Types of soft wood


Types of Wood for Woodworking

By Jeff Strong

Solid wood — that is, wood cut into boards from the trunk of the tree — makes up most of the wood in a piece of furniture. The type of wood you choose determines the beauty and strength of the finished piece. Many varieties of wood are available, and each has its own properties. The following sections introduce you to the most common types of soft- and hardwoods.

Sampling some softwoods

Softwoods aren’t weaker than hardwoods. Softwoods come from coniferous trees such as cedar, fir, and pine and tend to be somewhat yellow or reddish. Because most coniferous trees grow fast and straight, softwoods are generally less expensive than hardwoods.

It’s also relatively easy to find sustainably grown softwoods (woods grown on tree farms to ensure an endless supply of wood); this means you’re not contributing to the deforestation of the world and will always have a supply of wood for your projects.

Following is a list of common softwood varieties and their characteristics.


The most common type of cedar is the western red variety. Western red cedar, as its name implies, has a reddish color to it. This type of wood is relatively soft (1 on a scale of 1 to 4), has a straight grain, and has a slightly aromatic smell. Western Red cedar is mostly used for outdoor projects such as furniture, decks, and building exteriors because it can handle moist environments without rotting. Western red cedar is moderately priced and can be found at most home centers.

Cedar is one of the most aromatic woods (hence, the cedar chest) and is strong enough to endure the elements, so it’s great for decks and patio furniture.


Often referred to as Douglas Fir, this wood has a straight, pronounced grain, and has a reddish brown tint to it. Fir is most often used for building; however, it’s inexpensive and can be used for some furniture-making as well. It doesn’t have the most interesting grain pattern and doesn’t take stain very well, so it’s best to use it only when you intend to paint the finished product. Douglas fir is moderately strong and hard for a softwood, rating 4 on a scale of 1 to 4.

This wood is worth mentioning because it is very common at your local home center and it’s so inexpensive you’ll probably be tempted to make something with it.


Pine comes in several varieties, including Ponderosa, Sugar, White, and Yellow, and all of them make great furniture. In some areas of the country (especially southwest United States), pine is the wood to use. Pine is very easy to work with and, because most varieties are relatively soft, it lends itself to carving.

Pine is commonly used in furniture because it’s easy to shape and stain.

Pine generally takes stain very well (as long as you seal the wood first), although Ponderosa pine tends to ooze sap, so be careful when using this stuff. Pine is available from most home centers, but it’s often of a lesser grade than what you can find at a decent lumberyard.


Like cedar, redwood is used mostly for outdoor projects because of its resistance to moisture. Redwood (California redwood) is fairly soft and has a straight grain. As its name suggests, it has a reddish tint to it. Redwood is easy to work with, is relatively soft (2 on a scale of 1 to 4), and is moderately priced. You can find redwood at your local home center.

Homing in on hardwoods

Most woodworkers love to work with hardwoods. The variety of colors, textures, and grain patterns makes for some beautiful and interesting-looking furniture. The downside to hardwoods is their price. Some of the more exotic species can be too expensive to use for anything more than an accent.

Some hardwoods are becoming very hard to find and are being harvested without concern to their eventual extinction (Brazilian rosewood comes to mind). Not only is this hard on the environment, it drives the price of the wood so high that making furniture out of it is out of the question for most woodworkers. If you can, try to buy wood from a sustainable forest (commercial tree farms that ensure the supply of the wood). Check out the National Hardwood Lumber Association for ways to support sustainable forestry.

Following is a list of common hardwoods and their characteristics.


Ash is a white to pale brown wood with a straight grain. It’s pretty easy to work with (hardness of 4 on a scale of 1 to 5) and takes stain quite nicely, but ash is getting harder and harder to find. You won’t find ash at your local home center — it’s only available from larger lumberyards. Ash is a good substitute for white oak.


Birch comes in two varieties: yellow and white. Yellow birch is a pale yellow-to-white wood with reddish-brown heartwood, whereas white birch has a whiter color that resembles maple. Both types of birch have a hardness of 4 on a scale of 1 to 5. Birch is readily available and less expensive than many other hardwoods. You can find birch at many home centers, although the selection is better at a lumberyard.

Birch is inexpensive, but it’s so lovely that it’s often used for making fine furniture.

Birch is stable and easy to work with. However, it’s hard to stain because it can get blotchy, so you might prefer to paint anything that you make with birch.


Cherry is a very popular and all-around great wood; easy to work with, stains and finishes well with just oil, and ages beautifully. Cherry’s heartwood has a reddish-brown color to it and the sapwood is almost white. Cherry has a hardness of 2 on a scale of 1 to 5. This is a very common wood for furniture-making and is available from sustainably grown forests. You won’t find cherry at your local home center, so a trip to the lumberyard is necessary if you want to use it. Because it’s in demand, cherry is getting somewhat expensive compared to other domestic hardwoods, such as oak and maple.


