Softwood vs Hardwood: What’s The Difference?

Written by Daniel Woodley. Fact checked by Paul Farley.  Published to Blog on the 25th of January 2022.

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This may seem like an odd question, after all, surely softwood is soft and hardwood is hard, right?

Well, actually, it’s not that simple.

Here I explain the difference between the two with my thoughts never too far away from the garden decking project I’ll be undertaking next week.

The Difference

Hardwood is generally stronger than softwood but not always.

Softwood comes from fast-growing trees and makes up over 75% of all machined timber used in the world. The trees are quicker to replace, and the timber is easier to work with, it also dries faster.

Examples of softwood trees are:

  • Pine.
  • Fir.
  • Redwood.

Hardwood usually comes from deciduous trees that are slow-growing and difficult to replace. The timber is often dense and more durable but takes longer to dry.

Examples of hardwood trees are:

  • Oak.
  • Walnut.
  • Maple.

Softwood Uses

Softwood is a readily available and versatile timber that is widely used in the construction industry:

  • Roof rafters.
  • Window frames.
  • Mouldings.
  • Plywood applications.
  • Decking.
  • Landscaping.

Despite being lighter and more flexible, softwood is almost always the preferred timber for structural timber projects such as roof trusses, because it’s cheaper.

Hardwood Uses

Hardwood offers superior strength (usually) and durability and is often found in:

  • Musicial instruments.
  • Flooring and decking.
  • Furniture.
  • Boat building.
  • Bespoke projects.

Hardwood usually lasts longer than softwood, hence why furniture that is hundreds of years old can still be found in near-perfect condition.

Attributes: Comparing Softwood to Hardwood

From:Evergreen TreesDeciduous Trees
Most Common:Mahogany, Oak, MaplePine, Ceder, Redwood
Cost:CheaperMore Expensive
Hardness:Softer (usually)Harder (usually)
Colour:LightLight to Dark
Resistance to Fire:PoorFair

Which is Best For Garden Decking?

I’ve personally installed both softwood and hardwood decking and I’ve overseen dozens of similar projects.

This what I know:

Softwood is almost always cheaper, I’ve found it easier to cut and work with, but it’s less durable and unlikely to last more than 15 years unless frequently treated.

Hardwood is generally more expensive and harder to work with but looks more appealing and is far more durable, often lasting for many decades.

Softwood is a popular decking material because it’s cheaper to buy. Its life can be extended through careful installation (so water doesn’t pool on it) and by frequently treating it with a protective woodstain.

As for cost, my experience and recent research tells me that a typical small to mid-size garden decking installation in the UK will cost around:

Softwood: Around £100 – £150 per square metre, including the base.

Hardwood: Around £225-£275 per square metre, depending on hardwood type, including the base.

Explore our garden decking price guide or get a custom price by filling out this form.

Are All Hardwoods Harder Than Softwoods?

The general rule of thumb is that hardwood timber is more complex and more durable than softwoods, but there are a few softwoods that buck the trend. For example, Yew (a softwood) is harder than American Cherry (a hardwood).

Also, modern treatments such as tanalising and oiling can extend the life of softwoods to match many hardwood timbers.

However, when comparing common decking timbers, I’ve found that most hardwoods will be denser, more durable and more resistant to rot than softwoods.

Author: Daniel Woodley

Daniel has over 18 years of experience in the construction, home improvement, and landscape garden industries.

He previously worked as a project manager and has experience in managing teams of tradespeople and landscape gardeners on both small and medium sized projects.

Daniel is also a keen gardener and enjoys growing unusual plants and tending to his lawn.

More About Daniel Woodley.

Daniel Woodley

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Daniel Woodley has installed gardening decking himself and project-managed installations by teams of others in a professional setting.

As accuracy is important, we asked Paul Farley to review and fact-check this guide.

Explore: Paul Farley’s profile and qualifications.

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