When working with wood it is often desirable to know if it’s hardwood or softwood, whether dealing with reclaimed boards, or freshly milled lumber. Both hardwood and softwood have their uses, in building projects and as firewood. Both have their own distinctive characteristics that may be useful in one scenario or another.
An easy trick that requires no thinking is just to dig your finger nail into a flat surface on the wood…. if your finger leaves a mark it’s a softwood.Noah von Hatten
Check out my post on choosing the best firewood.
The question is how do you tell the difference between a hardwood and a softwood? Can you tell the difference when the wood is still a tree, and when it’s cut? That’s what we are about to find out.
Differences Between Hardwood & Softwood Trees
It is very simply to tell the difference between a hardwood and a softwood before the tree is cut down, all you need is to apply a little bit of botany knowledge. Hardwood and softwood trees can be distinguished from one another based on the type of tree they are, and on how they reproduce.
Hardwood trees belong to the group of trees known as Deciduous trees. This type of tree is often mainly characterized by the fact that they drop their leaves in the fall and become bare for the winter. Fruit & nut trees belong to this group. So when trying to gauge if a tree is a hardwood or not simply ask yourself: does the tree loose its leaves in the fall? If yes, there is a good chance it’s a hardwood.
Another way to tell if the tree is a hardwood is by the way that it reproduces; by the type of seed it has. For the purposes of this article a nut is a seed. Hardwood trees are gymnosperms; which for this purpose simply means that they cover their seeds in some way before letting them fall to the ground. Nuts, such as walnuts, hazelnuts, acorns, chestnuts & almonds, are examples of this, as well as any kind of fruit, since the flesh serves as a covering for the seeds. So if the tree has covered seeds, a nut or a fruit, then it is a hardwood.
How about softwood trees? Well, they are the opposite of hardwood trees in many ways. Softwoods are Coniferous trees, and as a general rule don’t lose their leaves, but rather keep them all year. So if the tree is an evergreen, it is very likely to be a softwood.
In addition to their leaves (or needles) softwoods can be distinguished by the fact that they are angiosperms. Essentially this means that they don’t cover their seeds, unlike hardwoods. They simply let the seed fall to the ground. So if the tree does not have covered seeds like a nut or a fruit, it is probably a softwood.
Differences Between Cut Hardwood & Softwood Logs
Now you can tell the difference between hardwood and softwood trees, but what about if the tree has already been cut into a piece of wood? It is still possible too easily identify a hardwood or a softwood, even if you don’t know what kind of tree your wood came from? The short answer is yes.
Hardwood, when cut, exhibits certain characteristics. These include:
- Pieces of hardwood are generally darker in colour, not always, but often.
- Buying hardwood is more expensive, so the wood will cost more.
- Hardwood is generally denser, which means it will feel heavier & more solid and slightly flexible, or not flexible at all.
- Hardwood almost never has sap.
- The grain is tight, with individual strands being very close together.
- Generally heavier than a similarly sized piece of softwood.
Softwood, when cut, also has its own characteristics. Which include:
- Pieces of softwood are generally lighter in colour.
- Cheaper than hardwood, often significantly.
- Softwood isn’t generally very dense, so it will feel lighter and be at least, or very somewhat flexible.
- Most softwoods make a lot of sap.
- The grain is loose, with individuals strands being farther apart.
- Generally lighter than a similarly sized piece of hardwood.
Handy Tricks for Telling Apart Hardwood & Softwood
Here are some basic tips for telling whether or not a given piece of wood is a hardwood or softwood. This is generally true for must pieces of cut wood, such as boards, but also for logs like firewood. There are some exceptions of course, but these handy tips should help point you in the right direction.
- An easy trick that requires no thinking is just to dig your finger nail into a flat surface on the wood. Make sure it is a discrete part if you planning on using the wood in some sort of building project. If your finger nail can mark the wood and leaves a little indent, then it is a softwood. Hardwoods are almost all much too hard to be dented by a finger nail. So this a good rule of thumb to have around.
- If you have various piece of wood and want to sort them into softwood and hardwood you can use their weight as a gauge. Take two pieces of wood that are roughly the same size and hold them both, one in each hand. If one is noticeably heavier than the other there is a solid chance that it is a hardwood.
- Check the grain. Look at the open end of the piece of wood that clearly shows the grain. If the grain is very close together and tight you have a piece of hardwood. If the grain is loose, with a significant amount of space between the “lines” of the grain you have softwood.
- Check for sap. If the wood is sappy, or if the bark as sap on it (if you have bark) it is a softwood. No sap usually means hardwood, but you could also just have a piece of softwood for no sap on it.
- How flexible is it? If the wood is flexible, and you can cause it to bend and bounce with your hands then there is a great chance that it is softwood. Hardwood is generally very stiff and difficult to bend due to its increased density.
A Piece of Hardwood Cut Into Firewood
A Piece of Softwood Cut into Firewood
My best advice when trying to figure out if you have a softwood or a hardwood is to check with two or more of the methods I just mentioned above. Of course, the easiest way to tell is to know what kind of wood you have. But if you have reclaimed boards or random firewood then you might not have that luxury.
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