One of the great furniture woods, mahogany (also called Honduran mahogany) has a reddish-brown to deep-red tint, a straight grain, medium texture, and a hardness of around 2 on a scale of 1 to 5. It takes stain very well and looks great with just a coat (or 10) of oil.

The only drawback is that mahogany isn’t being grown in sustainable forests. Forget going to your home center to get some — the only place to find mahogany is a decent lumberyard (and it’ll cost you).


Maple comes in two varieties: hard and soft. Both varieties are harder than many other woods; hard maple is so hard (a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5) that it’s difficult to work with. Soft maple, on the other hand, is relatively easy to work with. Because of their fine, straight grain, both varieties are more stable than many other woods. They also tend to be less expensive than other hardwoods. You won’t find maple at your local home center, but most lumberyards have a good selection of it.


Oak is one of the most used woods for furniture. Available in two varieties — red and white — oak is strong (hardness of about 4 on a scale of 1 to 5) and easy to work with. White oak is preferred for furniture-making because it has a more attractive figure than red oak. White oak is also resistant to moisture and can be used on outdoor furniture.

Oak is commonly used for flooring and furniture because many people love its grain.

This is one wood that can be found quarter-sawn (the most stable cutting option available). In fact, quarter-sawn white oak is less expensive than some other hardwoods, like cherry. The grain has a beautiful “ray flake” pattern to it. Red oak can be found at most home centers, but if you want white oak, make a trip to the lumberyard.


Poplar is one of the less expensive hardwoods. It’s also fairly soft (1 in hardness on a scale of 1 to 5), which makes it easy to work with. Poplar is white with some green or brown streaks in the heartwood. Because poplar is not the most beautiful wood, it’s rarely used in fine furniture, and if it is, it’s almost always painted. Poplar can be a good choice for drawers (where it won’t be seen) because it is stable and inexpensive. You can find poplar at larger home centers, but a lumberyard will have a better selection.

Poplar is good for making toys, bowls, and small woodworking crafts. It takes paint better than stain.


Teak is becoming rarer as the days go on, but it is the staple for fine outdoor furniture. Teak is highly weather-resistant and beautiful (not to mention expensive — can you believe almost $24 a board foot?). Teak has an oily feel and a golden-brown color. It rates a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5 for hardness and is only available from larger lumberyards and specialty suppliers.


With a hardness of about 4 on a 1 to 5 scale, walnut is a rich brown wood that’s easy to work with. Unfortunately, walnut is somewhat expensive (usually around $8 a board foot), and finding large boards for big projects is getting difficult. In spite of this, walnut is still a great wood to work with and lends itself nicely for use as accents and inlays to dress up a project. You won’t find walnut at your local home center; you may need to special order it from a lumberyard if you want a large quantity.

Hardwood vs Softwood
(Similarities and Differences between Soft Wood and Hard Wood)

Anatomically ‘wood’ is the secondary xylem of plants. Commercially there are two categories of wood based on its source. They are (1) Hardwood and (2) Softwood.

(1). Hardwood: The wood of dicot Angiosperms is called hardwood. Hardwood and heavy since it contains plenty of wood fibres (fibre tracheids and libriform fibres).

(2). Softwood: The wood of Gymnosperms is called softwood. The softwood mainly composed of tracheids and wood rays (parenchyma).

List of Hardwood trees: Teak, Rosewood, Mahogany, Oak, Sal-tree, Alnus, American chestnut etc.

List of Softwood trees: Araucaria (monkey puzzle tree), Cedar, Cypress, Fir (Abies), Pine (Pinus), Larch (Larix) etc.

The present post discuss the similarities and differences between Hardwood and Softwood with a Comparison Table

Similarities between Hardwood and Softwood

Ø Both hardwood and softwood are secondary xylem.

Ø Both contain tracheids and parenchyma.

Ø Both are heavy and hard.

Ø Both kinds of woods are economically valuable as timbers.

Difference between Hardwood and Softwood

Continue reading→

Nearly 40 species of trees are found in the Penquis Virtual Nature Center. Including important shrubs, the list climbs well past the 40 mark. These, icluding some of surrounding areas and ornamental plantings, included for compelteness, are listed below. They are separated into conifers, or softwoods, almost all of which are evergreen, and hardwoods, or broad-leaved trees, almost all of which in this area are deciduous. Distinguishing features are listed, but remember that some of these are quite obscure and it would take many years of study to make all the distinctions accurately. The same would be true were you to use visual cues. In fact, not all experts agree on the classification of plants. Use the list to help you enjoy nature and to understand some of the questions that botanists, foresters, envriomentalists, hikers, and others ask.

Use this list in conjunction with the tree key to help you find your way through list of trees and shrubs, hopefully to identify particular species or groups. Also check our Fig tree root guide page if you also have problems with its roots.

