The Clue’s in the Name: What’s the Difference between Hardwood and Softwood

Hardwoods and softwoods are distinguished by the tree they come from. Hardwoods come from what are called angiosperm trees which are largely deciduous and shed their leaves every autumn.

Usually, the leaves are broad with distinct veins. However, softwoods come from gymnosperm trees, such as conifers. These are commonly evergreens. Hardwood trees are slower growing than softwoods, so their lumber is denser and stronger, so the clue really is in the name!


Hardwoods come from trees which reproduce every year with a flowering plant, some examples include walnut, oak and maple.

Broad leaves with fine veins change colour every autumn and the tree will shed its leaves ready to repeat the cycle again the following spring. The word, ‘angiosperm’ means an enclosed seed and hardwood trees have their seeds contained in an ovule such as a nut or fruit. These won’t propagate as far as something lighter which is more airborne and as a result, hardwood trees are often clustered together in groups.

Hardwood trees take decades to grow, sometimes as long as 150 years, so their timber is dense and durable and often attracts a higher price tag as a result.

What are Softwoods?

Some examples of softwood trees include pine, cedar and spruce. Rather than leaves, these trees usually have needles that remain green year-round. Softwood trees can reach maturity in as little as forty years, so their wood is available more quickly, but it is softer. This can make it easier to shape and work – think how popular pine is for furniture – but it is not usually robust enough to be used outside for exterior fittings like doors and windows without preservative treatments. The word, ‘gymnosperm’ means revealed seed in Greek so the tree’s seeds, like pine cones, are not enclosed in a shell or case so they are able to spread much more easily.

Hardwood vs. Softwood

The best choice of wood depends upon what you want to do with it. Hardwoods are stronger and harder wearing than softwoods because they grow more slowly. This results in a complex condensed structure which makes them suitable for structural building elements like beams and frames and they perform better when exposed to the elements. They are also more fire resistant than softwoods. Softwoods can be used outside, for instance, for garden furniture but they are usually treated to withstand the weather and will need repeated care if they are not to deteriorate. Some softwoods weather better than others and require less maintenance.

When it comes to old furniture, the rustic farmhouse style was usually made of pine or, as it was often called, ‘deal’. The darker more expensive furniture was reserved for the wealthy. Not only was the wood of a higher value commercially but it takes longer to work and shape which increased the cost of the piece. Furniture of this type is rarely painted so the quality of the grain and patina shines through, but hardwood doesn’t accept paint as well as softwoods and the intent was to show it off. Pine was easier to work and was often painted to disguise its origins.

Just to make life a little more complicated, there are ‘soft’ hardwoods and ‘hard’ softwoods! All this means is that hardwoods vary in their dry density. Yew is an example of a softwood which is harder than American Cherry which is classified as a hardwood.

How to tell the Difference between Softwood and Hardwood

If you don’t know the originating tree the wood came from then there are some possible clues to help you identify whether you have a hard or softwood.

  • Hardwoods usually have a pronounced grain due to their dense cellular structure which is why they are a popular choice for furniture despite the difficulty in working and shaping the wood
  • Softwoods are usually lighter in colour
  • Softwoods chip, scuff and dent easily so if you can easily lever out a sliver of wood with a chisel then it’s probably a softwood
  • Hardwoods are heavier as they are more dense

We select the best quality hardwood timber for our sash windows and doors which is treated before it is used to ensure the best weather resistance and durability. To ensure an optimal finish, the timber is spray painted which is not only quicker but ensures better coverage.

We manufacture quality timber sash and casement windows for homes and businesses, producing bespoke windows in any shape, size, design and colour. We blend traditional craftsmanship with the very best in modern materials and techniques to ensure your windows are optimised for thermal regulation, security, noise control and draught sealing.

Contact us here to find out more about our repair and restoration services and new sash window design.