated with dangerous chemicals. Balsa is used for models and lightweight wood projects because it is easy to work with.

When picking out wood for any project, there are a few things that a woodworker should look for, regardless of the wood being used. It should have a tight, even grain without excessive knots or changes in pattern, unless it is being used decoratively. The wood should also not have any cracks or splits, and should be milled along the grain so that it will be strong. Woodworkers should be wary of staining and discoloration, which may represent exposure to water that could result in rot later.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HomeQuestionsAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By kentuckycat — On Sep 05, 2012
@Emilski - I'd say you're not going to have a lot of luck finding softwood flooring. Like you predicted, it just isn't strong enough to stand up to the wear and tear it would experience. It dents very easily. Not to say you're wrong, but most people prefer the grain of hardwoods over softwoods, because it's usually closer together.

I can't even think of any good softwoods that might be offered as flooring. What you may try doing is contacting some specialty flooring stores. While they probably won't have solid pine, you might be able to find some pine laminate that looks just like the real thing but has a less expensive hardwood like maple or oak under it.

By Emilski — On Sep 04, 2012

I am curious whether or not you can buy softwood flooring. We have been looking to remodel out dining room and want something different.

Everything I have found has been the normal stuff like oak and cherry. To be honest, I prefer the look of pine softwood over anything else. I figure it should be easy to stain any color. I can't find it, though.

Is it just not durable enough to be used as flooring? Are there any types of softwoods you can get?

By cardsfan27 — On Sep 03, 2012

@anon1812 - Botanically, needles are a type of leaves. That being said, all conifers (softwoods) have needles.

You can't always go on whether it is evergreen or not, though. The article mentioned larch, which is a tree that grows in my region. It is a softwood that looses its needles every winter. For anyone familiar with baldcypress, it is a swamp tree that does the same thing.

On the other hand, plenty of hardwood trees keep their leaves the whole year. I have visited Florida many times, and they have live oaks and magnolias that always have leaves, because it is so warm. California is the same way.

By stl156 — On Sep 02, 2012

@anon22598 - In the US and Canada, hardwoods and softwoods are usually limited to a few places. The vast majority of softwood lumber comes for the Southeast in places like Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. If you ever hear of yellow pine, that is the name for a generally category of pine trees that grow in that area. The New England states and eastern Canada also have a lot of white pine and spruce trees.

The rest of the softwood timber in the US mostly grows from the Rockies and west. This is where you find Ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir, which are used in construction and paper-making.

Most of the hardwoods are located in the central part of the country from Michgan down to Tennessee and then up toward New York.

By anon111613 — On Sep 17, 2010

this site is great for any homework help!

By anon111253 — On Sep 15, 2010

thanks. helped in my tech homework.

By anon85967 — On May 23, 2010

Thank you for such an interesting and informative article. I had been looking for a Garden Bench, and more so, one which wouldn't be made from a softwood. Having seen a redwood version and thinking that it would be a hardwood, I checked it out, only to discover (thanks to your great explanation) that it is actually a soft wood. Through your help, you have saved me from making a costly mistake. Keep up the great work!

By anon85844 — On May 22, 2010

thanks. my teacher showed me an old australian video.

By anon80715 — On Apr 28, 2010

Thanks. This helped me a lot with my tech homework!

By anon80319 — On Apr 27, 2010

thanks. helped a lot with d.t work will check out other pages.

By anon72764 — On Mar 24, 2010

This page was a great help for my wood tech homework. thanks.

By pepetam — On Mar 23, 2010

wood trees are classified as soft or hardwood because of the shape of their leaves, needle type like conifers have (pine trees for example)a needle ended leave, hardwoods have broad leaves.

It doesn't necessarily mean that hardwoods are hard to carve or have a high density. Balsa wood is a hardwood, but it is light in density, a big piece has a small weight.

By anon71985 — On Mar 21, 2010

thanks. this helps me to complete a boring leaflet I have to do for Tech homework. Thanks!

By anon70045 — On Mar 11, 2010

wow. this helped me a lot. Thanks!

By anon69583 — On Mar 09, 2010

it depends on the density.

By anon62894 — On Jan 29, 2010

Good article, thank you. Why are people still asking about the main difference or characteristics? The article just answered those questions.

By anon54876 — On Dec 02, 2009

What? I thought hardwoods were hard and softwoods were soft. Why is it called hardwoods and softwoods if they aren't harder or softer than each other?

By anon47740 — On Oct 07, 2009

Question: what are the characteristics of hardwood and softwood. please give me your differentiation between hard wood and soft wood along with their main characteristics and uses. Thanks and regards,Pathare.

By anon45951 — On Sep 22, 2009

Why is Balsawood a hardwood? What are the categories? Just wondering. -W-

By anon44377 — On Sep 07, 2009

Question: what are the characteristics of hardwood and softwood.

By anon44319 — On Sep 07, 2009

i just need to know about wood used for packaging purposes.

By anon38369 — On Jul 26, 2009

this didn't help me.

By anon36751 — On Jul 14, 2009

my research was about rainforests and this main topic i covered as well... i barely knew anything about soft and hardwood trees...

By anon31064 — On Apr 29, 2009

I live in Bristol. Does anyone know where to find good producers of hardwood?

By anon22598 — On Dec 07, 2008

anyone know a map of where hardwoods and softwoods can be found??

By anon14397 — On Jun 16, 2008

So what is the main difference between hard and soft woods?

By anon4960 — On Nov 07, 2007

what all do you use hardwood for?

By anon1812 — On Jun 16, 2007

I was told that softwood have needle instead of leaves

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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