CAUTION ON POISON IVY, SUMAC. Be careful about messing around too much with vines. This applies to everybody, not just the visually impaired. Some vines can cause skin rashes that in some people are quite painful and even dangerous.


  • Conifers
  • Hardwoods


  • Pines
  • Spruces
  • Fir
  • Hemlock
  • Cedar, juniper, yew
  • Tamarack or larch
  • Hardwoods


  1. Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). Needles in bundles of five, short finger-length. Bark smooth on young trees, becoming ridged and plated with age. Cone six inches or so long and narrow, resinous.
  2. Red pine (Pinus resinosa) Needles three to five inches and in twos. Break cleanly when bent. Cone small. Bark in flat, thin plates.
  3. Jack pine (Pinus banksiana) Needles one to two inches and in twos. Stiff. Cones small and bent in toward twig. Often held many years to be released by fire because the tree needs bare soil to germinate. Bark thin and flaky.
  4. Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) — introduced. Needles in twos, two to three inches. Cones small and with prickle on scales. Bark thin and scaly.
  5. Conifer index


All our spruces have short, stiff rounded to four-sided needles. All have small cones.

  1. White spruce (Picea glauca). Fairly blunt, finger-tip-length needles, often more divergent from twig than other native species. Cat box smell when crushed. Cones to two inches and thin.
  2. Black spruce (Picea mariana) Shorter needles. Very small cones may be persistent for years. Wet feet is indication of this species.
  3. Red spruce (Picea rubens) Shorter needles. Cones medium for our spruces. Dry feet and no cat box smell may indicate this species.
  4. Norway spruce (Picea abies) — introduced. Drooping branches and cones to seven inches long. Found only where planted.
  5. Blue spruce (Picea pungens) — introduced. Cones large than our spruces, but smaller than Norway. Needles longer than white spruce, stiff and very sharp. Scientific name ‘pungens’ means sharp. Stand out from twig, just waiting for an unwary grab. Remember pungens means that it will ‘punge’ a hole in your hand. Found only where planted.
  6. Conifer index


  1. Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) The Christmas tree. Bark smooth with resin pockets. Will stick to your hand. Needles flexible and flat perhaps an inch long, generally in two rows on opposite sides of branch. Cones upright, unlike most other conifers, and found only high in tree. They are rarely found as they disintigrate to release their seed on maturity. Similar Fraser fir (Abies Fraserii) is sometimes planted and sold as Christmas tree. It is similar and native to the Appalachians.
  2. Conifer index


  1. Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) Needles flexible, flat, shorter than fingertip length. Bark plated and scaly. Cones small, generally smaller than the end of your little finger, and can be borne in great abundance during good seed years.
  2. Conifer index

Cedar, Juniper, Yew

  1. Northern whitecedar (Thuja occidentalis) Swamp tree with vertically shredding bark and tiny cones. Leaves lay flat to twig.
  2. Common juniper (Juniperus communis) Small shrub in our area.
  3. Canada yew (Taxus canadensis) Needles like fir, but shrub and fruit is soft poisonous flesh around prominent seed.
  4. Conifer index

Tamarack or larch

  1. Tamarack, eastern larch (Larix laricina)
  2. Conifer index


  • Willows
  • Poplars, cottonwoods, aspens
  • Alder
  • Birch
  • Ironwood or hop-hornbeam
  • Hazelnut
  • Beech
  • Oak
  • Serviceberry
  • Cherry
  • Mountain-ash, Rowan
  • Rose
  • Raspberries and blackberries
  • Sumac
  • Holly, winterberry
  • Maples
  • Basswood or linden
  • Rhododendron and laurel
  • Blueberries and cranberries
  • Ash
  • Dogwoods and viburnums, except cranberries
  • Elderberries
  • Conifers


  1. Pussy willow (Salix discolor) is the most common willow found on the center. It’s leaves are roughly the size and shape of a man’s finger (but flat) with slightly toothed margins. It is mainly shrubby. The flower clusters, or catkins, are soft and fuzzy and appear early in the spring, generally during mud season. Found in wet areas.
  2. Bebb willow (Salix bebbiana) is also shrubby, but has leaves that are wider than those of pussy willow and are toothed only above the center, usually. Found in wet areas.
  3. Hardwood index


The species that occur here (bigtooth and quaking aspen) have smooth bark that breaks into plates on the lower trunks of older trees. The tops break easily and they are short lived. They are early succession trees that are found where logging or fire has occured. They are in the willow family.

  1. Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) has small, rounded, leaves with small marginal teeth. The leaf stems are flat, and the leaves tremble in any breeze, leading to its name. If you are around aspens, listen for the leaves in any wind and see if you can made a useful identification key from the sound.
  2. Bigtooth aspen (Populus grandidentata) has palm-sized leaves (several times as big as quaking aspen leaves) with large teeth on the margins. Leaf stems are flattened as in quaking aspen. These trees leaf out later than quaking aspen.
  3. Hardwood index


  1. Smooth, or hazel alder (Alnus rugosa) is a shrub or small tree of wet areas. The alternate leaves are oval with pointed tips and finely toothed margins. They may be the size of a woman’s palm. The most distinctive feature is the tiny (smaller than the tip of your little finger) seed cones that persist through the winter. Alders are in the birch family.
  2. Hardwood index


  1. Gray birch (Betula populifolia) is a small, poorly formed tree with smooth white, non-peeling bark. It has alternate wide-based, toothed leaves the size of a child’s palm, that taper to a long point. The tree grows in disturbed areas and is short-lived.
  2. White paper, or canoe birch (Betula papyrifera) is also an early successional tree, but of better form and longer life. The bark is white, smooth, and peeling. Alternate leaves are oval and toothed and child’s palm-sized. The bark was used for canoes and as parchment. It burns quickly and was also used to start fires in bad weather.
  3. Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) resembles white birch, but the bark is dark yellow. The alternate leaves are bigger (woman’s palm-size) and uneven at the base. The twigs have a wintergreen smell when tapped. This species is the one most often used for syrup in our area (not that any are much used). It is a later successional species than are our other birches, often forming with beech and sugar maple a long-lasting forest.
  4. Hardwood index

Ironwood or hop-hornbeam

  1. Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) is a small, uncommon tree with shreddy bark and birch-like alternate leaves. Its wood is heavy, hard, and dense. The best key is the bark which shreds in long, vertical strips.
  2. Hardwood index

Hazelnut tree

  1. American and beaked hazel (Corylus americana, Corylus rostrata) are similar shrubs. Both have alternate oval leaves the size of a young child’s palm and toothed and pointed. The best way to tell them is by the fruits. Beaked hazel nuts have a covering that is drawn out into a long papery tube and ripen in August or September. American hazel lacks the tube and ripens about a month earlier. Both are edible if you can beat the insects and squirrels to them.
  2. Hardwood index

Beech tree

  1. American beech (Fagus americana) is a large, smooth-barked tree with oval papery leaves the length of a hand. The bark is hard to distinguish from red maple when the latter is young, so remember that maple leaves and twigs grow opposite each other, beech leaves are alternate. The nuts are valued by wildlife and humans alike, though the critters usually get there before I do.
  2. Hardwood index


  1. Red oak (Quercus rubra) is a large tree with vertically-ridged bark. The alternate leaves are deeply cut and up to hand-sized. There is a bristle at the tips of the large teeth or lobes. Buds are clustered toward the ends of twigs. Acorns the size of a child’s thumb mature in two years and are bitter unless treated. Squirrels don’t seem to mind, though.
  2. Hardwood index


  1. Shadbush or serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) has alternate leaves variable in size, 1-4 inches, toothed. White flowers appear before or with leaves. One of the earliest blooming plants in the forest. Bark thin, smooth, with shallow vertical fissures.
  2. Hardwood index

Cherry tree

  1. Pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) is a small tree with smooth, reddish bark and orangish, horizontal bands. The leaves are alternate, lance-shaped, finger-length with tiny rounded teeth on the margin and often tiny warty projections on stem right at base of leaf. These projections can generally be felt and can be used to distinguish the cherries from most other groups. Pin cherry follows fire or logging and is short-lived. The fruit is sour, but eaten by wildlife.
  2. Hardwood index

Mountain-ash, Rowan

  1. American mountain-ash (Sorbus americana) is not really an ash, but its alternate, compound leaves are somewhat like the opposite, compound leaves of the ashes. In compound leaves, there is no bud at the base of the leaflet, but only at the base of the leaf stem where it joins the twig. In this species, the entire leaf is about hand-length while the toothed leaflets are thumb-sized and thumb-shaped in outline. The bark is thin, usually smooth, and light gray. The fruit is fingertip sized, showy orange-red, and borne in clusters.
  2. Hardwood index


  1. Roses (Rosa) are mostly spiny shrubs with alternate, compound leaves and small leaflets. The flowers are generally, but not always, showy and fragrant. The hips, or seed pods left behind are fingertip to thumbtip sized and sometimes showy themselves. They have been used to make various beverages and rose hip jelly.
  2. Hardwood index

Raspberries and blackberries

  1. Raspberries (Rubus) are a large group of related shrubby plants. Most are prickly, but not all. Many have showy white, fragrant flowers. Most have pleasant-tasting fruit, but not all. Most have compound leaves, but some have simple, vaguely maple-shaped and sized leafs. Leaves are opposite. In our area, if you grab a shrub cane and immediately hell, ‘ouch’!, it’s probably a raspberry or a rose.
  2. Hardwood index


  1. Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is a small tree with alternate, compound leaves with loothed margins. The thick twigs are velvety-hairy enough that you can probably feel them. Fruit appears in a showy cluster of red. In dry sunny locations.
  2. Hardwood index

Holly, winterberry

  1. Winterberry (Ilex laevigata) is a large shrub with alternate oval leaves up to 2 inches long. Fruits small, red, grow on short stocks from main stem.
  2. Hardwood index


  1. Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) produces most of our maple syrup. The opposite leaves are palm-sized, opposite, deeply cleft into generally 5 lobes, and with a few large teeth. Twigs are slim and winter buds are small. Bark is finely ridged becoming heavily plated and ridged on larger trees. Maples above 10 inches in diameter can be tapped without damage to the tree. Check with your local extension office. Maple keys (seeds with wings) are the length of a child’s thumb. The wood is valuable. Can form extensive long-term forests with yellow birch and beech.
  2. Red maple (Acer rubrum) is also called swamp maple, though it is found in some dryer areas as well. Bark is smooth on young trees, becoming flaky and ridged on older stems. Opposite leaves are palm-sized, usually three-lobed (sometimes five), and with numous smallish teeth. Twigs are stouter than in sugar maple and winter buds are larger. One of the earliest-blooming trees, the winged seeds are fingertip sized and red. This species has less valuable wood and can be tapped for syrup, but the sap has a much lower sugar content than does sugar maple. Red maple is an early invader of distrubed sites.
  3. Striped maple (Acer pennsylvanicum) is also called moosewood. The opposite leaves are three-lobed, larger than hand-sized, and toothed on the margins. It is a small understory tree with dark bark vertically striped in white.
  4. Hardwood index

Basswood or linden

  1. American basswood (Tilia americana) is also called linden, though that name is more often applied to Euporean species. Leaves are alternate, toothed, hand-sized and unequally heart-shaped at the base. The fruit is distinctive with a leaf-like sail attached to a stemmed nut. Bark is smooth on young trees becoming thicker and furrowed into scaly ridges on older trunks.
  2. Hardwood index

Rhododendron and laurel

This group is among the few broad-leaved evergreens in our area. All have narrow alternate leaves with untoothed margins. Rhododendron leaves are leathery and up to hand-length. Laurel leaves are smaller and less leathery.

  1. Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum) is also know as great laurel, or rosebay. It can reach the height of 40 feet, but that is rare. It’s leaves are leathery and it’s stems thick. Flowers are a showy rose to white. Found in low woods and along streams in our area.
  2. Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is a shrub with very stiff, squarish twigs. Rarely a small tree. Some leaves are opposite or in threes and are one to five inches long and narrow. Flowers pink to white and showy. Found in sandy or rocky soil in woods.
  3. Two other laurels might be found in our area in wetlands. Kalmia polifolia is called swamp laurel, Kalmia angustifolia is called sheep-laurel, lamb-kill, calf-kill, kill-kid, sheep-poison, and a few others. Guess you better not eat it – or anything else you don’t recognize for certain as harmless.
  4. Hardwood index

Blueberries and cranberries

  1. Blueberries (Vaccinium) are shrubs or small trees with alternate, sometimes leathery leaves and small white, pink, or red flowers. The fruits are a many-seeded berry, some of which are popular food items with humans as well as with wildlife. Look for shrubs with generally lance-shaped to oval leaves and down-pointing tubular flowers.
  2. Cranberries (Viburnum) are actually members of the honeysuckle group. Most have vaguely maple-shaped leaves and clusters of red fruit.
  3. Hardwood index


Ashes have opposite, compound leafs. That means no buds at the stem base of the leaflets, only at the base of the stem of the whole leaf. Two are important here.

  1. White ash (Fraxinus americana) is a medium to large trees found in moist sites. Leaflets have stems. Flowers appear before or with leaves. Bark thick, gray, fishered into ridged surrounding diamond-shaped open areas. Takes some practice to feel the shapes.
  2. Black ash (Fraxinus nigra) is also called brown ash. It is a medium-sized tree and grows in wet areas. The bark is more scaly than ridged. Leaflets grow directly from the central stem without any stems of their own. This plant is used in making the highest quality native baskets. They can be very expensive, but are very good, very decorative baskets. Just feeling the texture of them will give you a hint as to how good they are.
  3. Hardwood index

Dogwoods and Viburnums, except cranberries

These are opposite-leaved shrubs, rarely growing more than head high. The dogwoods have untoothed leaves with the veins running parallel to the outside of the leaf. Feel carefully. Viburnums have mainly toothed leaf margins and branching veins like most other shrubs and trees. Many viburnums, including cranberries, have vaguely maple-like leaves. Others may be heart-shaped or long. If you find a shrub or small tree with opposite leaves (or an arrangement so obscure that you can’t really tell), it is probably a viburnum or dogwood. Both groups produce small fruits in clusters.

  1. Hobblebush (Viburnum alnifolium) has heart-shaped leaves and irregular branches. It’s white flowers come while the woods are still pretty bare. It is the predominent viburnum in our area. Check for the leaf shapes and the opposite arrangement.
  2. Alternate-leaf dogwood (Cornus alternafolia) is the exception. The leaves are actually alternate or not quite opposite, but are clustered so close to the end of the twig it is hard to tell. It can be a small tree and is found in the understory of forests.
  3. Hardwood index


Some elderberries are good to eat and some aren’t. All have thin, papery compound leaves growing opposite on the twig and clusters of flowers followed by fruit. There are two shrubby types in our area.

  1. American elder (Sambucus canadensis) grows in moist soil, has purple fruits with medicinal properties, and leaves have a heavy scent when crushed. Opposite, papery leaves with scent are the major key here.
  2. Red elder (Sambucus racemosa) is definately one of the ones that is NOT good to eat. One name in Maine is poison-elder. It resembles the other but has red fruit and grows in rocky places. It is not reported as having the heavy scent.
  3. Hardwood index

What is the difference between a hardwood and a softwood?

As it turns out, a hardwood is not necessarily a harder material (more dense) and a softwood is not necessarily a softer material (less dense). For example, balsa wood is one of the lightest, least dense woods there is, and it’s considered a hardwood.

The distinction between hardwood and softwood actually has to do with plant reproduction. All trees reproduce by producing seeds, but the seed structure varies. Hardwood trees are angiosperms, plants that produce seeds with some sort of covering. This might be a fruit, such as an apple, or a hard shell, such as an acorn.


Softwoods, on the other hand, are gymnosperms. These plants let seeds fall to the ground as is, with no covering. Pine trees, which grow seeds in hard cones, fall into this category. In conifers like pines, these seeds are released into the wind once they mature. This spreads the plant’s seed over a wider area.

For the most part, angiosperm trees lose their leaves during cold weather while gymnosperm trees keep their leaves all year round. So, it’s also accurate to say evergreens are softwoods and deciduous trees are hardwoods.

The hardwood/softwood terminology does make some sense. Evergreens do tend to be less dense than deciduous trees, and therefore easier to cut, while most hardwoods tend to be more dense, and therefore sturdier. But, as the classification of balsa wood demonstrates, there is no minimum weight requirement to become a hardwood.

Here are some interesting links:

Top Ten Softest Woods

by Eric Meier

The most common test for testing wood hardness is known as the Janka hardness test. The actual number listed in the wood profile is the amount of pounds-force (lbf) or newtons (N) required to imbed a .444″ (11.28 mm) diameter steel ball into the wood to half the ball’s diameter.

While most people would be looking for the hardest wood, just out of curiosity, here’s a list of the ten softest woods on the site. Keep in mind that five out of these ten woods (including the three softest) are considered hardwoods. This just goes to show that the terms hardwood and softwood merely refer to the botanical classification of the trees as either conifers (softwoods) or angiosperms (hardwoods). There’s no guarantee that any given hardwood will actually be hard!

Western Red Cedar

(Thuja plicata)

350 lbf (1,560 N)

This softie is a common soundboard material on guitars, though it’s softness makes it a challenge to properly handle without denting or gouging it during construction.

Black Cottonwood / Quaking Aspen

(Populus tremuloides and P. trichocarpa)

These two woods are closely related and have the same Janka hardness values. Aspen is sometimes used for utility lumber.

Atlantic White Cedar

(Chamaecyparis thyoides)

Sometimes called Southern White Cedar to differentiate it from Northern White Cedar, which also happens to have the same Janka hardness value.

Yellow Buckeye

(Aesculus octandra)

Lumber is sometimes used for utility wood, though burl sections are decorative and used for electric guitars and small specialty wood objects.

Subalpine Fir

(Abies lasiocarpa)

Many species of Fir (Abeis genus) are soft, with Subalpine Fir being among the softest, second only to European Silver Fir.

Northern White Cedar

(Thuja occidentalis)

Closely related to Western Red Cedar, Northern White Cedar ranks among the softest of all cedars, and is also one of the softest conifers.

European Silver Fir

(Abies alba)

320 lbf (1,420 N)

Not only the softest of the Fir species (Abies genus), European Silver Fir is also among the softest of the softwoods. The remaining woods on this list are all hardwoods.

Balsam Poplar

(Populus balsamifera)

300 lbf (1,330 N)

Related to Cottonwood and Aspen, Balsam Poplar has a unique scent when green, though it dries to one of the lightest and softest of all woods.


(Paulownia spp.)

260 lbf (1,160 N)

The other Balsa. Paulownia can be very light and soft, and is really the only other wood that at times can even approach Balsa’s lightness. Ironically, both are hardwoods.


(Ochroma pyramidale)

90 lbf (390 N)

It’s common knowledge, but Balsa is indeed the softest and lightest of all commercial woods. Nothing else even comes close. Useful for insulation, buoyancy, and other special applications.

Note: A hardwood named Quipo (Cavanillesia platanifolia) is commonly reported as the softest known wood, with an alleged Janka hardness of 22 lbf (98 N). However, the wood is omitted from this list for two main reasons. First, it is virtually unobtainable and not commercially available outside of its natural range in Central/South America. Secondly, the purported hardness seems highly questionable, especially in light of the fact that Quipo seems to be very susceptible to rot, and on one USDA test, it was remarked that “the results for quipo may have been influenced by the presence of considerable decay.” Furthermore, when comparing Quipo with Balsa, it has been shown that the two woods are virtually identical in hardness, with the absolute lowest recorded Janka hardness values, in the range of 20-35 lbf (89-156 N), were actually from Balsa, and not Quipo.

See also:

  • The Ten Best Woods You’ve Never Heard Of
  • Top Ten Hardest Woods
  • Top Ten Heaviest Woods

Are you an aspiring wood nerd?

The poster, Worldwide Woods, Ranked by Hardness, should be required reading for anyone enrolled in the school of wood nerdery. I have amassed over 500 wood species on a single poster, arranged into eight major geographic regions, with each wood sorted and ranked according to its Janka hardness. Each wood has been meticulously documented and photographed, listed with its Janka hardness value (in lbf) and geographic and global hardness rankings. Consider this: the venerable Red Oak (Quercus rubra) sits at only #33 in North America and #278 worldwide for hardness! Aspiring wood nerds be advised: your syllabus may be calling for Worldwide Woods as part of your next assignment!

Poplar Is a Hardwood, but Is It Hard?

As a deciduous tree, Poplar is classified as a hardwood. Here’s some hard info about just how hard it is (or isn’t).November 15, 2011

Is poplar considered a hardwood? I have a paint grade job coming up that specs 1/2″ thick hardwood edging on the shelves. I’m wondering if poplar fits that description.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor P:
Yes it’s deciduous.

From contributor D:
On a paint grade job I would use the same wood as the cabinets on the shelf edge unless there is a more industrial usage. Maple would ding much less than poplar. Poplar ranges in hardness but is usually softer than alder or close to it.
From contributor F:
As mentioned, poplar is a hardwood, even though it is not a particularly hard wood. I’d only use it in low budget applications because it’s so soft. A lower grade of maple will yield much better results for both durability and quality of finish.
From contributor T:
I quit using poplar years ago, because:

1. The dark streaks can bleed through a white or light-colored finish.

2. It can be unstable. I’ve had boards that were nice and straight when I bought them warp and twist comically in my lumber rack.

3. The surface sometimes has a fuzziness that no amount of sanding will remove.

4. Soft maple only costs a little more, and the end result is always nicer.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
To northern people, poplar means aspen poplar while to other regions poplar means yellow poplar (sometimes called tulip poplar). The two are not related. Instability of poplar or any wood is caused because of improper drying. If the MC does not change, the wood will be perfectly stable. Control MC with either poplar. Fuzzing is caused by tension wood which is found in many or most hardwoods, but is indeed an issue with yellow pine and aspen. Hardness of alder is 590 pounds, aspen 350, hard maple 1450, soft maple red 950, soft maple silver 700, and yp 540.
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    Poplar Wood

    The “poplar” name comes from Ancient Rome, as the trees were routinely planted in public spaces or near people; the “populus.” However, when Americans speak of poplar wood, they’re really speaking of wood which comes from the Liriodendron tulipifera, or the tuliptree. Other names it goes by include the American tulip tree, tulipwood, tulip tree, tulip poplar, whitewood, fiddletree, and yellow poplar. Native Americans might also know it by its Miami-Illinois name “oonseentia,” while those outside the US may see it imported under the name “American tulipwood” today.

    There is a genus referred to as “populus,” which contains more than two dozen species of flowering plants, including aspen and true poplar trees. In these cases, it’s the white poplar, not the yellow. White poplar may also be referred to as populus alba, abele, silver poplar, or silverleaf poplar. It’s most often considered ornamental, though it does get regular use for making things like paper, plywood, and chopsticks.

    Frequently Asked Questions About Poplar Wood

    Because poplar wood is rarely seen in furniture, it can be challenging to find reliable information on it. Many of the most common questions about it are answered in detail below.

    What Color is Poplar Wood?

    The heartwood, or innermost part of the tree, is typically a light cream to yellowish brown, though it may even appear green. It’s not always easy to see where the heartwood meets the sapwood, or outermost part, though the sapwood is usually white to pale yellow. These colors will darken or become yellower with age.

    Because of poplar’s unusually light hue, it sometimes soaks up minerals from the ground. When this happens, all sorts of colors may streak through the wood, from blue to green, purple, red, and yellow. This is referred to as “rainbow poplar,” and it’s wood with these characteristics which tend to get used more for their beauty, whereas traditional poplar is used more for utilitarian purposes.

    What Does the Grain Pattern of Poplar Wood Look Like?

    Poplar wood has a straight and uniform grain.

    What are the Common Uses of Poplar Wood?

    Native Americans used yellow poplar for canoes. It has also historically been used to create dinnerware, coffins, toys, carvings, crates, pallets, and frames for upholstered furniture. It may also be used as a veneer, in plywood, and in doors, but in these cases, it’s tucked away as a core. When appearance matters, another wood is typically layered over the top.

    Is Poplar a Hardwood or a Softwood?

    It’s important to explain that “hardwood” is not necessarily a term that refers to the strength of the wood. It simply means the wood comes from a dicot tree, such as a broadleaf variety. Maple, walnut, ash, cherry, and oak all fit into this category. Softwood comes from gymnosperm trees, like cedar, fir, and pine. Poplar comes from a dicot, which makes it a hardwood.

    How Dense/Hard is Poplar Wood?

    The resilience of wood is typically measured with something known as a Janka scale. During a Janka hardness test, a metal ball the size of a BB is pressed into the wood until its embedded halfway. The amount of force required to make this happen is recorded. In the case of poplar, it takes 540 pounds of force, so it’s given the rating 540 lbf or 540 Janka.

    So, although poplar is still a “hardwood,” it’s not as dense or resilient as something like black cherry, which comes in at 950 Janka. For comparison, other hardwoods, including black walnut, ash, oak, and sugar maple range from over 1,000 Janka through 1,450 Janka.

    Where Does Poplar Wood Come From?

    Poplar wood comes from Liriodendron tulipifera L., also known as the tuliptree or yellow poplar.

    Where Do Poplar Trees Grow?

    The yellow poplar prefers the eastern side of the US and Canada, though it will grow as far west as Texas.

    How Big Are Poplar Trees?

    Poplar trees are fast-growing and have been known to reach 120-feet tall, with trunk diameters of up to 5 feet.

    Is Poplar Wood Eco-friendly? Are Poplar Trees Endangered?

    Poplar trees grow incredibly fast, which is why they’re often planted in public spaces, for shade trees, and for cultivation. Because they grow back fast and can be sustainably harvested with relative ease, they’re an eco-friendly choice for wood products. They’re not at risk for endangerment.

    Learn More About Eastern Poplar Wood Furniture on Our Blog

    Our Wood

    Learn more about our wood types on our wood page, or use the links below to read about specific types:

    5 Best Construction Uses for Poplar Wood

    Poplar wood is a type of wood that is often classified both as hardwood and softwood — depending on where you look and who you ask. However, both categorizations can be considered to be correct. It is considered to be one of the hardest types of softwoods in some circles while being classified a hardwood at the softer end of the scale in others.

    Regardless of the classification, you choose to recognize for poplar wood, it is a very popular wood for many projects in and out of the home. This article will discuss some of the most popular construction uses for poplar wood.


    Poplar wood can be painted or stained to match the appearance of many other types of wood that are considered to be more exotic and often costs 2 or 3 times as much. For instance, many kitchen cabinets are made of poplar and then stained to look like pricey Cherry or Oak cabinets. The wood is hard enough that it makes a reasonably strong wood material for the cabinet while being soft enough to be able to accept a variety of stains that can change the natural appearance of the wood.

    Poplar’s combination of a low price and the ability to hide its true color makes it a popular choice for those wanting to create a great looking cabinet or vanity on a budget.

    Painted Furniture

    Because poplar is relatively soft and not as tough as other types of hardware hardwoods that are used in furniture, it is not usually the first choice for fine furniture. However, it is quite popular for painted furniture. The softness of poplar (when compared to other hardwoods such as Oak or Walnut) means that stained poplar services are easily scratched, damaged, or even dented.

    However, by applying a good quality oil-based paint, you can actually increase the wood’s resistance to dents and scratches. Therefore, for furniture pieces that can be painted, poplar is an excellent money-saving alternative to much pricier hardwoods.

    Molding and Trim Uses

    Although poplar is not usually the best choice for floor molding or baseboards, it is an excellent alternative for ceiling molding or trim that is not often handled. Its low cost and ability to accept a wide range of stains and paints makes it an excellent choice for out of reach molding or trim that is used on the interior of homes.

    Yellow Poplar as Siding

    When people refer to Poplar wood, there are generally referring to White Poplar. However, there is also another wood that shares the name: Yellow Poplar. However, Yellow Poplar is not actually a type of Poplar wood at all. On the contrary, Yellow Poplar is a part of the Magnolia tree family and is a true hardwood.

    Like other types of more expensive hardwoods, Yellow Poplar can be used as siding on homes and holds up very well to the elements. It is usually more and less expensive than Oak or Cedar and holds up just as long.

    Yellow Poplar as Deck Lumber

    These days, more and more contractors are choosing treated Yellow Poplar as a less expensive alternative to other types of lumber for use in outdoor decks. Yellow poplar trees grow straight and true, which means that Yellow Poplar studs and posts are usually also very straight. This makes them an excellent choice for deck posts or rails that need to be as straight as possible.

    These are the five best construction uses for poplar wood. Happy building!

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